Written By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Shugo Tokumaru
When the Beach Boys released their masterpiece Pet Sounds in 1966, they probably had no idea that the magnitude of its influence would someday reach Tokyo, Japan. Somehow, the impact of their pop music did not get lost traveling over the Pacific Ocean as Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru claims it as his biggest influence.
With Shugo’s newest effort, the zany yet coherent In Focus?, he wears the Beach Boys influence on his (much cooler, Japanese) sleeve. It’s not even in the pretty boy way, but more in the obsessively honed musician’s way. His American record label, Polyvinyl, can attest to his dedication to the craft:
“For the first half of 2012, Shugo Tokumaru locked himself inside his home studio while working on In Focus?, often forgetting to eat and sleep for long stretches of time while crafting the record’s 15 songs — each of which contains an average of 20 instruments and hundreds of recorded parts that are meticulously mixed together to create a single, cohesive track.”
You read that correctly. Tokumaru forgot to eat and sleep at times to make sure that this album was written and released. Though his mental and physical health probably suffered, the album was well worth it. He didn’t even have to go the Chinese Democracy insanity route! Even with his near-OCD process to music making, he has been prolific enough to release five full-length albums, the first being Night Piece in 2004.
Like many great musicians before his time, Tokumaru has a bit of mystery shrouding his exceptional art. His PR manager informs BTR his English may not be great, and all of his songs happen to be in Japanese.
Which is unfortunate because it sounds like he’s got some poetic things to say, and so his Japanese fans are the only ones who can understand them. Even singing in a language that most can’t understand though, the way he sings is soothing to listen to. On top of everything, he recently had to cancel his US tour due to “unforeseen circumstances.” This really puts a damper on the prospect of new American audiences getting to hear the dreamy indie pop that In Focus? yields.
In Focus? does not really adhere to much in the way of consistency; the song lengths vary from 29 seconds to close to six minutes. Traditional pop song structures be damned.
The album’s opener “Circle” offers some great finger picking on what sounds like a classical nylon string guitar backing rich harmonies (all probably Shugo’s voice). In the following songs, namely “Katachi,” Tokumaru uses instruments that you probably couldn’t name by sound (I suspect that he was playing a recorder during this one) but in no way does that make it inaccessible.
That’s the strange but wonderful part about this music: so much in arrangement and lyrics may be foreign to the average listener in the English speaking world, but it’s as danceable and fun as any pop on our side of the Pacific. The third track, “Gamma,” is as rambunctious and melodically wild as a Danny Elfman composition a la the theme to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure..
His live band includes a whole roster of Japanese musicians and perusing the list, The National’s Bryan Devendorf is also included. This goes to show how universal his sound is even to the most melancholic of Brooklyn indie rockers. And that really, is what sets this international musician apart from his peers who will never have their own personal translator for American press releases because frankly, they won’t need to.
Whether or not Shugo Tokumaru will rise above his mysterious ways, and complete his cancelled tour is in and of itself a mystery. However, he suits us just fine here at BTR while we listen to his dream sounds and get whimsical.