The reputation that had preceded Shugo Tokumaru
before listening to this disc was one of home-recorded-pop mastery. Notes of his use of over 100 instruments abound, as well as his apparently skyrocketing status in his native Japan. Considering the state of lo-fi, bedroom recordings in America, one couldn’t be faulted (I hope) for expecting drugged-out, scuzzy, reverbed, even sadsack from another bedroom record. Instead, as the cutesy MS Paint-style drawings on the cover of Port Entropy
suggest, this is a record bursting at the seems with childlike joy and wonder. The only problem that this sort of enthusiasm can bring, though, is the dreaded “too much”-ness, that moment where you can take no more playfulness, not another layer of offbeat instrumentation, not another high five or wide-eyed smile. While multiple listens in a short span of time may delve solidly into that Too Much realm, the instrumental control and inventiveness, the intensely mastered song-crafting are indeed remarkable.
From the introductory pulse of “Platform”, the disc races off on unexpected twists, seemingly drawn to whatever shiny object is off at the distance, pumping its fist and smiling the whole way. Whistles, triangle, and toy piano all stake their claim for attention, the epic, video game-ish theme rooted in acoustic plucking and barely there vocals aahs. The waltzing guitar of “Tracking Elevator” gets banjo, upright piano, bell, a choir, and more, all adding to a powerfully cute overload. Fans of Sufjan Stevens not too tied to down to lyrics (or those who can speak Japanese) would find this directly on their radar.
Even at its most downtempo, Tokumaru infuses wonder and affect wherever he can find it. “Linne” is a piano-driven ballad with a musical saw solo and intermittent visits from a horn section. The song is pretty and remarkable in its construction (as are most on the record), but its almost like he couldn’t make it pretty enough, daubing on layer after layer. The perfectly pitched pop of “Drive-Thru” is composed of what sounds like percussion played on a kitchen-full of pots, pans, and bottles while countless strata of melodica, guitar, and what may be steel drum drive the melody along.
But when Tokumaru is fun, he’s ridiculously fun. The rapid tin whistle, sleigh bells, guitar, and staccato vocals (adding “and more” at the end of any list of instrumentation should be taken as standard from here on out) on “Lahaha” feels like a run through a candy forest, recorder birds and glockenspiel rivers overloading the senses. The vocals occasionally verge on Sung Tongs era Animal Collective (talk about messed up forest-y feelings on that one), but nothing gets that psychedelic or uncontrolled. Instead, this is an album of total mastery, of control in the face of extreme mass. The endless repetitions of the title of “River Low” similarly evokes Sung Tongs, but the honky-tonk piano, saw, and whistle orchestra are pure, controlled chaos. Things sound totally out of human hands, but close listening would reveal everything fitting into a plan.
And when Tokumaru is too much… The severely over-long choir outro on “Orange” gets an even-longer addition of calliope sounds, discordant whistles, and telephones ringing. The whole thing is tooth-grindingly sweet, a control freak trying to go out of control, which is precisely not where Tokumaru should be going. While Port Entropy certainly holds up to repeat listens, too many in a day might be the wrong idea for this one. It’s a wonderful record of a musician and songwriter in his prime, but one that requires a willingness to go on a ride, with an open mind and a willingness to have some fun.