Exploring Philly band – Japanese Breakfast
Sincere apologies are owed to those hoping to learn more about the combination of starches, healthy proteins, and umami flavors that constitute a typical Japanese breakfast. Rather, we’re going to showcase the equally interesting Philadelphia band Japanese Breakfast, highlight features of their first two albums, and take a look at how the band is moving forward during the pandemic.
Japanese Breakfast is the solo musical project of Michelle Zauner but is far from her first stab at music. While an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr college, she fronted the indie-pop band Post Post. Next, she combined with other Philadelphia musicians to form the emo group Little Big League. The band would release two albums, These are Good People in 2013 and Tropical Jinx in 2014, before personal tragedy befell Zauner from across the country. Her mom, still situated in Eugene, Oregon where Zauner grew up, had been diagnosed with cancer.
Michelle Zauner returned back west and it was during this time that she began writing solo material. She has described her initial recordings from this period as a meditative exercise that lended her “instant gratification” as her mother’s sickness persisted. Her mother did not survive the battle with cancer and the ensuing debut studio album from Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp, would serve as Zauner’s confrontation with her mother’s death.
Psychopomp, released in 2016, is an incredibly short album at just nine songs and 25 minutes. Despite its short runtime, it is able to deliver a surprising amount of emotional punch over an eclectic batch of songs. Opener “In Heaven” is a sonically upbeat track where Zauner immediately processes her mother’s absence through poignant observations like the dog’s confusion at an empty room and the crushing tandem of questions, “How do you believe in heaven? Like you believe in me?”. This song establishes dreamy production that reappears intermittently throughout the project, most notably on album highlight “Everybody Wants to Love You” where Zauner adopts a high-pitched vocal range that hits the ears splendidly.
Zauner’s grief is perhaps most effectively communicated through two instrumental interludes. The first, “Psychopomp” features hypnotic sounds that could have been warped in from a foreign electromagnetic field and ends with an endearing audio recording, presumably from Zauner’s mother herself. The second interlude, “Moon on the Bath”, is a languidly paced journey through uncertainty. Other songs on this album display the catchy pop hooks that Japanese Breakfast are more than capable of constructing. Both “Rugged Country” and “Heft” are guitar driven moods that invite sing-alongs from listeners. Meanwhile, “Jane Cum” boasts of being the darkest song on the album, Zauner’s vocals morphing into elongated primal screams in front of slow suspenseful production.
Japanese Breakfast would provide the sequel to Psychopomp just one year later with the release of 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. The leading track, “Diving Woman” asserts this project’s increased ambition as Zauner explores the ethos of Haenyeos (traditional female divers from the South Korean island Jeju) and draws inspiration from their independent and spiritual approach to life. The song is over six and a half minutes and features a meandering guitar sound, a deep contrast from the shorter pop songs that populated Psychopomp.
As the title implies, Soft Sounds From Another Planet is rooted more firmly in the spatial cosmos than the natural earth. The backing beat of “Machinist” evokes imagery of an alien dance party that draws to a close with an exquisite saxophone solo, a sound that would have surely been out of place on Psychopomp. Interlude “Planetary Ambiance” blends into the title track and continues the heavy sci-fi theme. However, a space-driven theme doesn’t pervade the entire album and results in some of the sharpest songs on the record. Fan favorite “Road Head” details a desperate sexual act in a last-ditch effort to provide a salve in a doomed relationship. Meanwhile, “The Body is a Blade” details how one dissaciates with trauma and attempts to move forward with fluttery piano keys accentuating the back half of the song.
Zauner’s fascination with shoegaze music is notable and layers of glossy synths help give the album a cohesive feel even while a cosmic theme isn’t present throughout. I think it’s a fair assessment that Zauner takes a step forward in the song-writing department as her verses are more detailed and the conceptual ideas of her hooks more obvious. Her lyrical prowess at it relates to specificity and unique description is on full display for “This House” before the album closes with the short but chilling instrumental “Here Come the Tubular Bells”
.Although Japanese Breakfast has not released a full length LP since Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner has collaborated with Ryan Galloway to form BUMPER. Their four track EP, pop songs of 2020, was released on September 4th. Additionally, Japanese Breakfast are slated to be a headliner at the Philadelphia Music Fest that streams live later this month. Find more information about the event here.