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Review: Split The Difference CD/DVD

June 7, 2011

On September 4, 2010, Mr. Children released their second documentary/concert movie Mr. Children / Split the Difference (since first “Es” ~Mr. Children in Film~) and released DVD + CD includes the movie and selected songs by the band on November 10, 2010. It debuted at No. 1 on the Oricon weekly music DVD chart and they also became the first artist to have their eighth consecutive number-one music DVD. (source: Mr. Children Discography, Wikipedia)

This is the review of the accompanying ‘live’ CD and not the movie-documentary. The above clip is Everything (It’s You) from doco.

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Generally, I like high energy concerts. By that I mean concerts with big anthem songs and over-the top antics. For that reason I really love watching Glay and (I am almost ashamed to admit) SMAP. Their concerts always have this joyous, inclusive feeling about them. You watch them and you laugh, you cry, you squeal – every time Glay performs I’m in Love I find myself crying and I have no idea why – you simply get sucked into the moment. In the famous words of philosopher Hetfield, nothing else matters.

I have never thrown a concert myself, but having performed many times, I always pick my set to please the audience. My satisfaction comes from seeing the audience connecting to the songs, exploring them, making the experience theirs rather than mine, and I react to their reaction. I give the audience what they want: what they want to see, what they want to hear. I play with their emotions, if I need to cut someone in half and pull a rabbit out of my shapely ass in a puff of smoke you bet I would. I never become personal in my choices; instead I become “likable”. I need to be liked. This playbook serves me well and it is one that I look out for when watching or attending concerts.

Mr. Children concerts don’t make me feel that way. The first concert that I watched was Q, which was the reason I bought my first DVD player, followed by regress~progress at Tokyo Dome and 1/42. In all three, I think the concerts were too immaculate, the movements and music too calculative. They didn’t let loose, so to speak. While they didn’t try to recreate the studio sound and there were some very nice bits, the atmosphere was sedate and controlled. I am more of the get up and go crazy kind of girl.

It took me a while to learn to enjoy this anti-energy strategy (I can’t find a better word to describe it). My light bulb moment happened like this. In my old apartment, back when I was poor and living the life of a starving salaryman, my make-up dresser was my computer table that had to do triple duty as my home office. It was located right beside the shoe rack in the living room. There was no extra money to be spent frivolously on another full-length mirror for the bedroom. The small 21” Akai TV and the DVD player were in the living room too. I didn’t have a stereo so to entertain myself while I was getting ready for work I would play a CD or DVD instead of listening to the breakfast radio show like normal people would.

The backstory: This was during the time when I was listening to almost exclusively nothing but Japanese songs. The local music scene was in a state of flux. My strongly worded criticism about the local music industry had just been published in a (then) leading music magazine, which generated a lot of backlash by industry insiders and local musicians who felt that I was being too full of myself. My argument then, which I still stand by now, was that our local musicians were not merely referencing foreign cultures in their music, they were internalizing it. My example was the many local rap groups that we had at the time, singing about the Bronx and how hard it was living in poverty and the guns and the bombs and the gangsters and the bling bling and the ass-shaking and all those things that never took place on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I argued that while music genre is borderless, experiences and cultural influences are unique.  What we were breeding was a generation of copycats that was singing about being from the block like they were Jenny (yes that was my clever reference to Jenny on the Block by JLo). We were ashamed of our identity so we borrowed someone else’s and claimed that as our own. I don’t buy that as an artistic expression or employing a creative license. I see it as being poseurs.

Of course people were unhappy with my criticism. It generated 2 pages worth of Letter of the Editor and an inside back cover op-ed by a music industry expert. I felt they completely missed the point. I had nothing against rap. But I had everything against posing as black rapper from the West Coast when you are not one. It doesn’t matter what genre or language one is singing, the whole point is to stick to who you are. I have heard and presided over many arguments for and against it and I stand by my convictions. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, I have mentioned this before, in my discovery article, about how I felt I was being pulled both internally and externally at the same time. The more I started to listen to songs from non-Western  countries and less and less of the songs I was fed on the radio, the strongly I felt about having a singular identity, a musical signature if you may, a thumbprint that can be identified – ah, this is a Malaysian song. I didn’t know how to describe it then, but one night while I was listening to Ella’s album in a friend’s room (Ella is one of the leading female singers in Malaysia) I perked up when I heard the song Gemilang. This song, I told my friend, this could not have been written by a Malaysian. This is a Japanese song. She looked for the album sleeve and true enough it was written by a Japanese composer. She asked how I could tell, I told her it was just a feeling I have. So, even though I didn’t have the words to explain what I meant then, my ears knew the difference and could tell songs apart.

Now, this is a very long and roundabout way to get back to my light bulb moment. It was raining that morning, and I had Q on the DVD player. As I was putting my make-up on, without paying much attention to what was happening on the TV screen, Surrender came on and something clicked. I walked to be closer to the TV, blusher brush in my hand and two of my (then) housemates came out of their respective rooms, standing just right behind me, the three of us taking in the moment in silence. Once the song was over we went back to the business of putting on make-up. Not a single word was exchanged between us.

Back then I didn’t know what the song meant. But Surrender reinforced my belief that music is universal – what was communicated is free of the shackles of words and language and country borders. The three of us that morning… we felt it, we were touched by it.  Yet the “feel” of the song, its imprint, its soul, it was very uniquely Japanese. They are rock’n roll but they are rock’n rolling their own way, infusing themselves in the music, all the things and experiences that made them who they are (and in essence what made them Japanese).

