Before putting on Toropical Circle, I suggest the curmudgeons out there take a few deep breaths and mentally gird themselves for something outside of their comfort zone: one straight hour of whimsy. Major key progressions, cooed vocals, childlike Casio melodies, chirping guitar leads — the compositional building blocks that Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa stack together have the potential at face value to spark dismissive accusations of “cuteness” that would elide the truly inventive, organic qualities of their work. Although Wong and Minekawa sincerely embrace whimsy, they contextualize it in performances brimming with virtuosic instrumental techniques, live-looped layering practices, and dynamic harmonic structures. We’re not dealing with a case of a fluffy exterior concealing something more complex beneath the surface; Toropical Circle presents a full symbiosis of Minekawa’s frankly emotional pop and Wong’s stunning performance tactics. Given the informal, live-in-the-studio conditions of its creation, the album’s cohesion testifies both to the unique talents both musicians have developed over years of experimentation and to the strength, and fortuitousness, of their collaboration.
Over a decade before meeting Dustin Wong in 2011, Takako Minekawa established her pop persona on the juxtaposition of whimsy and complexity. Her groundbreaking albums in the 90s — especially the golden Roomic Cube/Cloudy Cloud Calculator/Fun 9 trilogy — expanded the palette of Japanese vocal pop into deeper experimental territories (due, in part, to the presence of producer god Cornelius): lush synth explorations, droned-out industrial skronk, Kraftwerk-worshipping rhythmic electronics, psychedelic garage anthems. Against the genre-bending productions she curated, Minekawa’s compositions perfected a stripped-down aesthetic of sweetly delivered vocal performances coupled with simple melodies played on a monophonic keyboard. If her vocal style and lyrical subject matter (clouds, cats, sleeping, squirrels) painted her as naïve, this was a deliberate strategy: naivety as a language with which to establish and then defy audience expectations; a smiling face on an otherwise unusual, challenging piece of work. Although she had essentially retired from the music industry before beginning this collaboration, Minekawa retains her long-developed “innocent” aesthetic, or at least distills it down to an even purer form. While she had once cribbed the vocal harmonies from “Walk on the Wide Side” for “Fantastic Voyage,” she now interpolates “Mary Had A Little Lamb” into “Circle Has Begun (yokorobi humming).” In this sense, she continues to work with the most elemental melodic signifiers, generating an emotional response rooted in her listeners’ pre-existing conceptions of the toy-ish timbres and culturally “classic” songs to which she returns.
Minekawa’s collaboration with Wong, then, represents a striking complication of her previous work: the once infinitely detailed, multi-tracked studio backdrops have been replaced by the live output of one musician, but he happens to be a musician who, through prodigious skill in looping and effects manipulation, can sculpt infinitely detailed, “multi-tracked” backdrops in a live setting. Although Wong’s six-string acrobatics with art-punk champs Ponytail and the frenetic dual guitar blasts of Ecstatic Sunshine exemplify his melodic sensibilities and shredding capacity at a young age, his work on Toropical Circle aligns more closely with the loop-based solo work he’s developed since those projects’ dissolution. His takes begin in simplicity, establishing a harmonic center and airing out one effected starter phrase before he begins to layer complementary phrases into the loop. He’s capable of altering his tone and octave range on the fly so consistently that his output blankets the stereo spread in a series of interlocking, fully audible riffs. Wong’s ability to stack these riffs with such rhythmic precision, perform them with such physical dexterity, and drastically shape their tonal qualities with his relatively simple effects pedals all conflate into some of the most jaw-dropping performances I’ve seen.
However, Wong approaches collaboration with Minekawa with more than a little restraint. Some solo takes found him layering over a dozen phrases into a loop and pushing his effects into overdriven climaxes, but the tracks here allow closer to five to seven phrases their own space and time to develop (with the exception of album closer “Mirror Underwater in a Magic Lantern,” which evolves into a thick, distorted coda). If Minekawa’s vocal and keyboard contributions rein these compositions into a less explosive, more pop-friendly format, the layers that Wong adds tend to push the songs into further complexity. One frequent tactic finds him reharmonizing under a static melodic element and recasting each looped measure as a kind of chordal variation — see the five minute mark in “Windy Prism Room” or the elegant progression that renders the aforementioned “Mary Had a Little Lamb” melody almost unrecognizable alongside its generatively reharmonized accompaniment. Wong’s precise manipulation of delay also continues to inspire. The effect duplicates single notes into the pristinely stuttering leads on “Party on a Floating Cake” and propels the kinetic licks that begin “I Want To Be With You” into buzzing abstraction. Wong and Minekawa spread details like these throughout the album’s roomy, simple mixes, recorded without frills by the duo in Wong’s home studio in Japan.
One model of “pop music” necessitates a process of endless track-stacking and editing in a digital audio workstation — transplanting a take that existed for moments in a studio setting into the insular laboratory of a producer, potentially for months of adjustment. While this model can certainly result in masterpieces, and I include much of Minekawa’s prior output in this category, it also breeds the sterile, cookie-cutter vocal pop that has clogged up minds and radio airwaves in some form or another for decades. Wong and Minekawa have no interest in this paradigm. Even “Swimming Between Parallel Times,” the album’s most ornamented session, showcases a specific moment in time, hands-on instruments, in a physical space: percussion loops air out and escalate; Minekawa trades her usual flute-like synth voice for a steel-drum timbre, as pentatonic keyboard lines and swelling vocal harmonies float through the mix; Wong fills out the edges with pick-scraping chipmunk-guitar accents. The gorgeous piece illuminates a basic truth about this collaboration: these two humans generate warmth, pleasure, good feelings. This one hour of whimsy exists above all to make its audience (and assumedly its creators) happy. The fact that one can engage with Toropical Circle as readily through this emotional connection as through instinctive reactions to its instrumental performances (e.g., “oooooooh”) demonstrates the success of the unique pop model that Wong and Minekawa explored in its creation.