Photo by: 奥山由之

Folk rock-fused surf-pop band Never Young Beach has just released their fourth album Story today. Given what they present now, I feel downhearted for the band’s future.

Akira Matsushima, former guitarist, also a founding member, left Never Young Beach in July last year shortly after being diagnosed of cervico-omo-brachial syndrome. Story is the band’s first album since his departure, thus a very much anticipated one, because no one knows what to expect. This album may be the best chance for the band to prove to everyone that they still worth it.

However, my first impression on the currently available tracks was that the lack of impressive guitar phrases seemed fatal. There were some playful riffs, still, but far from the exquisite, mellifluous kind they had in their earlier works, especially the first two albums, Yashinoki House and Fam Fam. Never Young Beach used to be the band who always responds to questions like “What makes you special” proudly with the answer, “We have three guitars.” Now, like Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, losing one somehow made them hesitate to use the other two.

The band made some decent efforts on exploring new sounds though. For the first time, Never Young Beach added some female vocal harmonies in a few of their songs. I am not sure what the band wanted to achieve here, but they did make themselves sound a bit like an acapella group. The drum beats were dull, and the guitars were downgraded to background music to the mediocre vocals.

For indie bands, major debut can mean a lot of things, some of which are audience shift and direction change. Two years into releasing under a major label, Never Young Beach may not have experienced them drastically, but to some degree, for both.

The audience shift was mild, and more of an expansion, from young, regular DIY-livehouse goers only to a bigger crowd including common office workers and housewives, due to the band’s constant featuring on TV commercials this past two years. As for the direction change, to quote a comment from the lead singer Yuma Abe last year, “Quarrels are not uncommon among members, but this past year we had disputations more than ever.”

Most of these disputations he referred to were hinted to have association with Matsushima. Although the number of musicians suffering from occupational hazards such as carpal tunnel syndrome has always been alarming, and this health issue of Matsushima was announced as the official reason for his departure, it does not seem to be the whole picture. There had been frictions between Abe and Matsushima back in their home-recordings era, long before Never Young Beach even existed.

In a radio program at which both Abe and Matsushima were present, Abe told the story of Matsushima going AWOL only one week prior to an important recording session. Abe had to ask other musician friends to step in his place at the very last minute. It was not until two months later that Matsushima reappeared at one of Abe’s shows, apologized, saying he went to Thailand (thus lost contact with Japanese friends as a result), and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.

Forming a band is almost as difficult as, sometimes more difficult than starting your own venture. You are faced with a lot of uncertainties, a high failure rate, barely make any money at the beginning, and your mates may be the most unreliable people in this world, at least comparing to the nine-to-five kind of people.

Before the official departure of Matsushima, he had cut his contact with all band members for more than two weeks. “We will remain friend till the end, but I was not able to go on like this just as a friend. There was also a gap in direction and enthusiasm between us, and Matsushima has not changed a bit from the old days, to better or worse.” Said Abe.

We never heard the other side of story from Matsushima, but the fact is that Never Young Beach has changed permanently. I guess when people move on, music does, too. Nevertheless, as much as I love Never Young Beach’s early music to the bones, I would still gladly go to their shows if I ever get to see one in the future. It will never be the same, but the oceany taste left in my mouth by their happy, summerly tunes will flush down all the bitterness and forever remain.

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