Since their 2009 album Triangle, Perfume has bombarded the masses with a flurry of singles, each disc exuding its own musical personality. Could this variation in styles be due to the differing commercial endeavors these songs are paired with? Perhaps! But while it’s easy to write a group like Perfume off as exceedingly commercial at this point, even the most cynical and pretentious music nerd has to admit that their stuff is catchy as hell, and commands a large following. I too have fallen victim to their charms, but mostly due to the efforts of their producer Nakata Yasutaka, the main man behind the electropop unit Capsule (who just put out a very so-so album–more on that in a later post), but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been at least a little bit won over by the girls themselves. I mean, they are about my age, so it’s only natural, right?
The group’s latest offering of singles has been something of a mixed bag. Fushizen na Girl quickly became one of my favorite songs ever after watching its expertly styled and directed music video, and the song itself is probably one of the smoothest pop tunes to ever grace my eardrums, hitting a lot of personal weak spots. Voice also worked particularly well, but tracks like Nee fell flat on my ears just a bit. Where does their new single, Laser Beam, stand in the middle of all this?
Between hearing Laser Beam’s chorus in that Kirin Hyoketsu commercial, and seeing the preview for the song’s music video, something about it struck me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. However, after reading a comment posted by someone on the Contemode fan community, and listening to the song proper, I realized what it was: Nakata’s taken Perfume back to its roots, if only just a little bit. Laser Beam’s instrumentals are driven by a near chiptune-esque melody, not dissimilar from a lot of their early Akiba-kei tracks. Similarly, the vocoding has been taken down a notch, allowing the natural quality of the girls’ voices to shine through a bit, much in the tradition of their earlier sugary tracks.
However, while Laser Beam does take things back a bit, it mixes in a bit of the new with the old. The girls’ voices still have a slight electronic tinge to them, the instrumentals’ melody has a more aggressive composition than their lighthearted Akiba-kei fare, and backing the melody are Nakata’s more severe electronic sounds present in his more recent work. The tracks from Perfume’s Akiba-kei days can at times be too musically simple for my tastes, while later tracks can be layered with too much electronic junk to stand out as terribly interesting, so Laser Beam strikes a good balance, and stands out as one of the group’s better songs. It’s not quite as good as Fushizen na Girl, but it’s probably just above Voice.
The second track on the single, Kasuka na Kaori is more of a straightforward and sappy pop song, containing phrases such as “hontou no kimochi” and “suki da yo.” I enjoy Perfume when they’re being upbeat and fun, but when they try to beat out an emotion besides “BOY I WANNA DANCE,” their level of success is variable. That said, they don’t do it very often. Wonder2 is an honest effort that manages to make me emote, while Negai only just works. Kasuka na Kaori almost works, but it’s a bit too insincere to be properly sappy. I’m sure it’ll move the hearts of emotionally weak otaku everywhere, but it’s a bit too overrun with Nakata’s characteristic electronic quirks (despite some piano backing, as well as a brief music box opening) to really strike me as something emotional, never mind the rather straightforward lyrics.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to being moved by sappy pop music. Hell, I love it. But songs like that have to be a bit more organic sounding–appearing to come straight from the soul–to feel heartfelt, and to work for me. That kind of emotion don’t come through very well behind layers of electronic instrumental backing and modified vocals. Pizzicato Five has a few good sappy pop songs under their belt, and Nakata himself has done some as well. I already mentioned Wonder2, but one of Capsule’s earlier tracks, Kowareta Tokei moves me greatly no matter how many times I listen to it. Yes, I’m a sap, but Toshiko’s completely unmodified voice, matched to slow contemplative instrumentals, comes through as honest and heartfelt. Thankfully later Capsule albums that contain more modifications to Toshiko’s voice are more focused on making you want to dance than anything else. Nakata’s style has naturally developed since both Wonder2 and Kowareta Tokei, so Kasuka na Kaori sounding the way it does isn’t terribly surprising, but it doesn’t quite work on me. It’s a fine, technically proficient pop song, but it’s not my brand of sappy.