Ocean Shores – Luminous Romance

Illuminated Paths (IP-382), 2017

Sliding between genre borders, Luminous Romance from Ocean Shores is a wondrous and intriguing piece of work. Buried under lo-fi static like the best mallsoft, defined by simple looped retro-plunderphonic melody, and versatile enough to dwell in the background or as primary audio, it’s an album that shows a marked evolution from earlier releases.

As its name implies, Ocean Shores aims at capturing the relaxing sound of beach-music ambience. Most tracks feature a guitar or horn melody that drifts through loops with airy ease; some of these tunes may be recognizable as instrumental easy-listening versions of pop songs, but with Luminous Romance, Ocean Shores has either nabbed from the fringes of obscurity, or is now using original compositions. I suspect the latter. Gone, too, are the well-used “weather channel” samples and broken transmission structure; it’s now mostly about the music alone.

Mostly. One of the techniques that Ocean Shores has used is manipulation of static; at unanticipated intervals, the music will become even more drowned and fuzzy than it usually does. This effect plays a couple of important roles. First, it adds a layer of drama that keeps one’s ear guessing. More impressively, it creates a sense of place: the changes could be caused by an old-school radio losing its signal, or by the natural distortion of the listener diving underwater, whether the radio is poolside, at the edge of the beach, or on the deck of a boat drifting lazily in the shallows. It’s much more organic now, and as a result, more effective.

“Return” is vintage Ocean Shores, enhanced and refined, with a perfectly timed break and guitar chords that don’t stick to your brain quite enough, bearing you along the gauzy summer afternoon. “Not Enough Time in the World” starts hesitantly, as if the radio is searching for a clear signal, then locks in, the saxophone capturing timeless connection and possibility – this is a luminous romance after all. The wonderfully loungey “Perfume and Cigarettes” perfectly illustrates the unknown potential of new romance, while the repeating (and irresistible) melody would appear to hint that the whole thing is ephemeral, despite its initial allure. Similarly, the flamenco-style string-plucks of “Meaningless” are a nod to the joys of the superficial, and the links to intentionally soporific mallsoft are impossible to ignore. Well played, Ocean Shores.

Luminous Romance ventures beyond the gauzy sands and waters, however. The album’s second half delves into the experimental. The bittersweet synths of “Window of Opportunity” carry a tinge of regret – one of the first times Ocean Shores has let it slip – while the loops retain the mallsoft connection. “Patience” is its atmospheric cousin, with light congos and airy keyboards wavering with a touch of shadow. The metaphorical sunset continues with the chimes of “Closing Time,” as beautiful as they are melancholic, before the downtempo guitar of “There is No Escape” sadly watches the vestiges of light shimmer on the shrinking waves.

Luminous Romance can surely be labeled idealistic – a large part of the attraction – but there’s a retro kitsch that makes the whole thing just a tiny bit insincere, and endearingly so. Is nostalgia’s hold as strong when you know it’s nostalgia? I, for one, am unsure. I’m far more certain, however, that Ocean Shores is a sneakily talented assembler of vibe, with just a bit of commentary gliding beneath the glossy surface. Come to Luminous Romance for the bright melody, sun-soaked atmosphere, and radio-broadcast audio trickery, but stay for the passing hints of buried meaning.

Donovan Hikaru – Kiosk Vibes

bandcamp, 2016

Donovan Hikaru, arguably the most ambitious executive of the corporate-wave genre, has set his sights on a new prize: the shopping mall. At first, this might seem like an odd choice, until one remembers the lucrative possibilities of the retail industry; ah yes, the profit-minded Donovan will fit right in. Conceptual pondering aside, what makes David Jackman’s music so gratifying is how easily and creatively it fits into its target concept: a soundtrack to his alter ego’s global business ventures. Mallsoft functions in much the same way, aiming to provide an ambient backdrop to the shopping experience. Whether focused on field recordings taken from real-life malls or on the “muzak” that often drifts through those cavernous monuments to commerce (or both), mallsoft is a curious, intentionally non-intrusive style of ambient.

While Kiosk Vibes, the first mallsoft foray from Donovan Hikaru, follows some of the sub-genre’s established rules, it’s first and foremost a DH record. The five tracks (with a sixth available on a very limited CD-R, along with a background story showing that the music is indeed a soundtrack) have an intentionally muffled sound, making the music sound like it’s being heard from a distance. This technique is a defining characteristic of the mallsoft style – it’s background music after all – and it’s a highly effective one, creating an accurate audio illusion of vast grand spaces.

Like usual, however, there’s more to Donovan Hikaru than meets the ear. Beneath the expected muted layering of Kiosk Vibes courses the same unexpected and exuberant lifeblood of past DH albums, manifested as melodic energy and groovy hooks. There’s also not a single drop of the marketing cynicism or mindless consumerism that defines many mallsoft records; Kiosk Vibes is about exploring the wonders of one’s surroundings rather than making an economical statement.

