Dustin Wong & Takako Minekawa Savage Imagination

[Thrill Jockey/Plancha; 2014]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: pop performance, loops
Others: these artists’ solo work, Ponytail

Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa opened their collaboration to the world with last year’s Toropical Circle album, whose delicately looped keyboard chirps, jittering guitar lines, and breathy vocalizations, painted in pastel streaks across empty canvases of stereophonic space, united with song titles like “Two Acorns’ Dreams Growing as One” or “Circle Has Begun” into a portrait of a partnership still in the early stages of shared self-discovery. For all its sugar, the album’s more animated passages of generative loop building (“Swimming Between Parallel Times”) and textural guitar wizardry (“Party on a Floating Cake”) showed that these acorns’ dreams encompassed sophisticated ideas and performance strategies to complement the project’s playful exterior. The forces of whimsy and technicality, far from contradicting each other, fused into a kawaii baroque aesthetic — bewitched by the capacity for dexterity, but rooted to solid ground by the motivation to flesh out more sincere emotional spaces.

Savage Imagination, the duo’s second full-length album, arrives little over a year after Toropical Circle and represents a remarkable upgrade to their shared sound, blasting their day-glo explorations through a mosaic approach to sound source layering and live multitasking. The more pronounced presence of drum machines, synths, and disfiguring effect manipulation elevates these compositions to a density closer to a full-band ensemble than a duo project — a fact made more remarkable by Wong and Minekawa’s ability to recreate their swirling strata in live, loop-based performances with a relatively minimal arsenal of gear. Using the same crescent moon of Boss effects pedals and loopers that have come to define the tonal palette of his “solo” career, Wong conjures serpentine melodies and swathes of alien texture from his guitar at a more dynamic clip than ever before. Minekawa, meanwhile, approaches each session as the colorist to Wong’s line-drawings, weaving in vocals and keyboard passages that compound from tiny cells of activity into fractal pop tapestries embroidered with patches of clustered harmony.

As his fingers whip across the fretboard and his picking hand flits with remarkable precision through arpeggiated leads, Wong prepares himself mentally to stop playing at the exact moment to nail the next transition. The looped and layered output of the previous minute hangs in the air, propelling the track forward beyond his control, but Wong is already three steps ahead, waiting for the playback of one phrase to end before leaning over to pound out a rock backbeat on a drum machine that joins the sum total in improbable rhythmic congruence (see: “Dancing Venus of Aurora Clay”). Maybe he’ll croon out a wordless melody through an auto-tune pedal, as in “Ancient Aluminum Forest,” weaving some vestige of mutated R&B through the offbeats of his six-string acrobatics. Maybe he’ll spend a few measures toggling a delay pedal on and off, ricocheting morsels of previous phrases into a double- or triple-time stutter. These inventive moments, squeezed between the inflated cloud of one looped passage and the droplets that condensate into the next, bear witness to Wong’s mastery on the level of both raw live performance and premeditated composition. He compresses looping tactics that allow for infinite recursion into finite segments of time, flitting between sound sources and detonating accumulated riffs to maintain a status quo of flux and unexpected variation.

On Toropical Circle, Takako Minekawa’s playful keyboard lines and vocal sighs occupied very specific areas of the stereo spread, hanging in open spaces as central elements for Wong’s guitar to harmonically recontextualize. This configuration cast her input as the bare compositional bedrock of each track, not unlike the role she played as the “pop idol” at the center of the diverse productions of her classic 90s albums in the J-pop tradition, in which she defined the conditions of a given song by way of whatever ideas or melodies she chose to emphasize. Savage Imagination dispenses with this template from the get-go, positioning Minekawa and Wong as equal partners in the harmonic and structural development of each session. Tracks like “Dioramasaurus” or album opener “Pale Tone Wifi” organically expand as call-and-response exchanges of guitar, beats, synths, and voices, all of which funnel together into a shared workstation of loops that swells a little closer to capacity with each burst of live input. As an instrumentalist, Minekawa’s keyboard work and live sample manipulation, exemplified in the electronic bustle of tracks like “Luminescent Earth Traveler,” have evolved considerably beyond the straight-faced interpolations of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” that weaved their way into previous efforts. As a singer, she lengthens her vocalizations into wistful legato stretches (as in “Dimension Dive Part 1: Aether Curtain”) possessed of an elegance to contrast the willfully guileless sing-song she has often employed.

Wong and Minekawa’s model of mutual live layering in pursuit of discrete “pop” songs proves to be so novel to its practitioners (and so engaging to its listeners) because it emphasizes performative conditions that push both of them out of the comfort zones defined by their catalogs to date. By focusing on the construction of the varied segments and swift transitions of pop music, Wong sidesteps his tendency to speed through a session on a straight upward trajectory of piece-by-piece additions to a central loop. The presence of Minekawa allows him to approach each divergence in structure with more sounds at the ready, enabling the sudden onsets of dense passages that don’t need to brew and loop onto themselves to get going. By focusing on hands-on performance and the disciplined arrangement of multiple sound sources in a live setting, Minekawa shatters preconceptions of herself as a pop artist performing in a lead vocal capacity beholden to others’ productional decisions. Wong’s busy looping tactics present just as fertile of a sandbox for Minekawa’s instrumental and vocal exploration as any overdubbed studio backdrop, while charging her contributions with the risk of chance-dependent live performance.

This paradigm of live pop teamwork blossoms beautifully on Savage Imagination’s longest song and overarching sequential climax, “She He See Feel.” The track begins with the bare output of Wong’s measure-by-measure drum machine accumulations, precisely pounded by hand into a loping groove of bass drum thuds and spastic handclaps that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Genesis-era Contra soundtrack. Guitar and voice hit the mix at the same moment, pogoing through a progression that resembles some sugar-corrupted disco bass line beneath Minekawa’s increasingly bewildering melodies that flirt with urgent atonality. At the halfway mark, the session’s accrued loops vanish, and Wong uses the open space to launch into a sublime surf-rock progression animated by rapid delay trails to spark the atmosphere back into a major-key grin. Minekawa reciprocates the consonance, doling out a series of slow breaths that layer back onto themselves in real-time alongside the guitar’s recursion.

And then, at the four-minute mark of “She He See Feel,” Wong breaks out the big guns: the technique of juxtaposing radically different chords over established loops, as heard previously in solo highlights like “Liberal Christian Youth Ministry” or “Evening Curves Straight.” His dry chords ripple through the front of the mix with tremolo-picked precision, regulating the disparate harmonies still swirling through the background into a more legible progression with enough momentum to carry the track to its coda. As a testament to Savage Imagination’s uniformly crystalline production, each voice and guitar line occupies its own quadrant of the sound field, and each added agent of forward motion receives a wider expanse in which to color. The track encapsulates the seemingly contradictory forces that animate the duo’s music: effortless virtuosity vs. emotional whimsy; confidence in the extended repetition of loops vs. dramatic progression; deliberate arrangement of varied sound sources vs. free-wheeling live energy. These dichotomies single out Wong’s and Minekawa’s project as a strain of performative pop with few precedents other than their own solo catalogs. The marked evolution of their collaboration in the span of only two albums indicates that these acorns (perhaps now closer to saplings) could shoot off into seemingly infinite directions with each successive growth spurt. All we can do, then, is look up through the branches and smile.

Links: Dustin Wong & Takako Minekawa - Thrill Jockey/Plancha


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