Sitting down to a first listen of the fifth BiSH album, CARROTS and STiCKS, the big question is: Which BiSH will predominate? The brazen punks who got kicked out of Tokyo Idol Festival? The potential game changers who released a two-minute thrash punk single as their major label debut? Or the commercial idols who promote cell phones and sing anime theme songs?
We know the punk is still in BiSH as demonstrated every time they let Ling Ling center and she does the emotional equivalent of kicking your teeth down your throat. At the same time, it’s hard to give punk cred to a group that’s signing exclusive deals with Apple to restrict the digital distribution of their own music. I certainly won’t begrudge a person for making a living off their art, especially in the crap ass world of Japanese entertainment where the vast majority of power and profits are concentrated in the hands a few management moguls who are far less benevolent than BiSH’s boss-who-we-love-to-hate, Junnoske Watanabe. And it’s not like those of us who have climbed aboard the BiSH train can cry about genre, aesthetic or ideological purity anyway. Watanabe has never hidden the fact that he is punk in the same way that Malcolm McLaren was punk: thumbing the nose of a conservative society is good fun and all, but only if you can make a buck (pound or yen) doing it.
This is all kind of beside the point anyway. Whether one is a fan from the early punk days or come on board since BiSH went major label, what should matter most is: How good is the music?
Most of CARROTS and STiCKS was initially released in two parts as four-track EPs: STiCKS (released April 3rd), and CARROTS (released May 3rd). These eight songs (available digitally only as Apple Music exclusives) were combined with an additional six tracks and released as BiSH’s fifth full-length album on July 3rd. A bonus of seven previously released singles were also included in all but the “regular” and digital editions of the album.
The way music is consumed these days, very little effort seems to be put into compiling cohesive albums anymore where one track flows into the next contributing to an overarching theme. CARROTS and STiCKS is a case in point as there seems to be no real sense as to why the fourteen tracks are arranged in the way they are. They move from Orchestral BiSH to Punk BiSH to Anisong BiSH, highlighting their contrasts rather than creating cohesion. Listeners may be better off putting the album on shuffle which, quite frankly, is how most digital listeners will consume it anyway.
The standout tracks include:
This song is highly reminiscent of “My Landscape” in both tone and structure except that the video is set in a seaside Planet of the Apes-style post-apocalypse instead of an airplane graveyard in the desert.
A snarling punk banger, like an uptempo Veruca Salt, and CARROTS and STiCKS first indication that, between cell phone and combini ads, BiSH hasn’t completely giving up on kicking your ass.
More Than Like
An emotionally charged idol-rock number with a grunge influence and muted piano harmony that wouldn’t be out of place on a Yanakoto Sotto Mute album.
Freeze Dry the Pasts
The only track on the album to really push the envelope beyond anyone’s comfort zone. The vocals alternate being quietly tortured and outright sonic violence. It’s what The Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs would sound like if given the Marilyn Manson – Sweet Dreams treatment. The live version of the tune has been the most talked about moment of BiSH’s just-completed tour and seeing a performance for myself has recently been added to my bucket list.
This really, really, really sounds like a composition by Takeshi Ueda (former Mad Capule Markets; current AA=). I got excited that the genius behind “Stupig” was back for another collaboration, but the credits say it’s all Kenta (with lyrics by Momoko Gumi Company). If you’ve missed that punk-meets-digital hardcore sound, this track will give you a dose.
I am me.
Is indeed sweet. It starts off like a Night Ranger, piano rock classic but evolves into a dream pop ballad with a slow-marching snare and lullaby vocals. It’s really quite beautiful.
Dirty guitars highlight this classic punk-mode Kentacore tune. Ling Ling’s lyrics are delivered in staccato-rapped verses book-ending a screamingly brutal chorus.
The fiercest and freshest track on the album. It is a brutal, groove-influenced garage rock number that sounds like The Hives run through a vocoder then blasted over a dance floor being pelted by a rain of molten lead. The vocals are alternatively ominous and fierce and the chorus bounces like you need to dance or die.
Contains no grunge: It is a wistful, lazily-paced J-rock song backed by an electric piano that would be more expected on a Sora Tob Sakana or Toricago album. It is surprisingly at home here where it serves as a pleasant, contemplative close to the album.
In the final analysis, CARROTS and STiCKS is full of damn good music. Overall, the album serves as a kind of BiSH Baskin Robbins – 31 Flavors. Very few will be drawn to every track, but there’s something here that BiSH fans from any stage of their evolution will both recognize and really enjoy. Other than “Freeze Dry the Pasts” and “Finally”, however, no real boundaries are being pushed, and other than the venture into grunge on “More Than Like” and dream pop in “No Sweet”, very few new elements are being added to BiSH’s artistic portfolio.
So, yes, CARROTS and STiCKS is very good and I will listen to it a lot. Where the album falls short is when measured against our expectations (which is completely unfair, and why I have placed this little editorial here in the coda). At the end of the day, this album doesn’t really take many risks. As anyone could have predicted, it is a mix of harder songs strategically placed alongside commercially viable tunes. This has become the BiSH formula, and the last adjective I ever wanted to use to describe BiSH is “formulaic”. When BiSH signed to AVEX, there were great hopes that they would be a game changer, but two years later they continue to play it relatively safe.
It may be time to finally adjust our expectations and admit that BiSH is playing the game, and just may not be all that interested in changing it.