|Addict & King of Pirates
|The Pillows, Shinkichi Mitsumune
|October 4, 2000; July 25, 2001
|Disc 1: CDJapan, Disc 2: CDJapan
Review: Possibly my favorite show of all time, FLCL is something very close to my heart, so, unsurprisingly, I find it difficult to review its soundtrack with the editorial impartiality that it deserves. That said, no praise is ever unwarranted, nor is any OST without its faults, and that is certainly the case here.
Much of the compositional credit for this soundtrack goes to The Pillows, a Japanese alternative rock band. Formed in 1989, The Pillows have proven time and time again that rock music can be deeply affecting and a lot of fun without turning the distortion to 11 or resorting to unintelligible primal screaming. Their songs are marked by careful layering and thoughtful two-guitar interplay that is almost unheard of in contemporary Western rock, showing surprising levels of sophistication without exhibiting the tiresome repetition and lazy songwriting that plague recent rock songs. Unlike those of many English-speaking bands, Sawao Yamanaka’s vocals sound honest and genuine, never angst-ridden or whiny. Those elements, combined with their good-natured, soul-searching lyrical style and overall persona, match the tone of FLCL perfectly.
The Pillows’ representation on these two discs consists of full songs and edits/remixes of selections taken off the albums Little Busters, Runners High, and Happy Bivouac, the final three albums of their so-called “golden age.” Notable immediately is the one song The Pillows specially composed for the show: “Ride on shooting star.” Lasting barely over two-minutes, the song is a blunt explosion of brash energy and punchy riffs that nary stops for a breath. Though it lacks a true guitar solo (a rarity for a non-edited Pillows tune), the song is simplistic and effective without overstaying its welcome. Interesting to note is the liberal use of extended interval chord tones in the melody and the harmony, characteristic of Yamanaka’s songwriting style at the time. There are lots of major sevenths and sharp ninths to be had, and, boy, are they fun to pick out.
“Carnival” has since become a Pillows classic and is regarded as one of their standout hits. The version included here is an edited and shortened version with the vocals removed. Despite featuring tight instrumentals and impressive guitar synchronization, “Carnival” in its edited state just doesn’t work without its vocals. Perhaps it’s due to the generic chord progression, but this edit somehow feels like a demotion to being pleasing background music. Regardless, this song is an example of the long-running Pillows tradition of inserting tidbits of pleasantly surprising sophistication into their compositions. Here, the entire guitar intro is written entirely in parallel fifths. For those who subscribe to the outdated 15th-century “rule” of avoiding parallel fifths, I would respond by quoting composer Samuel R. Hazo: “WELCOME TO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.” While this sort of harmony can come off as strange or off-putting, The Pillows make the intro sound good, and there’s nothing more to be said in this day and age of music. (See this video for an excellent explanation of why people are taught to avoid parallel fifths.)
Whereas “Carnival” was adversely affected by editing, “Bran-new lovesong” is a case where removing the vocals and tightening up the length worked very well. With the vocals removed, one can really appreciate the thought put into the instrumentals, which are too often overpowered by Sawao’s singing. The song has a very ethereal, “life goes on” vibe that is signature of the Pillows’ work around this time. Shinichirou Sato’s drumming really shines here, while Yoshiaki Manabe’s lead guitar is artfully restrained and subdued. Much of the mood of the song comes from a very interesting I-III-vi-IV progression that is not often heard in many compositions. This song (edited or not) is among my favorite Pillows tunes, as it explores themes like self-realization, coping with loss, and the ups and downs of everyday life.
While I could explore every intricacy of every Pillows song here, I’ll keep it short and say that every one of their songs on FLCL’s soundtrack holds the standard of excellence they exhibited around this time. From the rockabilly “Crazy Sunshine” to the simply excellent “Funny Bunny” to the iconic “Little Busters” and “Hybrid Rainbow,” there are few misses by them gathered here, especially in an unedited state.
Often overlooked on this soundtrack are Shinkichi Mitsumune’s pieces, which fill in the parts where a guitars n’ drums affair wouldn’t have been appropriate. Ranging from soft acoustic guitar and piano numbers to electronica dance pieces, his efforts here are effective and competent, if a bit generic and derivative.
As much as his contributions worked superbly in context and are in no way incompetent, I can’t shake the feeling that his tracks wallow in genre tropes and aren’t very fun to listen to. “Rever’s Edge” sounds like another Elton John tearjerker that never was, while “Pink” is about 10 notches too far on the mindless techno side of things for my tastes. “Memory of Summer” starts out well but is marred by a baffling similarity to a certain song sung by a tea kettle in Beauty and the Beast. “High Risk” just makes me wonder why they didn’t just use a Pillows song instead, while “Weekend” seems to draw inspiration from the soundtracks of makeup infomercials. Despite all this, the inoffensive, ordinary demeanor of these songs is largely why they were so successful in their implementation in the show. These tracks were meant to unobtrusively set the mood in a way where the licensed band couldn’t, and, for that reason, I can only shrug my shoulders and acknowledge they did what they set out to do, without being anything more.
The biggest demerit to this original soundtrack, though, is that it is not an entirely original soundtrack. As fitting and as fantastic as The Pillows are, the soundtrack’s execution feels like Gainax took the easy way out by not creating a brand-new score for the show; much the same experience can be had by just buying regular Pillows albums, which will obviously contain only full-length tracks. That said, the approach taken to the soundtrack took a lot of guts and remains a unique experience to this day. As a result, the discs achieve a level of re-playability that OSTs rarely do.
Oh, yeah, and I really like The Pillows.