JPN is the third and best album by Japanese vocal trio Perfume (discussed in Burning Ambulance #2). As with its two predecessors, Game and Triangle, it was entirely written and produced by Yasutaka Nakata, who’s also the dude behind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and 1/2 of electronica duo capsule, who sound kinda like Daft Punk fronted by a fembot. (Get their albums More! More! More!, Player and World of Fantasy.) It’s been nearly two and a half years since Triangle, but Perfume have released four singles in the interval, and seven of those eight tracks (“Fushizen na Girl,” “Natural ni Koishite,” “Voice,” “575,” “Nee,” “Laser Beam,” and “Kasuka na Kaori”) as well as the A and B sides of their latest single, “Spice” and “Glitter,” are all included on the disc. There are also five entirely new tracks on the album: “My Color,” “Toki no Hari,” “Kokoro no Sports” and “Have a Stroll,” plus the short album intro, “The Opening.”
Not only have many of these songs been out as singles since 2009 or 2010, some of them have also been used in commercials in Japan. “Natural ni Koishite” was licensed to the Natural Beauty Basic clothing line, and the video featured the group dancing in front of one of the NBB stores:
Similarly, “Laser Beam” and “Glitter” have both been used in commercials for Kirin.
Musically, JPN is pretty much all of a piece—it’s wall to wall synths and ultra-precise digital production, including tons of finely chopped editing of the girls’ vocals—but melodically, it’s all over the place. Some tracks, like “Natural ni Koishite,” have an almost R&B strut, while others, like “Glitter” and “Toki no Hari,” are built around sing-song melodies that seem designed to be sung on TV shows aimed at preschoolers. The twin poles of its sonic universe are the first song, “Laser Beam,” and the last, “Spice.”
“Laser Beam” is totally berserk cyber-chip-pop. It enters with a whoosh, then kicks off a one-finger synth line and gently tapping drum pattern that bolster the melody in a totally ’80s New York pop radio way—it sounds like a cross between a Stacey Q song and a particularly persistent ringtone. At its midpoint, though (1:30 into a total running time of 3:10), it explodes briefly into a stuttering, spasming explosion of inhumanity, as the girls’ voices are used as sampled percussion instruments and the whole thing breaks down into a digital stutter at the end of the bridge. The chopped-up chirping continues until the very end, when the song becomes nothing but the maddening one-finger synth line…and then launches directly into a complementary melody that signals the arrival of “Glitter.” It’s a perfect one-two punch that gets your heart rate pumping frantically, and focuses your attention for everything to come.
By the end of JPN’s 55-minute running time, though, things have gotten more sedate. Dancefloor-aimed tracks like “Laser Beam,” “Glitter,” “Nee” and “Voice” have been replaced by more mellow, softly pulsing songs like “Have a Stroll” (doesn’t the title say it all?) and “Fushizen na Girl,” leading inexorably to the album’s leadoff single and closing track, “Spice.” A midtempo throb built around a hypnotic vocal line shared among the girls, with occasional digital trills around the margins, and synth lines that are more reminiscent of ’80s dreamy pop than hard urban cyber-R&B, it’s a gentle, softly smiling wave goodbye. And the video, which is strangely reminiscent of Sofia Coppola‘s Marie Antoinette without the period costumes, is astonishingly beautiful and perfectly suited to the music:
The “Spice” video perfectly encapsulates Perfume’s appeal for me. Their robotic, yet ever-so-slightly out-of-sync dancing; the impossibility of picking one girl’s voice out from the other two, and the near-total absence of spotlight moments for any of them; the general restraint of their performances and demeanor, coupled with the mechanistic precision of the music (which isn’t just a backing track; the frequent digital manipulation of their voices proves that the machines, channeled through Nakata, are in charge at all times and can interfere at will)…it’s a fascinating sound, with a lot more going on than mere prettiness. Of course, it’s all really pretty and fun to listen to, too. That’s how they get you.
And don’t convince yourself you’re safely inoculated from this stuff because you’re here in America. Perfume’s “Polyrhythm” was included on the soundtrack to Cars 2. Make no mistake, Yasutaka Nakata and his cybergirls are coming here.
(There’s a pretty interesting article on Nakata here, if you’re interested.)