A funny thing happened on my way to review this album — I couldn’t name another Japanese male singer-songwriter other than Suneo Hair.
It’s easy to name check women singer-songwriters (Yaida Hitomi, Shiratori Maika) or bands with singer-songwriter leanings (Soulsberry, Spitz).
But it takes effort to name solo male singer-songwriters in Japan. Nakamura Kazuyoshi? Saito Kazuyoshi? Suga Shikao? If Suneo Hair lived in the West, name dropping Jason Falkner, David Mead or Badly Drawn Boy would be much easier.
Suneo Hair, ne Watanabe Kenji, plays a similar kind of literate, indie folk rock as his contemporaries this side of the Pacific, but on his major label debut, Sunestyle, he’s not afraid to take out the big guns either.
One of those guns is ambient noise troupe mono, 3/4 of whom contribute their distinct wall of sound to “Pilot Lamp”.
On “Teppen ~Kawaiso Mix~”, Suneo does his best lo-fi Guided by Voices impression by filtering everything through distortion. “Ivory”, meanwhile, flirts with — but never crosses over to — emo territory.
But the one track that epitomizes Sunestyle is “Wake mo Shiranaide”, a bouncy, 60s-meets-90s pop song infectous from verse to chorus to middle eight. Most of the album follows suite.
“Genzai Ichi ~You Are Here~” borrows guitar effects from Joshua Tree-era Edge to produce a slow burner. “Asa no Sukima kara” and “Over the River” call to mind ’70s SoCal folk-rock without tripping into sentinmentality. The heavy reverb on “Slow Boat” gives that song a psychedelic feel as antiquated as it is modern.
The problem with the singer-songwriter genre, however, is its entire reliance on the hook. Suneo could have done his own version of Shiina Ringo’s Karuki Zaamen Kurinohana — a beautiful album devoid of anything that really screams “single” — but it wouldn’t have added much to his rep as a “singer-songwriter”.
Thankfully, Suneo can craft hooks with the best of them.
Sunestyle hangs together incredibly well as an album, even though each song stands on its individual merits.
Vocally, Suneo could be described as “nasal” — like most of his contemporaries in Japan — but unlike, say, Asai Kenichi, he’s far from sounding like a strangled ferret. In other words, his voice doesn’t get in the way of his hooks.
On “Jet”, the closest thing to a power ballad on the album, Suneo delivers a suitably emotional performance, not too wrought to undercut its effect, and nowhere near deadpan to make him too cool.
Sunestyle is an impressively strong debut from a skilled songwriter. Here’s hoping to name check him in the future.