Sound Decision
The Pillows, KOTOKO, Live 8 + 365

by Jonathan Mays,

KOTOKO: -hane- Geneon

For years KOTOKO hid behind the curtain of adult game themes. Her debut album makes you wonder why. Such a sharp voice, with the backing of techno veterans I'VE, is long overdue for the sort of exposure that Please Teacher! and Starship Operators have finally granted her. Enough exposure, perhaps, that she may now pick a show with a less ridiculous title.

Let's start with her favorite song, Hane, which conveniently captures everything that is right and wrong with I'VE. Few Japanese groups can write hooks as brisk as Asura's guitar part or as rough as Hayate Gumo's ground-shaking electric bass line and then try something so basic and patient on the title track. Even if you don't like an I'VE song, you can't blame its first 30 seconds. You probably can't blame the impossibly addictive theme, either.

But there is still plenty to blame, starting with the length. Hane is 7:38, which is common for an I'VE song, and the intro is well over 90 seconds, which is also common. Similarly, the 7:20 Koe Ga Todokunara approaches a dead stop halfway through, and Asura nearly kills its awesome two-note kick by driving it into the ground before Kotoko ever offers a note.

Hane also takes a hit right before the chorus when the synth tries to effect a strained softness, the same kind of poor instrument choice that turns the somber Itaiyo into a goofy carnival. Both might have used the tempting guitar and nervous bass of Gen'Ei.

The thing is, Hane is greater than the sum of its parts. It skirts the intro problem with some light piano counterpoint and impossibly heavy guitar open at the minute mark. The length is fine because the pace is about half that of a normal mid-tempo I'VE song. And any pre-chorus hiccups are excused by a fulfilling chorus and extended bridge sections. It is hardly a perfect song, or a perfect album, but for a debut it is ambitious and impressive.

The Pillows: My Foot Geneon (July 4)

For the very, very few of you who are not familiar with these FLCL icons, Sawao Yamanaka, Yoshiaki Manabe, and Shinichiro Sato have been rocking for a combined sixty years, mostly in obscurity until somebody at Studio Gainax noticed, and now they're just short of a worldwide phenomenon. My Foot is their fifth album in six years: a brisk pace for most artists but surely unacceptable to a Gainax crew that produces new Evangelion merchandise twice a day and thrice on Fridays.

The title track, surprisingly first on the disc, is yet another fantastic classic rock throwback that any teenage garage band could play but without the charm of Sawao's nasal delivery or Yoshiaki's disinterested enough to be cool guitar plucks. Leading from drums to bass to guitar to vocals is beyond trite, but as long as the mellow hook is there, who cares?

Rock'n'roll Sinners and The Air Resistor are indicative of the album's greatest failure: vague déjà vu with melodies that don't hold a candle to their classic compadres. The former doesn't have a chance against Penalty Life's brilliant Dead Stock Paradise, and the latter only wishes it had Instant Music's direction. The same complaints do not hold for Non Fiction, but the hook is too cute for the Pillows' care-free style. I read somewhere else that it was "grating"; I think it's just an errant curveball from a power pitcher.

Most of My Foot is basically the same as Penalty Life, which means you might like it just as much, but you probably won't. And then things change, big time. Degeneration is, at last, a theme with the adhesive qualities of FLCL's best tracks. There is no effort to eschew clichés, but from progressive guitar chords to hippie hand-clapping, the mix is sublime.

The final tracks sound like they were written by an entirely different band, and mostly that's a good thing. March of the God stumbles in the bridges with some discordant chords, but the intro compensates with a great twist on the classic drum call from earlier in the album. And My Girl begins in the middle, something they should try more often.

If I had produced My Foot, I would have mixed the most creative songs throughout the album so as not to trick some poor fan into thinking a rather bold attempt at something new was merely more of the same. Then again, maybe the surprise is part of the fun.

The above image is actually the back cover. But isn't it so much better than the front?

One year ago at Makuhara Messe Hall in Tokyo, Japanese rock group Rize took the stage to open Live 8, a worldwide concert series with the lofty goal of eliminating poverty in Africa. At the time I praised organizer Bob Geldof for raising our awareness of Africa's plight, the G8 countries for pledging $50 billion in aid, and millions of teens for supporting a just cause with their voices and wallets. My view was rational, typical, and—according to Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati—more harmful that I imagined.

Shikwati is the Director of the Inter Region Economic Network, an independent research group that (per its website) "promotes policies that will further the creation of a free society in Africa." A few days before the first anniversary of Live 8, I discussed with him the event's lasting impact, our attitudes about African poverty, and his unconventional take on the desperate situation.

As global awareness campaigns go, Live 8 seemed simple enough: unite us through music and press our politicians to Make Things Better. Shikwati believes it was too simple. "Live 8 did a good job in publicizing the poverty situation in Africa," he said, "But it failed to provide sound strategies on how to tackle the same. The overall impact of Live 8 was to market Africa as a poor continent instead of highlighting its potential."

Speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel last year, Shikwati described AIDS in Africa as a "political disease." I asked if the same label applied to poverty. "Poverty in Africa is largely a political disease," he said, "For two main reasons. First, political boundaries in Africa have hindered market integration that would have spurred basic economic opportunities for people within Africa. This has resulted in tiny African countries struggling individually to gain access to international markets while ignoring their own market of 800 million Africans. Second, the political industry produces no tangible product that turn can turn around the economic situation in Africa. Instead it breeds corruption."

But what about Live 8? Was it at least more successful than 1985's Live Aid, which saw much of its $280 million in famine relief stolen by Ethiopia's corrupt army? "Yes," Shikwati said. "In 1985 connectivity in the world was limited, and hence many people, especially in Africa, never got to know that some people were singing in order to ‘save them’ from poverty. But last year's event attracted a lot of debate both within and outside Africa on whether ‘sexing up’ African problems can really fix anything."

That debate, at least over here, is typically sidetracked by impossible and irrelevant questions, like whether Geldof and the artists he recruited were simply using Africa to promote their own careers. How then, I asked, do we find some clarity and, in time, a way to pull Africa out of poverty? "You should immediately seek out Africans who have embraced business and invest in them to ensure that such businesses expand and offer solutions to the African people."

Maybe pull isn't the right word. It recalls Lyndon Johnson's 1965 declaration to "take" African-Americans to social equality. That is what struck me most about Shikwati's views: we can't pull, we can't take; at best, we can only facilitate Africa's rise from poverty. To that end, Live 8 may have been worse than poor marketing. It persuaded world leaders to drown a continent in the very aid that keeps its homegrown industries from taking hold, and it fueled our arrogance that a touch of compassion and a ton of self-congratulation are all Africa really needs.

At the same time, I think Live 8 brought us some humility. Maybe when Will Smith led three continents of teens snapping in unison to represent an African child's death every three seconds, or when Bjork returned to the Tokyo stage to channel her influence toward a world that knows nothing of her swan outfit, they saw the shortcomings of worldwide awareness concerts but gave their best anyways. Maybe Live 8, in its own overblown, eccentric way, reminded us we're not doing enough, and we never can, but we have to keep trying because that is what we do.

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