When it came out, Tenfour’s “Wish Book” marked something wonderfully new for Cheapbeats. A popular label for chiptune and lo-fi music, this is the first time in my memory they’ve released something so distinctly modern and inspired more by videogame music than the chip scene. Soundtracks, and VGM in general, were my entryway to taking an interest in composition, which led me to the Chiptunes=WIN community, so I’m going to take this opportunity to try something new myself and write out my thoughts about it. Because this isn’t just a phenomenal album, it’s also *right* up my alley. Let’s dissect why it works so well.
“This album has it all. Funk, rock, pop, absurdity, jazz, swing, sex.” – Cheapshot
‘Miss Muscle’ was a really solid choice of an opener. It not only establishes a fun and laid back vibe, but by starting off slow enough for you to get comfortable with it, this makes the direction it goes in even more intriguing. Just as you’re getting used to the song’s formula, the end of the chorus at 1:20 uses a tense dissonant dominant chord, held longer than normal, and from there it enters unfamiliarity. An entirely new progression follows, accompanied by quirky turntables and vocal chops. And once the fun and brilliantly layered vgm sounds come back, we’ve adjusted to the style and don’t even notice the track never returns to the foundation it started on.
I don’t have too much to say about this track itself, but I do think it has some great examples of chiptune influence, specifically when you consider that every track in Wish Book was made in Renoise. I recently gave Renoise a try – it’s a very unique DAW that features most of the look and functionality of a tracker. While this album may not be filled with pulse waves or low-fi wave channels, the way melodies utilize pitch bends and vibrato are certainly reminiscent of the chip scene. The percussion also has a feel to it that is definitely affected by the vertical workflow. I find that in tracker music, percussion complements the other parts more often, while if you’re working in a horizontal DAW it’s easier for drums to be in longer and more separate loops.
For what I can only assume is an autobiographical account reflecting on illegal goods and high stakes alliances, ‘Contraband’ is catchy as hell. Right off the bat, it is all about subverting expectations, showcasing a completely different instrumentation (vocals!!) and sound from what we’ve heard so far. The opening line, which shows up a couple different times in the song, has a steady triplet feel – but it leads right into a contrasting syncopation-filled swing beat. And while the meter may be consistent aside from this, one of the bridges (the form is pleasantly not straightforward) also ends a measure sooner than all of the other phrases, jumping right into the chorus. This jumpiness extends to individual moments too, with fills that move unpredictably, melodic lines, and spontaneous synth stabs. The vocal technique in the chorus suddenly switches as well, when singing “Contraband.” All in all, this song is expertly pieced together to make it memorable. Which is fitting, I mean, I imagine a past life of crime is hard to forget. I hope making this was cathartic, Tenfour. Please keep sharing. We’re here for you.
‘Domino Hot’ does everything it possibly could to earn its title. This is hot. It doesn’t merely have Stéphane Mercier on saxophone, it feels created specifically for this collaboration. While previous tracks liked to throw new things at the listener, everything here is complementary. The initial rhythm section is a familiar backdrop for these appetizing new saxophone melodies. Dynamic percussion, slappy bass movement, and synth runs help fill in space during rests in the main themes. This, along with the excellent piano solo, adds to an already classy atmosphere. The extended saxophone feature in the middle is especially impressive, not just because of the playing, but also because of how it interacts with the direction the song takes underneath it. Sure there are smooth melodies and slick jazzy runs, but they also go hand in hand with the progressions, transitions, pacing, and arrangement – which is why it’s so effective. Another reason why I think this track clicks is how it doesn’t shy away from creative jazzy harmonies, but the voicings and overall style make it so they’re never blatantly dissonant. This leads to some masterful tension and release in both melody and harmony, while still feeling smooth and moving the track forward.
I feel like these first few tracks do a really good job showcasing this album’s quality and style, so for the sake of brevity I’ll be skipping around from here.
This track surprised me, which is impressive considering I’ve seen my fair share of donut conspiracies already. It starts out bumping – the rhythm already carrying a multifaceted retro aesthetic. The drums and pacing sound straight out of synthwave/retrowave, maybe a bit more relaxed, while the bass chugs are very reminiscent of funky tracker tunes. Actually, the bass and synth choices reminded me of some songs off the Spelunky soundtrack in particular (if you haven’t heard that, it’s fantastic). This track also does a great job fitting between what comes before and after it. The slow and interesting buildup works nice following a more stable track that ends on a softer note, and the instrumentation sets us up for what’s next just as well. I like that this one doesn’t get too technical, its simplicity contrasts some of the more complicated songs. Details like that set this up as a solid album rather than just a collection of solid tracks.
This is another fantastic tune – it takes the style of ‘Donut Conspiracy’ and ramps the pace and intrigue up to eleven. It has these wonderful unresolved harmonies, restless melodies, and sound design that quickly bounces from one idea right to the next. Choices like synths hits on 4 and a repeating octave line give ‘Tokyo Blue’ even more of that on-the-edge personality. I love it.
So, this one is my favorite track. Unfortunately, listening to it also apparently opens me up to being possessed by spirits. I start dancing uncontrollably in alien fashion. I can only speak in short incomprehensible sounds. As a result, these seem to be the most coherent notes I was able to take.
I do want to point out the fantastic ending that ‘Spinster’ has though. It’s appropriate, conclusive, and adds something new to the piece. I wish that other tracks on here (such as ‘Tokyo Blue’) also had a more creative finish. Quite a few tracks in ‘Wish Book’ either end abruptly or have fadeouts. This makes sense from the perspective of a vgm influence, which usually loops, but because this album has its own special character I’m really curious as to how that character would show in more distinct “ending” sections.
‘Sleeveless’ is most notable for this repeated rhythmic motif where everything seems to hold for a few beats. This is another great usage of tension and release that doesn’t rely on dissonance – something I pointed out in ‘Domino Hot’ that helps smoothen things out. It keeps the song moving. ‘Sleeveless’ also has some really neat tension and release in the melodies, which are just super interesting harmonically and fit into the arrangement in pleasant and surprisingly relaxing ways. The consistent and gutsy rhythmic idea does make me wonder what Tenfour could do with more uncommon meters though. This album’s funk/jazz/vgm elements are essential and help tie it together, but I would be interested in seeing Tenfour try something different in the future. 🙂
Of the last two tracks, ‘Home Away from Home’ feels like it could be the background music for the last scene of a lighthearted movie. One where everyone is chilling out together, after finally beating the bad guys! I like this track a lot because it isn’t just pretty – it also has a very full sound, with mellow instruments, fancy progressions, and tasty vgm funk. It feels as if the mix is more of a collage. And if the penultimate track is your ending theme, then ‘Crackers for Breakfast’ is the reflective and cinematic credits roll. Dramatic ambient chords with a hint of meditation fade in, until it picks up with percussive bass stabs, followed by a gorgeous PWM lead and plenty of other subtle melodic elements that add some flavor. These last two tracks are both culminations of the styles and ideas sprinkled throughout the album, but in vastly different ways. It’s just such a smart way to wrap up an album like this.
And with that, I guess it’s time I wrap up the article. Hope you enjoyed my analysis, and if you’re into tracker tunes, funky jazz absurdity, and/or soundtrack music – I highly recommend checking out Wish Book!