Painting within the lines

Garnet Crow is nothing if not genteel.

Restrained arrangements, programmed rhythms, tasteful acoustic guitar flourishes — Garnet Crow has AAA Radio stamped all over them. That is, of course, if Japan had such a radio format.

Garnet Crow’s first album, First Soundscope ~Mizu no Nai Hareta Sora He~, can be described with all the adjectives used somewhat derisively by non-fans of light jazz-pop — soothing, polished, unintrusive, pretty.

In this case, all those descriptive words are compliments. Garnet Crow may paint well within the lines of acceptable hit-making jazz-pop parameters, but they do it incredibly well.

That is, the band’s songwriting is strong enough to make even casual fans of so-called business jazz take notice.

“Kimi no Ie ni Tsuku Made Zutto Hashitte Yuku” sounds like an ethereal, folk-pop tune Clannad should have written around the time of Anam. Even the saxophone work doesn’t interfere.

“Natsu no Maboroshi” borrows a few of Ace of Base’s drums samples, but Garnet Crow stamps its own identity over those bouncy beats.

For the most part, Garnet Crow subscribe to a very bright, optimistic sound. Even when the band venture into dark territory, it’s more introspective than brooding.

“Rhythm” is drenched in a minor key, but it’s driving backbeat prevents it from being too dark.

“flying” starts off with an ominous hook, but when singer Nakamura Yuri reaches the chorus, a bit of sunny-ness peeks through the song’s cloudiness.

The band has an interesting split of duties. Nakamura writes most of Garnet Crow’s songs, and even though she’s the singer, the group’s lyrics are written by keyboardist Nana Azuki. Second keyboardist Furui Hirohito arranges all the tracks.

What results is a set of solidly built performances. Sure, the mostly keyboard-driven songs give Garnet Crow’s music a somewhat cold and precise feel, but the band knows how to adorn those base tracks with warmth.

Washes of strings, layers of chiming guitars, a chorus of background vocalists — First Soundscope easily avoids the cookie cutter trap of most Japanese pop music.

First Soundscope is an impressive debut by a band that does a stellar job of stretching the boundaries of pop music’s limits without breaking them.