A popular post-2000 practice is to add the word “art” to the front of any genre name: art rock, art punk, art pop. It denotes strangeness, and usually a sense of clinical restraint. Otouto is a self-proclaimed art pop band, and you can’t really fault them for the label, because all other ways of describing their fantastically unique aesthetic — minimalist soul, cupboard pop — sound much stupider. This Melbourne-based band consists of Kishore Ryan and sisters Hazel and Martha Brown. Both sisters sing, Hazel plays guitar, Martha sings, and Kishore plays not only the drums, but also the pots. And, though Pip does sound as if it could have been cooked up by some art school grads just goofing around, that doesn’t mean it’s not an extraordinary debut and one of the year’s best records.
Opener “Astronauts” is restrained but not passionless, self-assured in its own power. The effect is astonishingly refreshing; this is exactly the right choice for track one. The melody twists and turns as the drums tumble erratically, like falling hail, building to a strangely sparse, odd, and beautiful chorus: “Falling in love is like watching a really long video.” Follow-up “Cartoon Shoes” is gorgeous. In sound it echoes its predecessor, but in tone forges new, exciting territory. The next few songs, however, are less impressive. They’re much more art than pop, and the sound suffers for it. “Low Dan” evolves from a plodding, art house bore in the verse to a decent but forgettable pop song in the chorus. Its best moment is the bridge, a rhythmically and melodically interesting flicker in an otherwise uninteresting song. “Twelve Ten” is mathematical and dull, notable only for glimmers of strings and feedback that hint at a much better song.
But after a pretty annoying 50-second instrumental segue, “Autumn” marks the album’s return to something great. Folksy and brooding, the intriguing contrast of the atonal guitar work and rich melody carry it far. Here the band stays true to their genre’s characteristic restraint: with any other band, this song might explode at the climax. The subtlety is oddly satisfying. “W. Hillier” is an eccentric, staccato romp, an odd little dream-poem about Walter Hillier (a British diplomat and sinologist). It’s absurd but fun, and if it’s excessively arty, it’s too well executed to matter. By contrast, “Tennis Players” is a stunningly emotive breakup song. It’s abnormally lucid and narrative. This is the album’s most profoundly beautiful song, and lyrically its best: “The only reason I want to see you/Is to give you back/All of the shit you weighed me down with.” The band returns to absurdity with “Sushi,” which has the closest thing to a danceable groove on the album, and a rather successful one. “Plum” is a strange closer. The lyrics consist primarily of a single looped phrase, while the music ebbs and flows of its own will, building into an electronic bombast that is easily the album’s emotional high point before dissolving into a flutter of snare drum.
Already a seasoned opening band, with this album Otouto prove they’re ready to be opened for instead. Pip’s highs easily exceed its lows, but even if they didn’t, their perspective is unique, which, in a media-saturated world, is a triumph in itself. Marrying earnest pop emotionality with a DIY art house aesthetic, Otouto give art pop a good name; their followers should be proud to earn the same label.