“What up?” Amber Bain poses to the near-capacity crowd at The Wardrobe in Leeds as she saunters onstage. Shadowed under blue and purple spotlights, she cuts a polite, if reserved figure. Backed by a drummer and bassist/keyboard player, she is The Japanese House, a curator of a curious collection of bewitching ambient dream pop stacked with the kind of vocal harmonies Jeff Lynne would applaud. Her brand of off-kilter indietronica is featherweight in sound and execution, and matches the androgynous moniker she has taken, low-pitched look, baggy look and all.
|Amber Bain of The Japanese House, live at Manchester|
O2 Apollo in 2016. (Credit to Trust a Fox Photography.)
Her gig in Yorkshire’s biggest city – a stop on a headline tour to promote her third EP Swim Against the Tide – may only be a brisk fifty-five minutes, but she crams all her released material, and then some, into it. Opening with Clean, The Japanese House weave a hypnotic tapestry of reverb-drenched vocals and staccato guitar licks over floating, airy synths that runs through all twelve songs showcased. Bain is often shy and a touch flustered, a demeanour influenced by historic stage-fright, and as such, she keeps dialogue to a minimum. “Thanks very much,” she murmurs, whip-quick after the first song. “I can tell this is going to be a fun show.”
In a way, The Japanese House are a twenty-first century answer to a power-trio. As they drop woozy fretwork over club-like ambience on Teeth, there’s an instinctive primal thrill that manifests itself in the recesses, yet remains reined in. Pools to Bathe In sees roaring, windswept flourishes underscore the looping guitar figure draped languidly across the track whilst they find a rare strut on the shoegaze-esque Good Side In, the tumble of tom-toms scattered freely across its body. There’s a loosely coiled tension that permeates their sound; a friction that is almost unnoticeable in the way that the material lulls with trance-like refrains.
It’s a shame then that the atmosphere lacks at points. Dream-pop is not the most invigorating of soundscapes and the constant ebb and flow often creates spells where Bain can’t hold the crowd. Newer songs such as the Caribbean-tinged Swim Against the Tide and the aching Letter By the Water are diminished by a disinterest fostered through gentleness. She does capture them back at points – the Bondian piano chords that kick off Sugar Pill bring much needed drama – but the lushly-stacked work on show proves a little too relaxed for some.
|Amber Bain of The Japanese House performing live in|
Los Angeles in 2016. (Credit to Mallory Turner.)
But Bain still has some aces as she finishes off; new single Face Like Thunder, perhaps her most direct stab at mainstream pop yet, is a gloriously pulsating slice of synthpop, whilst closer Still packs an emotional punch, built upon echoing synth drops that ripple like a vast ocean. “We’ll be over by the merch stand after,” she says, with a mischievous smile, indicating the aforementioned table. “Come say hi.” The Japanese House have something great in their musical DNA and have honed it well so far – now though, they have to shake it up a bit to keep their fans on their toes.