Asa-Chang and JunrayMinna no Junray (Sony)

Minna no Junray is a very strange album, and one that seems not to have been released outside Koichi Asakura’s (the eponymous Asa-Chang) native Japan. Because I am feeling cynical, I will attribute that to the fact that the fun, silly and downright bizarre Minna no Junray would be somewhat at odds with the more ‘serious’ image they seem to have been given over here, both by media and label.

Let’s break it down for a minute: the group’s UK label is Leaf (aside: they are based in Leeds. How interesting), home to the rather serious, minimalist sounds of Susumu Yokota, Eardrum, Murcof, 310 and Colleen. Asa-Chang and Junray’s first single (and gorgeous video) was the excellent ‘Hana’, a slo-mo synchronisation of word and tabla undergoing rhythmic overload while string samples yawn in a melancholic way in the background. Beautiful, but it seemed very serious.

Meanwhile, this album betrays such an image instantly with its cartoony sleeve (sadly, due to the combination of the expense of importing and your writer’s lack of funds, this is download-only for the moment). Compare and contrast. Musically, ‘Parlor’ kicks off with what sounds like cash registers and Japanese scatting, before the meat of the track – mock-brass interplay – kicks in. This song maintains that key Asa-Chang musical theme of marrying the old and the new. In an echo of ‘Hana’s juxtaposition of tabla and computer (while Asa-Chang plays tabla, the group’s U-Zhaan is a classically trained master of the instrument. The electronics are handled by the mysterious Hidehiko Ureyama) the brass here is alternately accompanied, battled and homogenised, with electronic beats, glitches etc.

I could swear that Asa-Chang is requesting ‘come take me away’ in ‘Senaka’, the song that suggested to me that perhaps he is the Japanese Timbaland. Not in mainstream exposure or overt poppiness (yet), but there is something about the melding of the percussion (think ‘Get Ur Freak On’) with ultra-modern production techniques and quality songwriting that clicks in my head. I think it was the ‘this is Intelligent Dance Music’ aesthetic of their Leaf releases that prevented me from getting the scent, and only this release that opened my eyes to the connection. I don’t see Asakura hitting the gym and working with Nelly Furtado any time soon (though he is a touring percussionist with various J-pop acts), but the similarities are there.

‘Tsuginepu to Ittemita (Minna no Rappa Hen)’ returns to both the cartoony mini-orchestra of ‘Parlor’ and the female-vocal-as-percussion, which provide an interesting meeting of the earnest ‘Hana’ and bizarro current aesthetic. As can be expected, the rhythms begin normally enough, but get put through the grinder at various points, and I dare anyone to air-tabla to it. If, indeed, anybody air-tablas to anything. After the organic respite of the acoustic guitar-driven ‘Kana (Chouhen)’, albeit subjected to the process of tabla beatmatch we will now refer to as ‘being Asa-Changed’, the listener next faces the utter dementia that is ‘Hinode March’.

I say ‘utter dementia’ because it is just too much. An old man’s voice sings a likeable enough melody that gets messed with by a touch of tape-warp vibrato while, deep in the mix, an electronic hoe-down goes on. For over six minutes. And if that does not sound like too long, let me assure you that just the other night I listened to the song on headphones and I was driven straight through frustration, into anger. And yet there was that sick determination to make it to the end.

(Relative) sanity is restored with ‘Madame Blue’, which slides suddenly from an accordionist playing in a nineteenth century party, while Chichikov attempts to endear himself to the nobs of a Russian provincial capital, to solitary low key sax backing a woman saying something in rhythm (that reminds me a tad of the Lappetites’ brilliant ‘Tzungentwist’. Or maybe a surrealist anime re-imagining of the later work of Lydia Lunch). The track turns all Neutral Milk Hotel to close, as the woodwind breaks out and I start fantasising about how amazing it would be if Asa-Chang collaborated with celebrated recluse/genius, Jeff Mangum. (For those counting, there are two notables in independent music today; the other is Josh T. Pearson, of Lift To Experience non-fame.) And for those worried that this is a lot of drastic changes for one song, you will appreciate that it is near ten minutes in length.

‘Senaka’ returns, this time with female vocal, and strangely reminiscent of the lovely ‘Lazy Lagoon’ single by Anjali. It is reminiscent in no real manner other than, when I listen to this, I am reminded of that. The mood is similarly pleasant, what Poe might have referred to as an ‘opium dream’ or some such, as you just want to listen to it while in a hot bath while the dreamy vocals and string samples wash over you. Along with the Matey. Sorry, posh bath crystals.

I suppose that by this point Asa-Chang must feel his listeners have recovered sufficiently from the emotional scarring of ‘Hinode March’ (and let me clarify: there is no recovery from that), as he finishes with ‘Kutu #4’. A mix of Asa-Changed swannee whistle and steel drum, the listener is saved from similar trauma by the considerate brevity of the song. Yes, this album is very good. However, like the greatest Shigeru Miyamoto creations (the man wot dun Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong), Minna no Junray manages to both astound and frustrate.

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