Japanese Breakfast

Soft Sounds from Another Planet

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The first Japanese Breakfast album Psychopomp was the best kind of bedroom pop record; fragile, intimate, and slightly weird. It drew from various indie pop tributaries and was built around Michelle Zauner's achingly pure vocals and her unique pop vision. On Soft Sounds from Another Planet, she and producer Craig Hendrix take the project out of the bedroom and aim for something larger. Much slicker and less wonky, the songs have a spacious, expansive sound that envelops the listener in warmth (even when the synths get a little chilly.) In less capable hands, the jump to a more professional sound could have been a disaster. Zauner and Hendrix don't sacrifice much of the idiosyncratic appeal of the first album; it still comes across as Zauner's vision and not a bid for indie chart success. She doesn't tamp down on the wild edges of her voice, she still writes very personal lyrics, and even when the songs veer toward the same '80s synth pop territory in which everyone else seems hellbent on staking a claim, the album doesn't lose its distinct charm. What the duo add to the mix is greater than anything that was lost in the transition; the walls of fuzzy guitars, the Spector-sized echo, the impact her voice makes now that it is clearly recorded. While there are songs on the previous album that had some real emotional impact, there was some odd stuff that failed to connect. Now everything hits like a knockout punch. Tracks like the guitar-heavy, almost shoegaze "Diving Woman," the soft focus, soft rock lament "Til Death," and the epic girl-group-in-space "Boyish" are wonderful combinations of lyrical insight, evocative arrangements, and stunning vocal performances that show Zauner can go big and still sound down to earth. The slick synth pop of "Machinist," the acoustic folk balladry of "This House," and the rock & roll waltz of the title track prove that Zauner has range, too. Soft Sounds from Another Planet is a giant leap forward for Japanese Breakfast; the move to a bigger sound results in a sure-handed modern pop record full of memorable songs, heart-wrenching vocals, and bottomless emotional depth.

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