Friday, October 04, 2013

SCANDAL - STANDARD review - my faith is restored

I've just been in my car listening to Scandal's fifth album STANDARD, released yesterday. I'll say straight off that this is one of those albums that makes you take the long way home so you have a little extra time just to hear one more song. It's pretty incredible. But I'll circle back around to why in a minute.

This is actually a bit of a surprise. I've been a fan since 2008, but they'd almost lost me over the past few months. See, they've always been unique in that they're an unabashedly manufactured all female Japanese rock band. (They were put together in similar fashion to the Sex Pistols, according to the band themselves in their NHK BS Artist Documentary.) This is pretty rare in Japan!

"Rock band" is what they were formed as, what they've always called themselves, and in the beginning, rock is all they did. They're not just a bunch of girls that hop around and look cute - they sing, they play, they write (some) songs, and they're great live. They're a fun but powerful band - really, I can't think of a better all-female band ever, anywhere on Earth.

But each album has been a little more pop than the last, and lately they'd seemed to have fallen further into "idol" group territory, complete with auto-tune, full-on dance beats and synthesizers. And I'm not interested in that, not because I hate pop, but because female pop and idol groups in Japan are a dime a dozen. There's nothing unique about it, and no reason to listen to Scandal doing the same thing as any other pop act you could throw a rock while blindfolded in the streets of Tokyo and hit. Here's one. Here's another. Oh look, one more. Does every big female group in Japan have to slide into that eventually? Can't female rock bands just be rock bands?

I have nothing against groups like these - I even kinda like some of 'em, sometimes, although only until the next one comes around. But that's not Scandal. This is Scandal:

That's from the absolutely classic album Temptation Box, their second, which has been among my favorite albums from any band since the day I purchased it. Their next two albums, Baby Action and Queens are Trumps, were both pretty good, but with more gloss and less raw edge. There was a definite progression happening, and I was wary.

So when I see stuff like auto-tune in their concert videos, and then later I hear stuff like "Brand New Wave", I get a little antsy. Did some record label executive finally decide they have this talented girl group that's not selling enough records because they're just too fucking badass for Japan?

"Brand New Wave" was previewed a few weeks ago and ended up leading off their new album STANDARD. The second track on the album is "OVER DRIVE", also their newest single, so this is what's really promoting the album right now. This song was written and produced by Nakata Yasutaka, who also happens to write and produce for Perfume, one of the pop bands linked above. The B-side to that single is "SCANDAL IN THE HOUSE", a rap song, and out of context it's just as ridiculous as it sounds. (Hang on a minute before you fire off that angry comment.)

...da fuck?

All this was almost enough to convince me not to buy STANDARD. In fact, I had all but stopped following them, convinced they had lost their minds. They could have done nothing to promote this album and stood a better chance of taking my money.

In the end, I bought it because I'll be in Tokyo next month, I've already got my concert tickets and they will be playing every song on this album at the show.

So I'll say this: I'm glad their marketing was such a lie. Because this is the best Scandal album since Temptation Box. It might even be better than that.

They seem pretty surprised too.
Seriously, the singles are all the weakest songs on the album! And the b-sides were just all over the place (one was easily good enough to make the album but didn't; another actually is on the album; the last was the rap track embedded above). Here's the first and best of the pre-release singles, but it pales in comparison to the best the album actually has to offer:

The amazing thing is, despite the two leading tracks, this is a great rock album. It's almost like they're trying to trick people into listening to rock music. Chop the head off this beast and you have a classic 11 track rock album rather than a slightly longer collection of songs that seem oddly matched at first.

I'm not going to link to every song on the album because seriously, just buy it and listen all you want (or YouTube it, I don't care), but here's Metronome - if I didn't know better, I'd think this was taken from Temptation Box. But they go even beyond that on this album - there's a noticeable progression from dance pop at the start of the album, into poppier rock, then harder rock, punk, and finally full-on noise rock by the last track (also the title track). Take a listen to STANDARD, turn it up, and stick with it - the end is worth it. On my first skeptical listen to this album, by the end of this song I was banging my head and singing "yeeeeeeeeeah whoooooooa!" with them like an idiot. I was completely won over.

STANDARD (the song) was written and arranged by the band, so this is who they really are when left alone. And you hear this all over the album. It's probably their most rockin' album since BEST SCANDAL, their first, which is saying something, because that album was nothing but rock and punk from beginning to end. But STANDARD (the album) has all the maturity and all the ability they've built up over the years - they're older, wiser and deeper than they used to be, but they're much better musicians now too. I hear them do stuff all the damn time on this album that they wouldn't have even thought to play on BEST SCANDAL.

And somehow, even the pop songs kinda make sense in context. I'll probably never really like "Brand New Wave", but "OVER DRIVE" actually isn't bad if you crank it up and get the bass tones going, and especially if you've listened to the full album a few times and know what's coming next. It's a little bit too "Shiny Happy People" for me, but it's not bad, and it's not like they've never had happy songs in the past.

I'm even able to see "SCANDAL IN THE HOUSE" differently. With their rock band credentials back on solid ground, they've got some street cred to spend on stuff like that. Now it's just them being goofy, which they sometimes just are.

STANDARD is available in the US on iTunes and Amazon MP3. I suggest you buy it.

Technical Comments (for those who care):

* I hate, hate, HATE auto-tune. The first two songs are obviously riddled with it (auto-tune seems to automatically apply itself to Nakata Yasutaka vocals) but I still hear it even through track 3. "Uchiagehanabi", has noticeable stepping during Haruna's vocals, and some during Tomomi's. Stop it, guys! These girls do not need any help - they are great singers!

* Scandal is not immune to the "loudness war" with this CD, as you can see from a snippet of the waveform:

I own all of their CD's and they are not all technically this bad. The most noticeable result of this is that the drums sound almost non-existent in some songs, and just muddy/lo-fi in others. (The pop of the snare and the kick of the bass drum are the two biggest casualties of compressed waveforms.) It's a problem that's easy to hear, especially when comparing this album to some of their older recordings. But sadly, it's almost expected these days...

I would pay extra for a properly mastered version of this album. And I would buy it again.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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