Comparisons to Cornelius are inevitable–there are more than a few similarities. Shugo is a slight Japanese music wizard who has a sweet voice and an unabashed obsession with sound. He writes soaring, breezy, densely-packed pop songs, some with a delicate bossa nova feel. But Tokumaru’s music lacks one important element that sets him apart from his compatriot: balls.
I should have known what I was getting myself into when I saw that the show was 18+. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an agist, but entertainment aimed at a younger crowd is almost invariably vapid, and that’s what this turned out to be. Tokumaru himself is an immensely talented musician and songwriter, as are his five multi-instrumentalist bandmates. He floated onstage, lighter than a feather, slung his telecaster (which probably weighs more than he does) over his shoulder, and proceeded to wow the college dormmate packed house with his technical prowess. I was also kind of blown away at first, but that feeling quickly subsided.
Shugo can play…really, really well. So can his bandmates. One gets the impression that they’re all very studied musicians. Buuut…they don’t rock. There was no dirt, no funk…no balls. Everything is pretty and happy; even the parts that are maybe meant to come off as sad or aggressive are still lightweight and happy. The atmosphere they create is way too giddy with too many (literal) bells and whistles. Nearly every band member has cute little cymbals and percussion devices. Every song there’s popping and clicking and clapping and snapping…and toys! So many toys! There’s nothing wrong with having fun at a concert, but this was overkill. Shugo’s sweet chipmunk voice, accompanied by accordion and multiple melodicas, makes you feel like helium is being pumped into the room, like you’re spinning in a giant cotton candy machine that’s being elevated into some rarified super happy dimension. The music itself is frustratingly complex, the songs rich and sophisticated but ultimately overwhelming. Even the most severe case of ADHD will not be bored at a Shugo show as there are a thousand little sonic details nipping at your brain at every moment. Like some sort of immersive Wii concert, each player is tapping away at his instrument in the hopes of winning some shiny prize at the end of each song. I was hoping they’d vary the pace by playing a slower number, like the beautifully spare “Tightrope” from his latest album, but instead the band kept up its relentless hyper pace* And then he covered “Video Killed the Radio Star” on ukelele.
It’s a rare treat to get a unique and talented artist like Shugo to come over from Japan, and it was a deal at $12, but his brand of sugary pop turned out to be too cloying for my taste.
*he may have played this for an encore but I couldn’t endure
P.S. If you want to see a Japanese band with balls, do not miss Guitar Wolf at The Satellite, October 13