Fear not the twang

Japan is the second largest music market in the world, and there isn’t a single genre musicians from the country haven’t mastered and made their own. Except one.


More specifically, twang.

Annoying though the habit of finding “Japan’s answer” to Björk or Courtney Love or Radiohead may be — something other Japanophile sites have accused Musicwhore.org of doing too often — it’s pretty much not an issue where country is concerned.

Because really — who qualifies as Japan’s answer to Patsy Cline or Johnny Cash?

Shinohara Rika isn’t the most striking songwriter in Japan, and the fact she lists Sheryl Crow as a reference point in her English-language press material isn’t much of a selling point.

But she is incredibly brave for one reason — she’s not afraid of the twang.

“Stay on the line”, from 2002’s Daylight, is up front and unabashed about it. “Waste Beer” starts off with the kind of folk guitar strumming you’d find on murder ballads. “Short Song” barely disguises its 2/2 country beat.

Even when Shinohara offers more straight-forward singer-songwriter fare, the sound of the proverbial lost highway isn’t too far away.

“Vegas 66”, one of Daylight‘s overtly rock tracks, gives just a hint of country during the song’s bridge. And the only thing separating “Rest of the Night” from its southern rock origins is Shinohara herself — ‘cos this song would sound very different with Gretchen Wilson or Sara Evans singing it.

The idea of a Japanese singer-songwriting penning country-influenced music sounds, well, wrong, and sometimes, some things do get lost in translation. (Witness: visual kei.)

But Shinohara manages to pull it off. She’s assimilated the writing style of Crow and Suzanne Vega, and her folk-ready voice doesn’t sound entirely out of place.

Personally, I’m no fan of singer-songwriter folk-rock, but Shinohara doesn’t strike me as bland, unlike a lot of the genre in which works.

Factor in the fact she sings in her own language, and what emerges is a picture of musician with a strong creative identity.