Dustin Wong / Takako Minekawa

Toropical Circle

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    8
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Fourteen years after her last album, the charming Fun 9 (and 13 years after her last release, the Maxi On! EP), Takako Minekawa returned with Toropical Circle, a collaboration with former Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong that is equally familiar and surprising. Minekawa met Wong in 2011 after seeing him play, and soon after they began working on music together. As on Fun 9, which featured songs produced by her husband Cornelius (aka Keigo Oyamada) and overflowed with different sounds and styles combining and recombining in true Shibuya-kei fashion, Minekawa's wispy vocals and evocative imagery are surprisingly grounding on Toropical Circle. While she and Wong take a more minimal approach, focusing on voice and guitar with the occasional cameo from playful percussion and synths, there's a similar dynamic at play; he helps Minekawa take her childlike wonder and deceptively innocent melodies in more daring, experimental directions than ever before, while she provides an anchor to Wong's flights of fancy. As always, Toropical Circle boasts plenty of cheery, poetic song titles with melodies to match: fragmented guitars bounce around gentle vocals on "Party on a Floating Cake"; "Two Acorns' Dreams Growing as One" sounds like a more sophisticated version of the incidental music in cult favorite video games like Katamari Damacy and Animal Crossing in its mix of lively electronics and simple guitar patterns; and "Circle Has Begun" uses "Mary Had a Little Lamb"'s melody as a counterpoint to Minekawa's poignant vocals so effectively that it puts the time-tested nursery rhyme in a whole new light. There's also a mystical undercurrent running through the album that adds a mysterious edge to its seeming simplicity, particularly on the shimmering "Mirror Underwater in a Magic Lantern" -- one of the most obviously tropical-sounding songs on this summery collection -- as well as "Swimming Between Parallel Times" and "Windy Prism Room," where seven minutes of transcendent drones and vocals make for a sweet and transporting finale. Toropical Circle might be Minekawa's least overtly poppy album yet, but it's also one of her most successful and intriguing; it's true to her spirit as well as Wong's, and a lovely, welcome return.

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