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Monday, October 23, 2006

The Best is Coming, Limited Express (has gone?), Memory Lab

Formed in 1998 and imbued with the genes of the Kansai scene that produced Japanese indie luminaries such as The Boredoms and Shonen Knife, The Best is Coming! is a perfect example of the utter weirdness and fondness for noise that is such a large part of Japanese underground music. It's all here, present and correct: the screechy girl vocals, some in English, some in Japanese, all largely incomprehensible; the day-glo cover adorned with a naïve cartoon; the cacophonous three minute blasts of sound that start, stop, and skitter about like a drunk octopus on ice skates. But the question is, is it any good, or is it just another novelty that seemed like a good idea in the record shop but once home is akin to waking up next to someone who was the living definition of 'sex on legs' last night but in the harsh light of morning is as attractive as a Republican? Luckily this album stays true to the promise it showed on the listening post.

The band set out their stall right from the album opener Sacrificial Jesus Child and don't veer far from it over the next forty minutes. Given that they manage to cram at least three or four separate songs and styles into each track this doesn't mean that The Best is Coming! is boring. False starts and stops, and major changes in time signatures abound here, keeping the listener on their toes and at times driving a reviewer to drink – I lost count of the number of times I had to score out something I'd written about a certain song because said song would suddenly morph into something completely different making whatever I'd written redundant, before changing back into the song it had been before just as I'd finished writing something else. Bastards.

ALOHA! and Sweet music on the Beach are probably the most straightforward songs on the album (in the sense that there are maybe only two separate songs duking it out in the mash up). ALOHA! takes the intro from The Clash's version of I Fought The Law and welds it to a swirling guitar part, while vocalist YUKARI yelps the title over and over. Of course, after a minute or so the scenery changes and we're plunged into a good old-fashioned hardcore thrash where guitarist Jinichiro Iida takes over hollering duties. Sweet music on the Beach is a dramatic change of pace, everything slows down and the spirit of Yo La Tengo seems to possess the band. The lyrics (shared by Iida and YUKARI) are spoken rather than yelled and sound like a stream of consciousness. The feeling of Yo La Tengo-ness is confirmed when the amps are turned up and the previously sedate guitars become a wall of distortion, before dying down and retreating once more into the background.

The stand out tracks on the album though are both towards the end. Stop Go starts off sounding like the intro to a James Brown song, visits dEUS territory, and has a brief flirtation with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Spread Your Love (with a raver's whistle over the top for good measure) before going back to where it started. The military march and the phrasing of the vocals of album closer 2x5=10 make it a distant cousin to PiL's Rise, at least to begin with. As the song goes on YUKARI's vocals become increasingly unhinged and the instruments soon follow suit. It's as if the exertions of the preceding 11 songs have been too much and the band is making one final, demented lunge for the finishing line. It's draining but it's the only way an album like this could end.

The album also comes with a DVD containing promotional videos for Sacrificial Jesus Child and SPY, as well as live footage from both Australia and Japan. The SPY video is much better than the song – its swirling Warholian footage of the band playing looks like a projection from the loft part section of Midnight Cowboy. The live performances are the real gems here though as they make you realise just how adept and tight this band is. They may sound like three people who haven't been introduced playing completely different songs, but watching them live reveals this to be a fine piece of legerdemain on the band's part. Nothing in this apparently lunatic music is left to chance.

The Best is Coming! is not perfect: there are times (on SPY for example) where the 'throw it all in the mixer and see what happens' approach doesn't work and it starts to grate a little, but that's to be expected. Most of the time this album and band are fascinating, and each song reveals something different of itself every time you listen to it. A review of the most recent Mars Volta album said something along the lines that a band who use so many disparate ideas and styles in the space of each song may soon find their creative well has run dry. This is perhaps a problem that Limited Express (has gone?) could face in the future given that they often sound like a condensed Mars Volta, but one whose idea of an epic song is one that clocks in at six minutes rather than sixteen. The similarities are there – the prog rock passages, the changes in time signature, the jazz tinges (especially the drumming), and most importantly, the complete lack of fear and the willingness to try and shoe-horn 101 ideas into one song. This is what makes Limited Express (has gone?) so interesting and it may ultimately turn out to be their undoing, but at least they've got the balls to try. Surely that should be applauded in a world that is becoming ever more homogeneous and averse to risk?