Shugo Tokumaru - In Focus?

by Daryl Worthington Rating:8 Release Date:2013-01-28

When I started writing this review of In Focus?, I was trying to think of a witty little soundbite to summarise the music Shogu Tokumaru makes. This would probably have involved putting several music genres together with hyphens, and may or may not have included the phrase 'on acid'. However there is not really anything that will do it justice, other than saying, this is a record of pop music, really good and really weird pop music.

From the opening track 'Circle', with its frantic acoustic guitar arpeggios and epic closing wig-out, we can hear two forces at play throughout this album - eccentric and ambitious instrumentation alongside sweet, almost naïve melodies. Tokumaru has previously mentioned in interviews that his songs are influenced by his dreams, which goes someway to explaining his surreal brand of pop music. 'Decorate', meanwhile, is built on a funky bassline and syncopated synth stabs before breaking into it's almost gospel sounding chorus of soaring multi-layered vocals.

Throughout, the track are full of mysterious clicks and pops (at one point an alarm clock), and flourishes of flute and other wind instruments which disappear as quickly as they arrive. On 'Katchi', the backing vocals in the verses have been pitch-bent and manipulated beyond recognition, sounding a bit like a cartoon mouse. This song, like most of the others, has an unpredictable structure, jumping from acoustic guitar strums to strange sections of traditional Japanese music. This mixture of unusual sounds and structures makes the whole thing sound disorientating, perfectly capturing the illogical narrative of a dream.

Tokumaru records his albums at home, playing all of the instruments himself. The startling thing is how fun and playful his music remains. Each of the songs is a mini-epic, with big dynamic changes and abrupt switches in rhythm. 'Poker' begins with a shuffled, Latin feel. After a whistle solo, the song breaks into what sounds like the soundtrack to a US detective drama, before an epic, swirling prog breakdown which lasts about 10 seconds. The whole song is squeezed into three minutes, and none of it seems contrived, the natural flow of the song never interrupted. It is rare to get an album that is so consistently ambitious and complicated in its arrangements, but so relentlessly fun. Even the two short instrumentals, 'Gamma' and 'Micro Guitar Music', have a jaunty sense of humour to them and giggle-inducing instrumentation.

The real triumph of this album is that, despite being sung entirely in Japanese, the songs are completely absorbing, and their emotional content effectively translated. This is best demonstrated by slow-burners 'Balloon' and 'Tightrope'. Both songs portray a sense of heartbroken sadness, even if one has no understanding of the lyrical content. When first listening to this album, the crazy arrangements of the songs can initially be overwhelming and hard to penetrate. However, as the melodies begin to take hold it becomes apparent that this is a big part of the album's success, a key component of its pure, euphoric pop core.

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