Japanese Breakfast, “Soft Sounds from Another Planet”

Japanese Breakfast
Soft Sounds from Another Planet
DEAD OCEANS
8/10

Michelle Zauner burst onto the indie rock scene with explosively catchy power pop. “Everybody Wants to Love You” is a shimmering guitar-and-vocal-hook-heavy masterpiece of a song off her 2016 debut Psychopomp. The track seemed to indicate a direct line into a particular style of indie rock dominated by the likes of guitar-pop bands like Vampire Weekend. But seeing Japanese Breakfast live last summer forced me to shed all of my assumptions about where the band was going. Sandwiched between downtrodden, emotive, minimalist sets from Jay Som and Mitski, Japanese Breakfast were a stark shift in mood and style. Where some people sat and stared up in silence at Jay Som’s Melina Duterte as she delivered intimate croons with just her guitar, Zauner abandoned hers halfway through the set, jumping around the crowd accompanied by synths, dance beats, and auto-tune. It seemed like a set poised for one of those long arena straightaway stages reserved for modern pop stars and U2, only it was in the tiny attic space of a Portland bar that acts as an all-ages venue. It was far from expected, but one of the best sets I’d seen all year.

Zauner’s sophomore album plays out somewhere between the guitar-rock of the first record and big stage pop stardom of her live set. In the same way that Gwen Stefani was a talent that could bring mainstream attention to a niche genre like ska, Zauner is the type of talent that can’t be limited to her chosen playing field. Soft Sounds from Another Planet steps away from the genre trappings of indie rock and winds up playing out like a kaleidoscope amalgamation of generations of pop music.

After starting with the familiar, ’90s alternative–inspired song “Diving Woman,” Zauner immediately pivots to the textured electronic compositions that are more in line with Daft Punk than any slacker rock band with standout songs like “Machinist” and “Jimmy Fallon Big!” On the title track, “Boyish,” and “Till Death,” Zauner showcases her vocal range, channeling the likes of Roy Orbison in the latter track, where she’s accompanied by a lush big band orchestral swell.

But what closes out Soft Sounds is a return to simple intimacy, with the downtempo acoustic ballad “This House,” which fades into a dense church bell outerlude. She signs off singing the beautifully sour-sentiment “Change is what’s left of you and me.”

Soft Sounds shows Michelle Zauner constantly reinventing herself, proving that she can dabble in any genre and produce something that stands with the best of them. If it weren’t so frank and fraught with compassion, you would think Zauner were just showing off.

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