It's been a few years since we heard from this bedroom maestro, whose last album, 2010's Port Entropy
, actually cracked the top 40 in his homeland. Though far from the flashy, saccharine-coated J-Pop sounds that most Americans probably (and perhaps wrongfully) assume are filling the Japanese charts, it's really not surprising that Shugo Tokumaru could find mass appeal over there, given the man's talent in assimilating pretty much anything and everything into a truly unique, gentle yet kaleidoscopic pop concoction -- in a way he's following the mix-and-match traditions of Shibuya-Kei artists like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius, and though his music is just as playful those, it's far more folky and very organic. In Focus?
is an apt title for his newest album; mastered at Abbey Road, it's much more detailed than his charming lo-fi debut, 2004's Night Piece
, and indeed, many of Tokumaru's productions have never sounded this full, especially during tracks like the rollicking "Down Down" in which he plays it pretty straight until the latter half of the song, when it all breaks down into junkyard band cacophony filtered through swirling Technicolor production.
But let's not get too far ahead -- in spite of a bigger recording budget, his music still retains that intimate, childlike wonderment, zigzagging along from start to finish, with crisp, strummed and finger-picked guitars (frequently sounding like they were sped up on a tape machine) bouncing along scurried rhythms and a toy box full of recorders, whistles, toy pianos, singing-saws, and hand percussion, often interwoven with orchestral swells and breezy harmonies, and of course, Tokumaru's gentle yearning croon. Like any of his records, he's going to take you on a ride, and he does just that here, from the joyous, percolating world-folk-pop of "Katachi" to the jaunty "Call," complete with cascading baroque flourishes that would be at home on a Sufjan Stevens record, to the bossa-inflected "Poker" which eventually reaches a tropical-swirl of a climax using everything but the kitchen sink. Of course, there are also plenty of Tokumaru's signature playful detours, including skittering interludes like "Pah-Paka" and "Gamma," both sounding like a band of happy-faced Muppets dosed on psychedelics creating incidental songs for Sesame Street
. Tokumaru's world is truly of his own making and yet it's some of the most inviting music you'll ever hear, and always sure to leave you with a smile on your face.
-Gerald Hammill (January 30, 2013)