Japanese Breakfast is not a group, nor Japanese, nor a traditional morning meal; It is the solo project of Korean-American Michelle Zauner of the band Little Big League. With her second album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Zauner attempts to give you just that: calm, ambient music with an ethereal cosmic bent. The results are mixed.
I’ve a feeling people will either love this album or find it far too pretentious for it’s own good. As for myself, I fall somewhere in the middle. When Soft Sounds excels, it sounds amazing. But the overall album is surprisingly rocky.
If you’re going to name an album Soft Sounds from Another Planet, the end result should sound somewhat like that. The album is full of light synths, floating in the background. There’s nothing loud, nothing pulsing or pushing forward, it’s what some might term ‘music to nap by.’ Zauner’s vocals are beautifully lazy, occasionally layered on top of each other and distorted that it becomes less of a distinct vocal line and more of vocal noise, Zauner becoming as instrumental (in both senses of the word) as the backing track itself. And yet, it isn’t entirely ambiance. Japanese Breakfast adds in unexpected twists and turns, propping the music up to something more.
Songs like “Boyish” toss in 1960s girl group percussion to offset the ambiance, “The Body is a Blade” expertly uses this little twinkling synth bit, just a smidge out of synch, “Machinest” uses a slightly excessive amount of Autotune. These little moments of incongruity only add to the album as a whole.
I’ll be the first to admit: occasionally the album is mixed in a way that it’s damn hard to hear the lyrics to begin with. This is wonderful for the sound of the album but a bit annoying if you’re trying to review it. It’s a shame because the lyrics are equally beautiful, ethereal and aimless while simultaneously cutting harsh and dipping into the real. “Till Death,” a heartfelt love song to a partner after a turbulent year, starts with this amazingly harsh yet entirely true lyric: “all the celebrities keep dying.” The song sums up just how many people felt about 2016 as a whole, with the slightly cheesy and lullabye-like production belying amazingly real lyrics about how best to survive the turbulence in the first place.
As a whole, the album’s structured oddly. The first half of the album is a seamless whole, while the second half is far too abrupt in places. “12 Steps” sticks out like a sore thumb, a more conventional, radio-friendly alternative sound sandwiched in between “Boyish” and “Jimmy Fallon Big”, two ambient, lilting, lo-fi tracks. It feels like “12 Steps” is the song that has a chance at being a single, the obligatory song that might get play on college radio–because this album, while amazingly experimental with a deliciously solid aesthetic, is not radio friendly in the slightest. Likewise, song lengths are puzzling. “Diving Woman,” the longest song off the album, feels it: you start off the album with a slog of a song, a very gusty move that I’m not certain entirely works. The album ends with “Here Come the Tubular Bells”, a piece that’s less than a minute and cuts off right as it starts to get interesting. You could tell that Zauner was having fun with the settings and seeing what she could squeeze out of the tubular bells sound–why not embrace it and make a longer track?
All in all, Soft Sounds is such an interesting album. It’s remarkably well-crafted ambient, experimental pop with so much time and effort put into it. The album succeeds in drawing you in and lulling you to listen, without being too drab or too sleepy. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those interested in ambiance or experimental pop? Give it a try. It certainly won’t disappoint.