Axis power

Japanese kraut rock? Fujiya & Miyagi really aren't either
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It has been noted in the mostly laudatory press surrounding their collection of 10-inch EPs, Transparent Things (Tirk/Word and Sound), that Fujiya & Miyagi aren't Japanese. Nor are they a duo. They are in fact three white friends from Brighton, England, whose openly acknowledged obsession with Neu's motornik pulse and Can's subdued funk has resulted in some very infectious, kraut-tinged electronic pop songs as well as gentle speculation about whether Fujiya & Miyagi are simply derivative or being cheekily open about their influences.

Anticipating their critics, the band even declare at one point as a chorus, "We're only pretending to be Japanese!" But Fujiya & Miyagi seem too polite to be doing all this as a piss-take, yet too self-conscious to claim sui generis innocence by way of a strange musical synchronicity. After all, I don't think I am the only person who thought they were Japanese when I first heard them.

To some extent, all bands wear their record collections on their sleeves early on. Some simply loathe admitting it. Initial Stereolab singles were basically remakes of Neu's "Hallo Gallo" (although so were Neu's subsequent albums) with vocal window dressing snatched from '60s French yé-yé pop. It was the unexpected synthesis of the two that made them sound so fresh. By now Fujiya & Miyagi's warm-cold instrumentation — guitars compressed into brittle chirps, warm analog synth washes, percoutf8g drum machines — is a familiar palette (again, think Stereolab or some DFA productions), but David Best's vocal style fogs up the transparency of the homage.

Best's clipped, affectless approach works well to underscore his distanced lyrics, whether he's detachedly recounting the scuffs incurred while falling in and out of love ("Collarbone" and "Sucking Punch," respectively) or cataloging the commodities around him ("Transparent Things"). His rolled r's and staccato delivery also uncannily invoke the quieter Damo Suzuki of Can's 1972 album, Ege Bamyasi, or the 1973 disc Future Days (both Mute).

Granted, James Murphy stands accused of swagger-jacking Mark E. Smith's extra syllables (Smith, appropriately enough, donned Suzuki vocal drag for the Fall's "I Am Damo Suzuki" — perhaps Fujiya & Miyagi's chief precedent). And Beck's skinny-white-boy take on Prince circa Midnite Vultures (Interscope, 1999) is no more or less suspect than Justin Timberlake's Off the Wall falsetto.

Appropriation is an old and often circular debate in music, one inflected by racial politics as much as the vagaries and entitlements enabled by whatever strength so-called postmodernism still holds as a position. The earnest love of kraut Fujiya & Miyagi see reflected in their music may come off as a studied imitation to some, but when "Collarbone" hits its breakdown, and Best breathily beatboxes the old "knee bone connected to the shin bone" nursery rhyme like he wants to rock your body, Fujiya & Miyagi momentarily sidestep the anxiety of influence and become simply a great pop group. *

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