Leo Imai: FIX NEON

There are two things you can count on with Leo Imai’s debut album, FIX NEON:

  1. The prodigious use of the syllable "Oh!"
  2. The recycling of melodic material for his choruses

You needn’t look further than two consecutive tracks toward the middle of the album, "Metro" and "Karaoke". The choruses are practically identical. As for the "Oh!", they appear most frequently between the end of a chorus and the start of a verse, but you can pretty much put them anywhere.

This … economy of musical ideas can get alternately tiring and endearing. It would be nice if he didn’t sing "Oh!" so much, but at the same time, the songs would be so empty without them.

Those are pretty much the only significant issues holding FIX NEON back from greatness. Set them aside, and the album is perhaps one of the most confoundingly appealing releases this year.

Imai occupies a strange intersection between commercial pop and indie rock. On the one hand, he attracts the likes of NUMBER GIRL/ZAZEN BOYS mastermind Mukai Shuutoku and 54-71 drummer Bobo to play on his album. He also managed to get James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins and Kenji Hammer from Simply Red to make some guest spots as well.

Bounce described his music as the bastard love child of Kylie Minogue and Black Sabbath. There’s nothing avant-garde about FIX NEON, but it doesn’t sound like everything else either.

Between the dramatic synth pads, the New Wave beats and the post-punk guitar work, FIX NEON feels like the past without losing its sense of the present. Tracks such as "Rush", "Emergency" and "Pulse" employ synthesizer effects that would have felt at home in 1985, while "Karaoke" and "Tokyo Lights 2" depend on their disco beats. On paper, these songs sound like ’80s retro run amok, but in practice, they sound more homage than grand larceny.

Credit that to Imai’s husky and rustic voice. He’s not trying to sound like an iconic singer from the past because, well, he can’t. There’s no mistaking him for Ian Curtis or Bono or Morrissey. Although he might come close to David Gahan.

While Imai’s songs are dressed in a ’80s cloak, they’re not totally beholden to the punk aesthetic that informs his obvious New Wave influence. "Blue Technique", "Venom" and the title track have thoroughly commercial melodies. These songs are not exercises in indie hipness — they’re intended for radio play, or more appropriately, karaoke bars.

In that sense, Imai is less Television, more Human League, less Polysics, more Tommy february6.

Imai’s half-Japanese, half-Swedish ethnicity also allows him the rare versatility to handle both English and Japanese. His English lyrics actually fit the flow of his melodies, and while enigmatic, they avoid being nonsensical.

In the end, Imai navigates a strange intersect of styles with confounding ease. He may be too pop for religiously indie listeners and not commercial enough for fervent pop listeners. But anyone who appreciates both will find Imai a fascinating artist and FIX NEON a satisfying album.