Choose the Light
Styles: experimental pop, avant-prog lite, j-pop
Others: Cibo Matto, OOIOO, Yo La Tengo, Takako Minekawa, After Dinner
Consider it a post-Shonen Knife maxim of modern-day music consumption: there will always be more Japanese bands working on the fringes of pop convention than you can become aware of. Mi-Gu, a heretofore unheralded power duo of drummer/vocalist Yuko Araki and guitarist/producer Hirotaka Shimizu, enjoys no proper US releases leading into this career-summarizing compilation. Spanning a decade of activity away from their erstwhile gigs in Cornelius Group and Plastic Ono Band, these 11 tracks evince an increasingly editorial and song-oriented unit. Choose the Light bridges the conversationally experimental studio leanings of Cibo Matto with Yo La Tengo-esque pop cantillations, tastefully skewing toward j-pop cuteness and through the sparser mixes and arrangements of 90s alt-pop oddity.
While Araki and Shimizu indulge themselves with prog grooves and obtuse sonics, they never overplay or ride their material past its welcome. “Pulling From Above,” what might be coined Light’s lead single from a 2009 LP of the same name, slowly settles into its lighthearted groove. The octave-matched synth-funk bass line kicks in on an off-beat and descends keys as if, well, being pulled from above, slack-to-taut as the bass waves grow in length; gaining articulations until comfortably, magnetically in the pocket, attracting sonic kerfuffles and earning a major-key chorus sing-along. Araki intones in simple English throughout, somewhere between a searching vagueness and an endearing directness. She’s apt to resolve contradictions (“How much is too much?/ You’re too close to the situation to know”) with verities and self-affirmation (”But it’s okay/ Just to be yourself”). “Lazy” rides a web of indolent, percolating static through ”3 cups, 4 books/ Another day” at the comic shop, teetering on exhaustion and the eventual psychic weight of boredom. And, yeah, “Mostly bugs make [her] sick/ The eyes of a dragonfly/ They’re the worst!!”
Shimizu, the “silent” partner behind the frets and boards, is a tasteful, restrained player, the type of cat who equally divides his time between working out new pedal presets and crafting his galloping, wide-interval fuzz leads. Less forceful a personality, his contributions are best understood in ballads like “Floating,” where he brings a minimal sensibility à la The Dirty Three’s Mick Turner to gently refined songcraft. Or a little Otomo Yoshihide, perhaps? “Choose the Light” opens like a Mclusky rip or a Doug Martsch soundcheck until his propulsive, gnarly fuzz bass sells the beat, both driving and undermining the posi-vibe message.
Shimizu runs into a bit of trouble going big-tent on the less enjoyable experimental material from 2003’s self-titled (“Spider,” “What to Do”). I wasn’t on board with these more free-form numbers (all culled from Mi-Gu’s first two albums) until I found myself convinced that the sneaky, chromatically descending synth appearing 90 seconds into “What to Do?” was lifted out of a RZA production. After a mad dash through my top five Wu-Tang LPs, turns out it’s only at best an anagram of Method Man’s “Biscuits.” But Mi-Gu so thoroughly nailed that loping peal of a tone that I found myself less looking for a sensible connection or intertextual something-or-other than convinced that these two have good taste and solid senses of humor. While the latter could be more evident in the studio, the 2010 reworking of “Spider” (feat. Cornelius, Sean Lennon, and Yuka Honda) is damned charming. Recent YouTube vids corroborate that Mi-Gu is a skilled live band with room for growth and auxiliary musicians.
It’s a bit of shame that this remastered compilation features no re-recordings, as a live-band feel would benefit the stodgy string arrangements of “Oshino” or the one-note theatricality of “Touch Wood’s” coffee house jazz and the thin mallet exercises of “The Drummer and the Dancer.” But that’s the cost of compilation business. American audiences have gained both a new group to cheer on to future trans-Pacific tours and a fresh perspective on the intersections between pop, prog, psych, and sound-collage manipulation. Viva! la Mi-Gu.
01. Choose the Light
04. Pulling From Above
06. Touch Wood
09. The Drummer and the Dancer
10. What to Do?
11. From Space