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  • Writer's pictureMario

The Lobby | SHINTARO SAKAMOTO - HOW TO LIVE WITH A PHANTOM (2011)



Sitting with an album like this and writing about it is a more humbling process than anything previously concocted within my very infantile set of writings. Keeping a sorry ass sat on a throne of air will only get a critic so far, they will eventually need to realize that there are many paracosms of which they know little to nothing about. Whether it’s the scene of a different country, a genre, a timeframe of which a movement of music was at an unprecedented heyday, whatever, there will always be blindspots to every last writer on this forsaken planet. Want a good example? Here’s my taking a look at How to Live With a Phantom (2011, Zelone) from one Shintaro Sakamoto, an artist originally from a rather successful psych-garage-kraut-pop rock outfit which found prominent success within its home location of Japan, but relatively no fanfare outside the country.


This would be his first album following the disbandment of that band in 2010. This is as much of a reading “experience” for you as it is a learning experience for me. That’s one of the main attractions towards music, isn’t it? The endless arrays in which people all over the world arrange sounds to be filtered by everyone’s own tastes and experiences, and the glee people tend to have in learning of different scenes and genres and folklores within each nation’s smidgens and crannies of communities, further helping us capitalize on the inquisitive nature of our species. Right, the album.


This album endeavours within the realm of soft-rock and more contemporary and friendly atmospheres of rock and pop (which makes the endeavour more or less a stroll along the backyard than a mountain exhibition). In a Phantom Mood makes sure the audience gets this memo pronto, and through the pleasant arrangements and more interesting percussion managements, a flaw is present mere seconds after the listener registers the beginning of the song: Sakamoto likely isn’t the right singer for this role. He partakes more in the yelling sort of pop vocals in a piece that is particularly laid back, not hectic or to be met with climax by any means. A spirit of spectacle lost within a forest of the inoffensive.


You Just Decided treads along grounds mere feet away from the footprints of the previous song. The guitars, friendly. The bass, doing its job. The drums and other percussion elements (likely a bongo although you can never be sure), providing a perfectly competent spine for the songs. The vocals remain as eccentrically expressed in a way not particularly adding much to the album. The saxophone should provide a break, a breath of fresh air, but it more or less reminds you of what you’re hearing: a batch of freshly prepared songs, newfangled thoroughbreds perfectly suiting a wait at a dentist’s clinic; even worse, sitting through a commercial for some beachside resort the name of which you’ll likely forget before the next advertisement even begins.


Maybe his vocals just aren’t well produced, because it paints a very harsh and contrasting black paint all over this pleasant tidal wave painting. May I state again, not in a respectable nor daring fashion. My Memories Fade provides an experience that makes the song border on eponymous, because the only thing I’ll likely remember is the organ linking beat four and one. This album currently fails to be melodically interesting. Mask On Mask, however, immediately paints a proper break from this eldritch monotony by letting a good amount of funk command the wheel. Sure, the vocals still aren’t particularly up to par (god forbid whatever they’re going for melodically), but the genre switch is a drop of water in this desert of ideas, and thankfully the percussions are experimented with just a bit more. The horns (yes, plural) help supply so much more flesh to this otherwise anorexic artistic exhibition. Perhaps it’s the length that holds this piece back. I’d be fine if Sakamoto ditched the lyrics to let the music speak for itself, but given I’m more of an English speaker, I feel as if such a grudge has something more to do with his voice than anything.


A Stick And Slacks you can imagine would translate better into a new-wave hangover than this uninteresting affair currently shown. If You Just Decided is the beach commercial of the album, this is the hospital wait. It’s the album’s magnum opus in terms of instilling a deep discomfort within the listener, and teasing us with not going many places. It’s that one step taken in the middle of the night to not wake anyone up shortly after scouring the fridge for a snack. This song is bright as the moon of such a night: because it reflects whatever’s left of something that is actually brilliant.


A Gleam of Hope brings back that heart monitor of an organ, almost serving as a diversion from the other contents within the album. And you know what? I’ve sat through this song for quite a while now and one thing can be made of it otherwise: what a worthless distraction. To listen through this again would be to lodge myself into a brazen bull on my own accord. Nothing else can be deduced because nothing is there, it’s a room furnished by air. No wonder the best ripen young. What about Dancing With Pain? Well, it seems a bit more interesting in what the main hook seems to provide. A flute, thank god. I’ve been waiting for a change that turned out to be worth it. But, wait. Here’s another thing that has now dawned on me.