(side note: since then I have been more and more aware of this “imprint” or signature sound. Even if a playlist contains thousands of songs sung in English, you can always pick up the nuances and the signature that tell these songs apart. A better illustration probably would be the difference between brit pop, Swedish pop and US pop – instinctively you could tell where the musician comes from and their influences without knowing anything about them. Malaysian music scene has improved since my rant, many are now embracing our identity rather than alienating it, and infusing this uniqueness in the genre/language that they chose to perform in. Small steps. I think Indonesians and Singaporeans are a bit ahead of us in this respect – in Bahasa Melayu the word would be jatidiri (not sure what is the accurate English equivalent) but at least we no longer see boys from Bukit Bintang moaning about how hard is growing up in the Project).

I thought of that Surrender moment often; certainly throughout the entire taxi ride to work that morning. I understood how difficult it was – to give a quiet and controlled performance like that; with no smoke and mirrors. In fact, it was a little uncomfortable to watch because it was so very personal, so exposed, so raw. That was the moment I began to enjoy Mr. Children’s concerts because my perception changed, hence my expectations of what a concert is also changed. Their concerts were not designed to pander to the demands of the audience, to please the little rockstar in me that wants fireworks and acrobatics and a singer who runs from one end of the stage to another to rile up the crowd, who dispenses clever banter and cute stories to make me feel like we are the best of friends. Their concert is an invitation to come and sit in their personal space, to listen to their stories, to witness their evolution.

Split the Difference by Mr. Children (album cover)

Split the Difference by Mr. Children (album cover)

Split the Difference takes me back to that moment. I think in these quiet moments are when they shine the best. What I mean is their concerts lack “noise” and that is exactly the best way to enjoy them. What I really like about Split the Difference is that it features a selection of past work rearranged in, what I have harped on since Home, the signature sound of Mr. Children. Remember in my review of Sense where I said that Mr. Children has finally grown into their own skin? That is exactly what Split the Difference is, a revisiting of old favorites in this skin, that, and I can’t believe that I am writing this right now, sounded exactly like what those songs should have sounded like.

For example, I almost didn’t recognize the opening strains of Surrender (and please remember that this is one of my absolute favorite due to its simplicity). I listened to it expecting that the original can’t be improved. Yet as the new arrangement unfolded, I was surprised by how much stronger the song became and how invested I was in this version. Later, when I compared it side by side with the performance from Q, even my understanding of the song became different. Where I heard despair and pain in the original version, I heard acceptance and sorrow in the new one. Mr. Children has grown up! They have grown up!

I feel the set piece selected for Split the Difference are clever. If they were intentionally selected as transitory pieces to show how the old is re-interpreted by the new, then they have done their job well. If you are not familiar with their earlier works, you wouldn’t even know that the bulk of these were written during their youthful days (pun intended). What Mr. Children has done was not to give these songs a new coat of paint; they were given a new life. The sounds are complex yet light; the instrumentation clear yet multi-layered. Always raw, always emotional, always personal. Split the Difference is the kind of a concert where you sit quietly in a dark corner, your coffee left cold and unattended, with memories of your own youthful days flashing in bits and pieces in your mind.

If you have not gathered it yet, I love Split the Difference, I love it. Love it! It’s their best live performance yet, one that will be hard to beat. Sakurai has never sounded better. My pick of 3 songs would be Hedatari (Distance) – it just slays me, I dare you to listen to it without feeling like the cello player is piercing your heart with his instrument, Surrender and that astronaut song, タイムマシーンに乗って. The honky tonk piano and horns elevated the playfulness of this song; the original was a flat out rock song with heavy guitars reminiscent of 60’s brit pop. I chose these three because they are so different from the original yet so representative of Mr, Children that it doesn’t matter which version you listen to, you could always tell that it’s theirs.

The ‘live’ album also features a cover of Elton John’s Your Song. It’s passable, not great. I think Sakurai’s heavily-accented English makes it hard for me to get into the song. I understand the motivation behind it, as a way of saying thanks to the fans. But I felt that could have been done better using their own words through Hero (which is in the setlist) or Gift (which is not). Small blip, but unimportant.

Buy? ABSOLUTELY. Split the Difference is very good.  Mr, Children has become a master storyteller and I am glad I, too, have grown enough to understand and appreciate that finally.

Split The Difference Tracklisting

DVD:

  1. DOCUMENTARY
  2. NOT FOUND
  3. Everything (It’s you)
  4. Sunrise
  5. Another Mind
  6. Surrender
  7. ファスナー  (Fastener)
  8. 虜 (Toriko)
  9. 終わりなき旅 (Owari Naki Tabi)
  10. Time After Time (Cover)
  11. 横断歩道を渡る人たち  (Oudanhodou Wo Wataru Hitotachi)
  12. ニシエヒガシエ (Nishie Higashie)
  13. End Roll

CD:

  1. 横断歩道を渡る人たち Oudanhodou Wo Wataru Hitotachi
  2. Another Mind
  3. Surrender
  4. アンダーシャツ (Under Shirt)
  5. my sweet heart
  6. 隔たり (Hedatari)
  7. タイムマシーンに乗って (Time Machine Ni Notte)
  8. Love is Blindness
  9. I’ll Be
  10. ニシエヒガ (Nishie Higashie)
  11. Hero
  12. Your Song (Cover)
  13. しるし  (Shirushi)
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