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Nobukazu Takemura - 10th

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Artist: Nobukazu Takemura

Album: 10th

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Feb. 13, 2003

Robots Frolic in an Idyllic Place; All is Well

The album 10th is Nobukazu Takemura’s latest and cutest. Takemura here focuses exclusively on the eyes-aglow innocence of animated robots and infants strolling down digital primrose paths. There are no Scope-like excursions into the challengingly minimal, and the remnants of hip-hop production which often show up in his work are all but intangible.

It’s quite possible that Takemura has chosen to micromanage his projects by recording for several different labels at once; 10th’s February-release marks his third in twelve months, and it is the only one of these which embraces a saccharine aesthetic. The others, Animate (on Childisc) and Water’s Suite (on Extreme), are much darker and glitchier.

Takemura’s decision to devote an entire record to this particular side of his musical personality hasn’t changed the sound of that personality. These songs are all essentially unrelated variations on the same theme, one he has explored before. The melodies are fun and the song concepts are quirky, but Takemura sacrifices emotional balance in order to keep playing with the same idea over and over. For this reason, the songs do not flow smoothly into each other, as one might hope for in a 90-minute (!) epic; rather, each fits clumsily beside the next and the last, lacking the anchor that a concatenated whole would provide, and so drifts in loneliness through a very large space. Nor is there significant stylistic development from similar tracks on earlier albums like Hoshi No Koe and Child and Magic for that we could call this a breakthrough work.

As with Hoshi No Koe et al, a rolling, repetitive sound forms the backbone of most of these pieces. Whether it’s a pseudo-drum ‘n’ bass framework or a wounded CD, that backbone always takes up a load of sonic space. Often, then, the backdrop will move in melody with an electronic voice or a synthesizer. Sometimes the rhythm itself is also the melody, as often happens when Takemura uses skipping CDs as a pop song device, something he does more effectively than almost anyone. These are things he has done just as well many times before, so these songs I guess are just more examples of a good idea.

The newest idea on 10th is the full involvement of Aki Tsuyuko, a collaborator of Takemura both as musician and visual artist. Tsuyuko’s lyrics and vocal manipulations derive from a “speech-synthe” device, more commonly used by people with speech-disabilities. Tsuyuko and Takemura alter the output of this device until it is almost as flexible in pitch and cadence as the human voice. You can tell the difference, easily, but nonetheless, this is an advance with more interesting potential applications than the vocoder or oft-used Macintalk computer speech synthesizer. Rather than sounding just intentionally rigid, the speech-synthe used as a musical instrument can produce a full range of emotional expressions akin to, but different from traditional singing.

Tsuyuko’s visual art is introduced via the album art, which features a palette of red, orange, blue, black, and green circles and squares, as well as toy robot soldiers marching along a plank protruding from a larger toy robot’s chest. Her video work, currently a major part of Takemura’s live shows, provides an excellent complement to the music. Like the songs on 10th, the idea is pretty straightforward and sweet. Robots frolic in an idyllic place, all is well. I’d highly recommend seeing it.

If you are familiar with Takemura’s music, and you prefer his playful side, then this album will indeed be a treat for you. There are few moments, mostly towards the end, which are not overtly poppy. The bulk of this record is sugary melodies and pleasing skip-beats. If you prefer the combination of styles in his other Thrill Jockey work, or the more ambient and experimental character of A Child’s View, this may not be your bag. There is a specific focus on 10th, a consistent if ultimately unspectacular attempt to see through a child’s eyes.

By Ben Tausig

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