Chatmonchy’s “Renai Spirits”

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

Has Jpop ruined my ability to appreciate “pure” music? Or has it made me a more demanding critic, desiring a “whole package” that so-called rockism often disdains? The recent Chatmonchy PV for “Renai Spirits” has me wondering if I’d swung too far to the light (poppy) side or if the dark (brooding, self-consciously artistic) side is way overrated. Or way too difficult for all but the most gifted of art-rockers.

Chatmonchy is an all-girl rock trio, which makes me think of Sleater-Kinney and Babes in Toyland and even Shonen Knife. So that’s a plus. The video begins with the lead singer – a head shot, singing acapella in a voice that is most kindly described as “plaintive”. It isn’t quite a singing voice, though it does know how to carry a melody well – it’s more of a muted paean of grief, pretty in its own way and kind of punk rawk in its rawness. The video split screens so we can see her looking twice as thoughtful and moody.

So I’m waiting for the music to kick in, but this acapella singing runs for, like, seven or eight minutes. Half an hour, even. Okay, I’m exagerrating – it’s almost a minute, but that’s like a lifetime in pop music. (Though in Iron Butterfly’s “In a Gadda Da Vida”, it’s only 5% of the drum solo.)

When the music kicks in, it’s actually a gorgeously lush alt-noise sound. I have to admit, I was caught off-guard. I’d downloaded their first PV and didn’t remember being as impressed by it musically – and just as bored by the video itself.

But there’s no mistaking the lineage in this bracing shot of sonic life: there’s a texture, a richness of sound that is very much akin to the music that I loved in my twenties. We’re talking Pavement at their prime, Superchunk at their most melodic, Sonic Youth as they began to mellow out and give in to their prog-rock roots…

But the clearest analogy I could draw is to the whole shoegazer movement in the U.K. For those not familiar with the term, shoegazers were musicians who had a strong pop melodic bent but used unusual tunings and feedback to achieve an ethereal, transcendent sound. It’s waves upon waves of guitar sound washing over you, very pretty and noisy all at once.

For me, at least, the greatest shoegazer band was My Bloody Valentine and their epic album Loveless remains one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s all shimmering guitars and angelic voices, sweet in a way that hides an edge of menace, perfectly crafted pop music for the free noise crowd.

The term shoegazer comes from the performance style of the bands in the movement: they had lots of pedals and knobs to tend to, and also some of them were apparently shy. So they’d look down at their feet and pedals instead of facing the audience.

MBV was the only group to really make an impact on me, though I tried some others and currently have Lush on my PDA ( has made me curious all over again about Miki Berenyi). Personally, I liked my noise more confrontational and in-your-face, like Pussy Galore and Dinosaur Jr and Helmet and, yes, Babes in Toyland. But the power of MBV and Loveless is impossible to deny, and I highly recommend it to you.

Anyway, the girls of Chatmonchy are very much shoegazer in their performance skills here. We’re not talking a “Sexy Boy” dance or even Zone-style antics. We just have a bare set and the three girls playing their instruments and sometimes looking up as if they’re swept by the pain of making such honest music.

Now, don’t get me wrong – this is beautiful music. But in context, it’s not as dangerous or as experimental as it seems to be on first blush. The groups that emerged from Glenn Branca’s guitar armies and the movements that followed it – including the shoegazers and such scenes as Raleigh and Halifax – was based on an avant garde attitude towards music and noise’s role in it.

Noise was about seeing how far boundaries can go and still have a discernible song. Some went way over the edge, going for dissonance and atonality as its own virtue. Skronk and feedback and that whole pigfuck guitar-wank vibe. Others held fast to melody and rhythm as the basis for their songs, fusing a pop sensibility with soaring guitarwork (I’m thinking Sloan and Superchunk and even Pavement after their initial noodling phase).

The best noise bands always had a sense of adventure and playfulness and experimentation to their music… and that just isn’t evident here. I get the textures and the motions of beautiful, richly layered guitars. But it doesn’t go much further than the basic drone, the equivalent of the rhythm track for a middling shoegazer tune.

The lead singer’s voice guides the song’s melody but the music doesn’t wander far from its basic soundscaping. The singing grows more powerful in the context of this music – it certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s as important an instrument here as the drums and guitars. If you can get into the voice, you can get into the song.

The singing reminds me just a little of Whiteberry – untrained but desperarely earnest in conveying emotion. There is araw, sweet urgency that plays well against the overpowering but mellow musical barrage.

Which is all well and good, but I can’t help but ask: is that it? Is this all we’re going to get from the group, from this song?

The video goes for some very basic effects: reflections, some distorted imagery, and a whole lot of murky moodiness.

Are the group so low on budget that this is all they can afford? I don’t think so. What the heck, Harenchi Punch are able to look ridiculously genki in all their videos, and their budget is obviously really small based on their costumes and props!

No, it’s clearly about attaining a certain kind of credibility by not being too theatrical, by being musicians without all the adornments of pop or popularity – what is quaintly called “selling out” (Sonic Youth had it right by calling it “buying in”).

These girls want to be taken seriously, and so they don’t want to crack a smile or be associated with anything but pedestrian clothing choices and their musical instruments. It’s minimalism and purism of the worst sort – and it’s in service of music that is pretty and even mildly addictive, but still lacks the spark and vision that truly great rock bands (at least as I consider them) demand.

All of which is beside the point anyway. Rock music has always been about the theatrical: Little Richard and Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all gifted showmen. Punk rock and its best bastard stepchildren, generations upon generations of bands later, is perhaps one of the most theatrical genres around, understanding the impact of a certain look, a certain act, a certain attitude. Malcolm McLaren knew it, Greg Ginn knew it, and even Ian MacKaye caught on that his non-act was an act in itself…

Could Chatmonchy lighten up and still build on their credibility? I think so. Does credibility really matter? It does if you want it to. If that’s the bliss you need to keep J-rocking in the free market world, that’s fine by me. But there are alternatives, and it’d be interesting to see Chatmonchy open up a little and maybe try to crack a smile once in a while.

It’d be funny if they and Harenchi Punch switched places, though. I’d love to see these girls wearing cheerleader outfits and waving megaphones. Or even doing the “Sexy Boy” dance. Or the Melon Kinenbi “Eros” bump-and-grind.

Ironically, I had often daydreamed of Zone becoming a Japanese bandol Sonic Youth. Now we have a band that’s very much in the SY mold but isn’t nearly Jpop enough for me…

I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for Chatmonchy’s future releases. I want to see them both grow artistically and become better performers in the pop landscape. They’re going to need both if they’re going to last. What the heck, just have them watch this year’s Eurovision contest – maybe that’ll give them ideas.


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One Response to “Chatmonchy’s “Renai Spirits””
  1. Yohei says:

    Hey I like your review on Chatmonchy. I actually look them when they first came out and translated their info into english to put on a site. I like them every since. I think they have the potential and skills. Like every band in rock they have their own unique style. And your right if you get used to her voice (Eriko) then you can diffinitely get used into their music.

    I finally got their first full album When it came out. I really like it. The bass is very powerfull in some of the tracks. And the whole melody of the songs our gordeous. Their first album has a lot of tracks to offer. They will diffinetly get better and they’re off to a good start. But I don’t think they’re sell outs like you mention too.

    Hmmm judgeing by the time you post this. You probably wont reply in a long time eeeeeee XD

    see you around