As with most Donovan Hikaru releases, there’s practically zero sampled ambiance. The music is the focus, rather than a collage of assembled samples. The buried sound palette might catch DH fans off-guard at first, but the effect is smoothly implemented, and one’s ears quickly adjust. Beneath the thick hazy synths, the romantic vibe of “Nighttime Promenade” and the wavering “Concierge” include the classy saxophone melodies that have always a vital part of Donovan’s musical DNA.

The middle three tracks, however, are pure synth, and show Kiosk Vibes at its most experimental. “Mint Chocolate Chip” features the same kind of irresistible keyboard hook that Donovan has always specialized in; the jangling off-key stab that bursts forth as the track winds down is exactly the kind of left-of-center detail that sets Jackman’s work apart from his peers. It also enhances the track’s carnival-like feel; anyone who’s been to an ice-cream parlor will undoubtedly take note of the perfect nostalgia of this track. The heavily reverbed drums, floating melody, and light synth taps of “Macys Run” are delightfully retro, while remaining perfectly suited to the mallsoft vibe. “Lost in the Galleria” portrays the joy of losing one’s way in a brightly lit commercial paradise. Rather than a panicked or stressful feel, the beatless wandering keys are drenched in comforting whimsy; this Galleria is a safe haven for the aimless. While there aren’t many tracks in the Donovan discography that are free from beats, they’re all superb, and “Lost in the Galleria” is no exception.

Kiosk Vibes is a departure for Donovan Hikaru, but it’s a skillfully subtle one. There’s no celebratory buffet or San Tablos sunset here, but the music – and equally important, the conceptual aesthetic – retains the same playfully experimental vibe that has defined Donovan Hikaru since his first appearance. Jackman is a talented musical sandboxer, happily toying with genre convention while indulging his catchy songwriting verve, and this release shows there’s more to DH than the corporate boardroom and huge expense accounts. If Donovan Hikaru is indeed turning his attention to new financial vistas to conquer, Kiosk Vibes is strong evidence that his off-kilter quirk will remain as engaging as ever.

Leisure Centre – High Fashion

Adhesive Sounds (AS076), 2016

One of the things that makes mallsoft an interesting genre is the crowd-watching ambiance. When it’s done well – and it’s especially important for mallsoft to be produced at a high level of audio engineering, otherwise the purpose of it is crippled – it’s one of the most immersive subgenres of vaporwave, if not ambient music as a whole. To be able to create a specific type of audio image, particularly one that succeeds at mimicking the experience of wandering through a shopping mall, or just sitting, listening to the drifting muzak and experiencing the randomness of crowds, takes strong technical skill as well as a keen sense of aesthetics. Palm Mall by 猫 シ Corp is arguably one of the best pure examples of mallsoft, but others have taken the formula and tweaked it for their own expression.

I didn’t much care for High Fashion at first. Leisure Centre’s first release is very clearly mallsoft, but with an important difference: rather than the crowd ambiance at the forefront, it’s been moved to the background, while the musical element has become the focus. It took me a bit of time to adjust to this new interpretation, but once I got used to it, I realized that what Leisure Centre has done is just as worthy of praise as anything in the subgenre.

High Fashion is ten tracks of versatile and unintrusive ambient, with the noise of the crowds swirling just below the surface. The field recordings are always present, becoming more audible at times, while staying in the echoing distance at others. This technique gives the album a three-dimensional feel, as if each track is from a different store or particular area of what must be a massive indoor shopping complex indeed. The music does contain the light airy melodies so common to shopping-conscious vaporwave, with minimal melodies that float lazily through your mind days after listening. My favorite of these is “ピーク業務時間”, which I’m sure will rise to the surface of my conscious years from now, and I’ll wonder where I’d been when I heard it.

Leisure Centre doesn’t stop there. You’ll hear downtempo electro-style basslines, harps, dreamily wandering French female singing, slowly shuffling percussion, lonely guitar plucking, and a variety of delicate synthwork. High Fashion would be a wonderful album just on the merits of its music alone, but the constantly shifting ocean of crowd noise adds an entire layer of ambient immersion, moving the album into a completely different musical territory. Seamless ambience can’t be taken for granted, and when’s it’s connected to highly effective music as it is here, the effectiveness instantly jumps a few levels.

Once I got the hang of what Leisure Centre did, High Fashion became a playlist mainstay for far longer than I anticipated. It’s carefully and cleanly assembled, always with the bigger picture in mind. Adhesive Sounds has become one of my favorite labels, and with albums as focused and hypnotic as High Fashion, it’s no surprise. Leisure Centre’s wonderfully conceived and organically executed debut has vaulted up my best-of-the-year list in short order.