(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Recording review - Fujiya & Miyagi, Artificial Sweeteners (2014)

Settling for Kraut-tronica dance grooves, if that's a thing

Atists often treat their careers as metaphorical sharks; if they aren’t moving forward, they’ll suffocate and die. So they “broaden their direction,” they reinvent themselves or, if they’re particularly full of it, they “recontextualize their artistic statement.” Half the time that means that they only change the story around their music, but no one wants to admit that their groove may be just fine. The unspoken risk is that when an act does actually veer off into something surprising, they may jump the shark rather than ride it, but bands bow to pressure and take that chance all the time. Following that mindset, there’s a sense that we should look down on bands that merely settle. Fujiya & Miyagi apparently considered that conventional wisdom when they started on Artificial Sweeteners and decided not to play the game. Although the album makes minor tweaks to the formula that they followed on 2011’s Ventriloquizzing, the band doesn’t seem driven to break new ground or import trendier sounds into their music. While they turn up the dance beats and damp the psychedelic edge a bit, they still happily draw on the same palette of Krautrock, synth-pop, and electronica they’ve used in the past.

The one new thing they bring to this project is a conscious sense of irony. This begins with the album title itself; between the detached engagement of David Best’s vocals and the smooth sheen of the music, it delivers a kind of sweetened artifice. But rather than saccharine pop, they fill the album with insistent beats and electro-pop polish. On the title track, which seems to be a casually delivered shot at the music industry, Best sings “Superficial/ Super superficial/ Superficial sweeteners,” essentially making it clear that words are not the band’s strong point. Indeed, most of the album’s lyrics tend towards repetitive slogans that mostly serve to justify the song titles. But fortunately the music generally redeems the pieces. In this particular case, the song’s motorik rhythm and synth-pop melody set a droll mood and a smug disaffection that calls back to Brian Eno-era Roxy Music.

Artificial Sweeteners starts out strong with “Flaws”. A harsh wash of synth lays the groundwork for a steady beat keyboard riff. But, with the inevitability of impending catastrophe, the pace picks up to mutate the piece into a danceable mechanical groove. Best is at his most engaged, actually injecting a bit of inflection into his singing as light psychedelic touches creep into the edges. Over the course of almost six minutes, the piece surveys Fujiya & Miyagi’s Krautrock influences. They fuse Kraftwerk’s restless rhythmic drive with Can’s surrealistic tension and add a veneer of electro-pop verve. Like the title track, the combination evokes a Brian Eno feel, but this time it’s a more derivative version, like Talking Heads’ Fear of Music or David Bowie’s Low.

The band hits their stride though with the instrumental track, “Rayleigh Scattering”. Geeky physics allusion aside, this tune comes closest to evoking the tension that infused Ventriloquizzing. The synthesizers fan out in flickering minimalistic arpeggios and sparkling glints while the bass and drums lock the beat into a tight, unstoppable force. It manages to be both expectant and inevitable. But although the song is quite enjoyable, it’s not a new step for the band or for electronic music in general.

On the first listen or two through Artificial Sweeteners, this pervasive complacency was exasperating; it felt like the band was unwilling to challenge themselves. Over time, though, I came to appreciate how Fujiya & Miyagi dedicate each tune to a particular groove, letting the song’s personality emerge. It’s hard to tell whether this strategy will pay off; their current fans along with the wider audience may not find enough novelty to make Artificial Sweeteners stand out. It’s a safe bet, though, that their music will continue to find its way into commercials and soundtracks, where their thematic focus will provide the biggest bang.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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