Is it too much to ask for some growth from a band that’s frequently farcical? The very concept of Fujiya & Miyagi has seemed like one extended wink since the band broke through with Transparent Things in 2006. There’s the band name, which implies that the group is a Japanese duo, rather than a four-piece from England that doesn’t contains any members named Fujiya or Miyagi (one name come from The Karate Kid, and the other is a brand of stereo equipment, in case you’re wondering). And then, of course, there’s the music- a stoic form of dance music that unabashedly cribs the majority of its aesthetic choices from the groove-oriented artiness of Krautrock. Admittedly, the band rarely audibly breaks or acknowledges the put-on in any way (save for copping to “pretending to be Japanese” on “Photocopier”), but usually Fujiya & Miyagi expect their audience to pick up the sly sense of humor permeating their music.
And that subversive levity carries them far, which may explain why the band hasn’t felt the need to make any substantive changes to their style since they’ve developed a decent fan base. Their latest album, Ventriloquizzing, goes nowhere surprising and is simply content to coast on the methods that have worked for the band in the past. Whispery, come-hither vocals dance around one bass groove upon another, and hypnotic keyboards spiral in and out around sleek, programmed drums. The swirling, repetitive patterns of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express are borrowed for the lackluster “Spilt Milk”. The title track is another in a long line of Fujiya & Miyagi songs that borrows its entire rhythmic section from Neu! And, unsurprisingly, Can’s “Vitamin C” is rehashed on “Taiwanese Roots”.
Now, to be fair, there is still an enjoyable novelty to hearing some of the best Krautrock reworked and made more club-friendly. Fujiya & Miyagi know from whom they steal, and save for the terminally boring but mercifully brief “Spilt Milk”, Ventriloquizzing rarely offers up any songs short of passably appealing. “Sixteen Shades of Black and Blue” seems to want to perform the impossible, which is to out-strut Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. It may not succeed, but the result is still gratifyingly decadent. The chilly synth pulses of “Pills” provide a small but marked diversion from Fujiya & Miyagi’s often-predictable arrangements, making the song a minor highlight of Ventriloquizzing.
Still, Fujiya & Miyagi too frequently deliver exactly what’s expected of them, nothing more. It would help if the lyrics were unique in any significant way. Of course, when you’re making this brand of electronic music, lyricism is sort of a secondary concern, but some effort would be appreciated. The title track takes the ventriloquism metaphor to just about every obvious conclusion (“We occasionally blink our eyelids”, “We speak but we don’t think” “We move our arms when you pull our string”, you get the idea). “Yoyo” suffers from the same problem (“You change your minds when the wind blows”, “You go up and down like a yoyo”). “Cat Got Your Tongue” repeats the same clichéd lines ad nauseam (“You don’t know which side your bread is buttered on/Has a cat got your tongue?”). Based on these lyrics, you can probably guess what the refrain of “Spilt Milk” is. The best I can assume is that Fujiya & Miyagi are mocking or emulating the lack of exertion that many of their colleagues and predecessors put into their words.
Regardless of their motivations, Ventriloquizzing is merely a decent outing from a band that has already proven that they can do better. Out and out pastiche can be enough, but if you’re going to make your name transparently borrowing from other sources, the material better be bulletproof. Preferably, Fujiya & Miyagi would develop their own sound, but Ventriloquizzing suggests that we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for that to happen.