Sunday, January 21, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 6

Asobi Seksu

It starts with 17 seconds of softly chirping electronics. Seventeen seconds for you to prepare yourself.

Not nearly long enough.

The next 47 minutes and 15 seconds fall somewhere between heaven and a head rush. Bells ring; guitars jangle and fuzz; the bass rattles; the drums thunder; Yuki Chikudate's angelic voice sails through the verses and soars through the choruses. With an oceanic pull, the songs swell and crash, only to rush to greater heights, sweeping you away in surge after surge of exhilaration.

Faster, faster, faster! the band seems to urge in the final leg of the first full-length song, "Strawberries," before giving way to a gurgle of guitar. But it's just a prelude to the glory of "New Years," which explodes from the speakers like a solar flare.

Such is the volatile nature of Citrus by New York-based band Asobi Seksu. Songs are studies in elemental intensity, intermittently churning, reacting, combusting.

Album centerpiece "Red Sea" moves from barely audible synths to a taut tom groove and begins layering: a guitar line, a few plucks of the bass, louder washes of keyboard, vocals, another riff, a drum fill. When the chorus hits, so does a mass of popping snare and hissing hi-hats. The sequence repeats, but more rapidly. As wave after fuzzy wave rolls and breaks, Chikudate's voice struggles to be heard above the tempest: "You said the first time was so perfect / but the rest was all just wrong."

At other times, Citrus highlights Asobi Seksu's '80s pop leanings, such as "Goodbye," which features glockenspiel in the intro, a frolicking beat reminiscent of The Cure and an everybody-sing-along refrain.

Whether singing about "deafening strawberries" or a dying relationship, Chikudate suffuses her words with emotion. Two of the songs are in Japanese, but you don't have to understand the lyrics to "Mizu Asobi" to appreciate its giddiness.

The jingle bells and la-la-la chorus don't need translation.

But, overall, the album is about sonics, not lyrics.

With Citrus, producer and mixer Chris Zane might have been aiming to replicate the textures on My Bloody Valentine's landmark guitar album "Loveless." And while Kevin Shields' studio alchemy remains singular, there's something special here.

Apparently favoring treble over bass, Zane captures a crispness of tone along with thin echoes that imply spaciousness, giving the album a feeling of winter rather than summer. The vocals, for the most part, are gauzy. On "Lions and Tigers," they traverse the same distant, echoey territory that deflected Aimee Mann's voice so beautifully on 'Til Tuesday's hit "Voices Carry."

On "Nefi + Girly," Chikudate pleads, "Disconnect the feeling factory."

Too late.

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