Maison book girl - yume

review - 04.21.2019 20:01

Such stuff as dreams are made on.

"Yume" – the Japanese word for dream. The ephemeral and unknowable expressions of the subconscious have long been a subject for artistic exploration, but perhaps never quite in the way that Maison book girl have done for their third studio album. The idol quartet of Megumi Koshouji, Yui Inoue, Rin Wada and Aoi Yagawa, together with their producer/composer Kenta Sakurai, have built their latest long player around the theme of dreams, at times taking a literal, scientific tack.

The album opens with a sample of high-pitched electronic chirping. Entitled fMRI_TEST #2, it’s the sound of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The instrument is used by researchers at the Kamitani laboratory at Kyoto University to scan brain activity during sleep and remarkably, through the use of artificial intelligence programs, they are able to reconstruct likenesses of the images in dreams. Obviously intrigued by the possibilities, Sakurai has visited the lab and taken the results of their research as inspiration.

Rather than taking the usual lyrical, romantic approach, Maison book girl have worked this science into their music. The MRI scan sample pops up throughout the album and features heavily in the track Yume. The volume and speed of the song’s hand claps are also based on the dynamics of recorded brain activity, giving it an extra scientific kicker. For a song with such an esoteric take on dreams, it’s surprisingly emotional. The ubiquitous xylophones take a backseat and it’s the quietly expressive vocals that lead an elegant keyboard and percussion arrangement.

This isn’t the first time that Maison book girl have fused science and dreams either. The song that actually leads off the album, Kotoeri_, which was originally released as a single in 2017, has lyrics written by an artificial intelligence program. Ironically, the machine without a soul or consciousness has conjured up intriguing dream imagery. The odd non-sequitur lyrics are reminiscent of the strange, unconnected places our subconscious can take us in the dead of night.

The album also rounds up other previously released tracks, including the B-side to cotoeri, Juuroku sai_. There’s the dark, disturbed dream of Raincoat to Kubi no Nai Tori and rainy, melancholic Okaeri Sayonara from elude and the brisk, staccato Rooms_ from the 412 EP. These songs are pretty much left as they were released, with just a few tweaks to their sound and some of their titles, to help fit them into their new home.

The album’s lead track Semai Monogatari, is pure, straight up Maison book girl, with a familiar sound built cleverly in loops and layers around unusual time signatures and the usual xylophones. Sakurai has normally elected to have understated and somewhat emotionally detached vocals, but this song sees an extra injection of expression and feeling, particularly from Aoi and Rin.

At first glance, a 21-track album might seem like an epic as well as an absolute bargain, but half of yume’s tracks are interconnecting interludes of various soundscapes that serve as brief (and sometimes not brief enough) links between each song. There are only actually four brand new songs: Yume, Semai Monogatari, the urgent, insistent Boy Meets Girl and the perky Kage no Densha, a splendid acoustic guitar driven pop belter.

It’s to their credit that a major label lets their artists experiment like this, but while these short tracks generate atmosphere, they also drain away any momentum that the album manages to build. The MRI scanner sample is an interesting aural texture, but a minute and a half of it becomes just plain irritating. The samples of train journeys, rainfall and the childishly naïve instrumentals don’t really stand repeated listening. More Past is the pick of the bunch, a reworked version of 2015’s My Cut with lone piano accompaniment provided by Sugarbeans, but it feels like a missed opportunity. What could have been a quiet emotional moment amidst the album’s quick-fire, percussive sound is hamstrung by some curious production choices. The sweet, expressive vocals are overwhelmed in the mix by the piano and as the track draws to a close it’s drowned out by an overlaid sample of vinyl record crackle.

Still, thanks to today’s digital formats people are free to consume music in any way they please, with a skip, shuffle, loop or delete. Listening through all 21 tracks gives the full experience of the conceptual performance as Sakurai intended, but removing the interlude tracks transforms this avant-garde dreamscape experiment into a brilliant, fast paced pop album. It finishes, as is the Maison book girl tradition, with a spoken word rendition of poetry, written by Megumi Koshouji, this time set to a gently chiming instrumental.

The issue with Maison book girl’s signature style was always that, while nobody else sounds like Maison book girl, except maybe American minimalist composer Steve Reich, every one of their songs sounds just like Maison book girl. Sakurai has gone some way to extricating himself from that particular trap, mixing up the tempo and styles for this album. While Sakurai is the composer, lyricist, arranger, producer and the creative genius behind the scenes, it’s Megumi, Aoi, Yui and Rin that are the stars of the show. As they’ve grown and improved as performers they’ve really begun to shine. Their previously muted emotional delivery has developed, adding subtlety and feeling to their performances. yume is indeed a dream; Maison book girl’s best offering yet.

yume is available digitally from iTunes and for streaming on Spotify.
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