My favorite J-music album so far this year is 4 Bonjour's Parties' debut effort, pigments drift down to the brook, a work that's so different from anything I've heard before that it made me want to go and listen to the group's favorite musicians and influences, to get a sense of their origins. I listened to Yo La Tengo, Broken Social Scene, Architecture in Helsinki, Belle & Sebastian and others that they list as favorites, but that didn't help me much in figuring them out, and there were only trace signs of influence. 4 Bonjour's Parties are original.
They are like a pop chamber orchestra, but one in which almost everyone plays more than one instrument, with the female vocalist Tomomi Shikano handling, for example, the flute, accordion, piano, cello and glocken. (It's fun to see them at shows, changing places during songs to play new instruments, looking like a sliding-block puzzle being solved on the cramped stage.) All the musical colors they produce with their panoply of instruments such as vibraphone, trombone and accordion mix together and drift like streams of sound in their mellow, long songs, the melodies often taking surprising turns, but never in a jarring way—'pigments drift down to the brook', the album's title, is an apt description of their sound.
One of the songs I like most on the album, “Ruins”, starts out dreamily with a keyboard and repeated guitar note, is soon joined by a vibraphone and then flute and trumpet, and it isn't until the minute-and-a-half mark that a female voice is introduced. The remarkable thing about the song is that while it's long, lasting 6 minutes and 43 seconds, there isn't much variation in dynamics and emotion—the feel of the first minute of the song is maintained throughout—yet even so it hooks you. That must be due to the way that the various sounds, including the voices, appear, fade out and intermix without rest—it's 'pop chamber music'. And all 10 songs on pigments are of this nature. (You can listen to the intro of “Ruins” on their MySpace page.)
Frankly, I'm not quite sure how 4 Bonjour's Parties pulled this album off. From what I understand, their song-making is a collaborative effort between the seven members, and the songs are ever-evolving, so the tunes could very well have turned out mediocre and chaotic. Instead, they are beautiful, and the album as a whole has a unified feel. Is one of their members a visionary that was able to lead and shape this musical venture? Or are they just a group that works very well together, so that multiple opinions actually improve, rather than worsen, the final product? I'm not certain, but I get the sense that this band is a rare example of the latter.
It will be interesting to see how 4 Bonjour's Parties follows up on this album. They could keep the sound and feel of the first album, and come up with another collection of laid-back, color-filled, gorgeous songs like pigments. I'm hoping, though, that they will try new things, go on new adventures. They should be able to succeed at that, and give us more fresh music that surprises and delights.