This past year was full of music- it’s a treat to go back through the “Your Tops Songs 2018” playlist and reflect on the different kinds of music that shaped the mood of certain months or influenced listening preferences. Right next to that playlist is another, “Tastebreakers”. It is full of songs Spotify thinks you’d probably enjoy. It’s not pigeon holed to just what you’ve been listening to, evidenced by the presence of a song titled “シンフォニー”. From out of the blue, you’ve found a band known simply as Lamp. This Tokyo based trio has kept a low profile over the 14 years they have been releasing albums. Consisting of Yusuke Nagai (male vocal, bass, guitar, piano, song writing), Kaori Sakakibara (female vocal, flute, accordion), and Taiyo Someya (guitar, song writing), much of their work hasn’t been made readily available, but these playlists are helping the band gain popularity in the United States, and way beyond.
The group is largely a studio band, and their prowess in production is apparent across their discography. Previous releases have established the group’s sound as a late 70’s styled sophisti-pop band benfiting from modern recording techniques and a well-rounded grasp on a huge assortment of genres from around the world. Their 50’s style bossa-nova grooves are matched with throwback analog mellotron lines and Metheny styled jazz guitar leads. The music elicits a sense of nostalgia, likely stemming from the influence they take from the Shibuya-kei of the 90’s that was popularized by groups like Flipper’s Guitar and The Pizzicato 5. And to an extent, that’s really where this band’s sound lies. Those groups took such an eclectic approach to instrumentation, while often defaulting to a more pop-song structure. Lamp builds in their own whimsical compositional genius, creating a product that hits the mark on so many levels.
The most recent release, Her Watch is a great amalgamation of the sound that the band has been establishing. This eight-track album dropped in 2018, and runs just over half-an-hour, making it a very quick and accessible listen. It opens with a retro sounding song, “at the night party”. The soft opening guitar line chimes over a staccato bass and drum line, and transitions into a unison intro phrase like the beginning of a movie. The mix has the bass guitar sitting just under and just above the bass drum, giving the two a nice punchy sound, and the shimmering piano lines matched with the subtle guitar give the song a really mellow vibe. Soft male vocals give a little weight to the melody, and an even softer (almost whispered) female vocal adds an even more delicate aspect. The composition is very well structured. The turnarounds and transitions fit like a glove, giving this song a lot of movement. The second song, “love letter” continues adding intrigue in the structure, but takes a more upbeat turn. The kokyu solo shows off the ability of the group to accommodate a variety of instruments seamlessly into their instrumentals. The vocal harmonies here are very tightly woven, and executed to great effect. The tune finishes on a drum solo that treasures rhythmic division and development rather than flash and power.
Once the third song, “1998” begins, the mood arc of the album becomes more apparent. This opens with a more melancholy progression, with clashing chords and moments of resolve contrasted with moments of dissonance. The guitar part here demands more attention, with its stereo mixed nuances and little pinches for texture. It is overall a more somber mood, with darker undertones that are carried over into “slow motion”. The vibey chimes set the stage for Sakakibara’s soft vocals to go to work over a Postal Service kind of electronic drumbeat. There is a flute line that comes in and out of the composition, and it does a great job of covering more melodic ground and coloring once of the more simple chord progressions in the album. “a place in my dream” is likely the most somber arrangement on the album. There is a bit of an ostinato gluing the track together. The bass carries a lot of weight with its dark tone, and the song builds throughout, adding synth strings later on for dynamic effect. This is a very vulnerable and emotive song that feels almost like a goodbye, ending with a chugging rhythm that offers the ideal transition for the following tune, “a train window”.
Dark undertones remain central in the intro to the song, but there is a lot more uplifting energy and brighter sounding timbres on almost all of the instruments. The flute solo plays beautifully, and Nagai’s croon follows close behind. The bass has a boost in the higher end that compliments the snare well, adding snap between the two parts. The song ends a bit more dark, and the group again does a great job using interesting cadences to create elusive structures. “nobody knows” offers a much happier change, almost anthemically so. This song has a 90’s vibe to it, taking a cue from the Shibuya-kei wave of the time.
Lamp is very good at formulating the arrangements of their songs to keep them from being predictable in their changes. The closing track, “fantasy” us a bit more electronic instrumentally, without losing the band’s ever-present organic vibe despite being studio moguls. And that is a big part of this album- the chemistry of the group. Although they are not primarily live band, their studio work demonstrates their collective organization and collaboration, and how those 14 years or so of recording help to yield the kind of product Lamp is able bring to the table without having been on the road constantly.
All that being said, it would be quite a treat to see Lamp in a live setting. Granted, they’re from Tokyo so if you get the chance, don’t miss it. Her Watch is one of the great albums of 2018 and will hopefully gain more exposure as the band continues to record and play to audiences. Lamp just released a new song too, “Blue” before 2018 ended. Check that one out if you enjoy any of their stuff, as it represents yet another aspect of the band and offers a bit edgier of a version of what’s heard in Her Watch. You can stream Lamp on Spotify, and you can purchase hard copy CDs or digital download on Bandcamp.