Thursday, April 26, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW - World's End Girlfriend - Starry Starry Night Soundtrack

By Steve Jones.

World's End Girlfriend is the stage name of Katsuhiko Maeda.  Starry Starry Night is a Taiwanese film.  This is the soundtrack for it, released April 13th on Maeda's own Virgin Babylon Records label.

In the spirit of transparency, I have two significant biases going into this review.  First, I have not seen this film, nor do I know what it is about, so I'm judging the soundtrack purely as a piece of music and not as the accompaniment it is intended to be.  Second, I am a diehard World's End Girlfriend fan, to the point that I got excited seeing Maeda's signature on the envelope my CD arrived in.

Just so you know.

Starry Starry Night has a soundtrack that is pleasant enough that it shouldn't offend anybody, but you might find it unremarkable for that same reason. It is meant to support what appears to be a fairly light film, so it lacks much of Maeda's playful experimental side that has resulted in modern classical/post-rock masterpieces that are The Lie Lay Land and Hurtbreak Wonderland, as well as the significantly more unclassifiable Seven Idiots.  What does shine through these short 40 minutes, however, is Maeda's knack for great melody and superb arrangement, resulting in tracks which do not distract unless you want them too.

"Storytelling" and "Smile" add a vocal dimension (courtesy of folk singer Shione Yukawa) that hasn't been around since his early collaborations with Piana on Farewell Kingdom.  "Storytelling" really sounds like it belongs in a movie trailer--it's poppy, classically influenced, and there's even a bit of post-rock in there. It'd be the kind of song I could dismiss easily as cheesy if not for the amazing way it utilizes the saxophone. Of course, that may make it even more cheesy to some listeners, but I love the way its introduction blends perfectly with Shione's voice. "Storytelling" is probably the most straightforward pop song Maeda has ever composed, and it makes sense as the album's lead "single."

The rest of the songs venture further into incidental music, with some tracks harkening to World's End Girlfriends earlier, more ambient days. "Three-Legged Elephant," stripped of some ornamentation, could almost have fit on Ending Story, with the atmospheric string synths backing up the actually plucked pizzicato. And like much of Maeda's earlier Air Doll soundtrack, "The Little Finger" brings to mind the delicate waltzes of a Yann Tiersen soundtrack.

"Night Floater" goes full noir with a killer saxophone solo and makes for my favorite offering from the album. It's a wonderful example of how an arrangement can complement a melody to evoke a specific kind of atmosphere, and I wish the piece were about ten minutes longer so I could use it to soundtrack some long walks through the city at night. The closing track "Our Footsteps are Music" sounds like a successor to "River was Filled with Stories," the heartbreaking conclusion of the album Hurtbreak Wonderland.

Overall, although there's a purveying sense of whimsy that unites these twelve tracks, each piece brings a little something different that saves this soundtrack from sounding plodding and samey.  The album in a word is "pretty."  Not gorgeous, not beautiful, but definitely very pretty and airy and pleasant. It's not the best introduction to World's End Girlfriend, and there may not be a whole lot here for non-fans of WEG, but it's worth a listen if you need something for the background. At his most restrained, Maeda still manages to showcase his songwriting prowess, even if some track do feel more phoned-in than others. Of course there's no way it can compare to his past opuses, but Starry Starry Night serves as a pleasant enough distraction while we wait for our minds and ears to be warped by World's End Girlfriend's next full length.

Score: Strong 7/Lite 8

If you wish to support the artist, you can buy the CD directly from Maeda's own label right here at the Virgin Babylon Records Unsupermarket.  I highly recommend you, as it comes with a bonus disc of extra soundtrack cuts, and maybe even a World's End Girlfriend rarity or two.  Plus, 200 yen for international shipping is a steal, let me tell you.

(Steve Jones did not cut off any of his ears during the writing of this review. Stay up-to-date on his ear status by following his Twitter @vestenet.)

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