Recent sophomore release Citrus puts to rest any lingering notions that NYC quartet Asobi Seksu (Japanese slang for "playful sex") are little more than second-wave shoegazers.
Although released relatively under the radar, their self-titled 2004 debut album
proudly displayed their shoegazer influences. With its waves of distorted chords
and light tremolo-bar manipulation, the track "Sooner" was a direct (and even
blatant) response to "Soon," the closer on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.
With Citrus, Asobi Seksu have seemingly pulled back from that aesthetic.
Although Citrus still elicits the obvious comparisons to early-'90s My Bloody Valentine and Lush, Asobi Seksu also draw from '60s mod popsters The Zombies and The Kinks, as well as '80s releases from early shoegazers the Boo Radleys and the Jesus & Mary Chain.
Thanks to frontwoman Yuki Chikudate's bilingual approach (several of the songs
are sung in her native Japanese) and guitarist James Hanna's fuzzed-out guitar
playing, Asobi Seksu rely just as heavily upon catchy melodies and sweet singing
as on squalling guitar distortion and feedback. Lately, it seems as though they're
more in line with the French Kicks than Autolux, and it doesn't detract from
their music in the least.
The vocals, subdued in neither volume and tone (MBV's "Loomer" being a choice
example), further distinguish Asobi Seksu from their shoegazer peers. Recorded
much louder in the mix than the rest of the band, singer/organist Yuki is the
main focal point of Citrus. She's the group's wild card, displaying equal
amounts of kittenish, nymphet sex appeal ("Strawberries") and hyperactivity ("Mizu
Asobi"). More energetic than My Bloody Valentine's Bilinda Butcher on Isn't
Anything (as in "Lose Your Breath"), Yuki's reverb-soaked vocals nevertheless
remain gorgeously dreamy and refined. Hanna occasionally takes over singing duties
("Pink Cloud Tracing Paper"), recalling Everything but the Girl’s multi-instrumentalist/songwriter
Ben Watt, or even Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew (just listen to "Cause = Time").
Unabashedly revivalist (the retro guitar/organ pop of "Mizu Asobi" lurks in the
shadow of the Boo Radleys's "It's Lulu" or the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Happy
When It Rains"), Asobi Seksu still manage to avoid kitsch or camp. Duet "Exotic
Animal Paradise" balances drugged-out lethargy and a delicate toy piano with
'70s nostalgia, only to end with an epic noise section drenched in feedback and
Citrus is what results when carefully thought-out melodies and noise finely
mesh together into a hypnotic, impressionistic mess, proving that the two, at
least for Asobi Seksu, are inextricably linked. "Pink Cloud Tracing Paper" pays
homage to My Bloody Valentine's "When You Sleep," bending its strings in unison
against a fluttering synth melody, burying it all in the background of a raging
chorus. "Strawberries" begins
as bouncy guitar pop, only to surrender to Hanna's Wall of Sound guitar playing.
Liberal use of effects pedals and echo gives Citrus an underwater-cave sound (the girl-group sweetness of "Thursday," for example). The standouts show a strong bent towards impossibly good pop melodies that move the song along at a breakneck pace ("New Year"), anchored by the tightly structured, almost rigid bass lines (especially during the breakdown of "Strings").
But not all of Citrus is equally successful, and even Yuki struggles to hit awkward notes ("Strings"). There are some odd instrumental choices, like the incongruous slide guitar that sometimes clutters the otherwise lean, sparkling sound. Although Loveless and Psychocandy are obvious reference points, this album actually succeeds most on its charming, candy-colored pop songs. On Citrus, anti-gravity pop strikes up an amorous relationship with dissonance and noise, creating a sum greater than the parts.