In March, a mysterious figure called The Japanese House released their first-ever track, ‘Still.’ It was a minimal, moody piece of work from a person who clearly loved using vocoders and enjoyed experimenting with auto-tune (in a good way). At the time it was quite difficult to garner any information about the shadowy figure behind the project, yet the track still got one of its first major plays on one of Zane Lowe’s last Radio 1 shows. It soon emerged that The Japanese House was the project of 20-year-old Londoner Amber Bain, and on her debut EP Pools To Bathe In, released in April, she’d made a short collection of tunes that were atmospheric, emotional and touched on a wide range of genres.
Her latest effort, Clean, might come just a few months after her debut but it shows that Bain is far from being short on ideas. This is another sample of unique and atmospheric and emotional music that pulls at the heartstrings and the mind. The opening title track becomes the perfect introduction to Bain’s work. From its beginnings, with just a smattering of pretty, glassy bells and Bain’s pitch-shifted voice – often evocative of Fever Ray and the more experimental works of Imogen Heap – we’re lead into a dark realm of glitchy synth-based brass and mournful lyrics.
The tone changes somewhat with ‘Cool Blue,’ perhaps Bain’s poppiest and happiest work to date. It’s built on a foundation of Bain’s exquisite guitar-playing, which often forms loops of its own and creates tropical soundscapes. Here, the underlying chords are deeply reminiscent of the opening to Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World,’ and Bain layers everything from delicate acoustic picking to fuzzed-out beats over the top. It’s surprisingly simple, yet its repetitive nature never niggles.
‘Letter By The Water’ also begins with Bain’s strumming but, in a case of once again changing the tone, it slowly builds into one of the heaviest tracks Bain has recorded. The chorus contains a crushing riff and clashing drums that completely contrasts against the understated verses, where Bain’s voice is accompanied only by a very simple guitar melody and occasional ethereal harmonies.
The dropping away of the melody at the end of ‘Letter By The Water’ lets Bain’s melancholic lyrics stand on their own: “current come and pull me down.” Even on the poppiest moments of ‘Cool Blue’ there’s a distinct sense of miserableness about The Japanese House’s work and that all comes to a head in final track ‘Sugar Pill.’ It may eventually adopt a dancefloor-friendly beat but it also has incredibly discordant synths and a haunting, minor-key piano. But it’s some of the lyrics on ‘Sugar Pill’ that are particularly disturbing. “You can use my ribcage as a pillow. it doesn’t suit me/ I feel flimsy when I grin,” Bain sings, casting off her signature voice distortions for a moment of raw vulnerability and a glimpse of a figure that isn’t entirely comfortable in their own skin.
The deeply troubling structure and content of ‘Sugar Pill’ belies the confidence with which Amber Bain has constructed a distinctive and engaging persona in The Japanese House. Intelligent and unafraid to experiment while still maintaining a core sound, Clean is proof that Bain is a talent to be nurtured.
Clean is out now.
Image: Dave Ma