Who can you imagine listening to this song closely to achieve their own little acre of heaven? This is one of the more interesting cuts off the album and yet this further emphasizes a problem that’s been seeping in more and more, like a leak causing a bulb on the roof. A lot of this album is inoffensive, rope-a-dope, unintriguing ass-extracted distractions. There’s such a lack of substance here that the fucking DEA would be jealous, not proud. There isn’t a single inkling of an earworm here, not a singular femtometer. Instead, such a notion is replaced with paradoxically “melodic” parasites that slowly wriggle into your brain and cleave away at the parts that really matter just to make you a wee bit more stupid. God, and this cowshit lullaby Something’s Different further reinforces it. Listen to it if it even spares you the privilege to focus on it. Listen to those awful electronic percussion inclusions, those awkward claps, the uninteresting, bland, tar-slathered, incompetent, impotent, boring vocals that sound just as uninterested in the mere idea of this substandard music as you are. And you know what? This song knows what mercy is, because it learns to cut itself off before it hits the three-minute mark. Thank every last mythological figure for that. Sakamoto’s solo career pinnacle shouldn’t be a fucking elevator wait.


But, hey, maybe we’ve gone too far off the rails; or rather, I have. Let’s have a more sobered look at the title track, How to Live With a Phantom. This is music made for a proper lulling to sleep, forget the previous track. There isn’t much sugar coating within this song, it’s more or less flour being poured over it. The drums seem a bit too concrete in their rhythm to be “smooth”, it simply comes off as artificial and unnecessarily awkward. The harmonica, though, is a standout. Not because it is great by any means, but because it’s such a refreshing break from the same-y greyness that so many of these songs seem to indulge in. The drums do remain steadfast in being awkward, the bass and guitars don’t provide much, but hey! It’s an improvement.


Small But Enough. This remains in my head for the reason that it reminds me of any song from Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, in which it follows a similar supposedly sophisticated pulsation but accomplishes very little at all musically. Sakamoto also follows an equally concerning vocal performance in a similar light to Eno’s own vocals, although maybe just a few bits worse. One thing I can thank this song for is the fact that it feels as if it goes somewhere. Around the halfway stretch, a few more layers build onto it, which also begs the question as to why the hell Sakamoto didn’t go out of his way to let other songs develop as accordingly as this. But wait. It should have ended around the 4:30 mark tops. Instead it teases along the six-minute range because this rite just needs a dealbreaker.


You know, after that closing track, I’ve also learned that negative reviews are important too. Sometimes it’s better off letting the timebomb tick down to zero to just sit back with your feet up on the glass balcony and let the impending shockwave leave shards grazing and impaling your legs and feet because it turns out that was a critically bad idea. This album’s finest moments come in one of the blandest colours available. But at its worst, this album can’t help but grant its every layer the privilege of pissing off the listener. Whatever “soft genius” persists within these contents and other reviews come off as merely illusory. I bet to the two people that would likely care to read on what I have to say, this album wouldn’t cause nearly as much impact. I guess another benefit about doing something like this (despite more mountainous detriments as past greats have exacerbated) is that when the readers don’t think you’re full of shit, they’ll try to figure you out. Every last word is a batch of micrometric clues that lead to mere dust, electron-crumb trails. I also realize that I’m likely way too early in the game to be writing down stuff like this anyway, but whatever.


A particularly fun sub-genre is figuring out where the genre preferences and biases sway, where the imperfections exist. A damning spotlight of evidence seems to arrive when a soft-rock, more supposedly sophisticated pop album marches into the commonly merciless field of view of the kind of putz that would be writing something like this, like two eternal lighthouse eyes. It becomes ever more damning when such an album tends to nearly ruin that person’s day. Is this called How to Live With a Phantom because the bystanders of those who have finished listening to this staled-out mud pie begin looking like they’ve seen a ghost?


There’s a significant struggle considering this album any worse than it is. That is likely because there isn’t all that much psychological abuse fired the listener’s way, more or less an account of every single one of a person’s most unremarkable moments that have occurred within their month. I guess this album is what those fancy, sanctimonious sorts would decree as “ersatz.”


Score: 4.5/10.

Trajectory of listens past the first: negative.

Written 2/13/2023, 8:40 - 10:08 PM.

-Mario


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