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Come back, come back wherever you were . . .

by Steve McClure

As part of its continuing effort to promote J-pop overseas, Sony last week released an album in the United States titled “Japan for Sale 2,” which is a great all-around introduction to Japanese music.

Now, before I go any further, I should declare that I have something of a vested interest in this project, since I wrote the liner notes for “Japan for Sale 2.”

Although all the songs are by Sony artists, the album manages to strike a good balance between straight-ahead J-pop, with female vocal acts such as Chara, Aco and Puffy (here called Puffy Amiyumi), the avant-rock of the Polysics and Supercar, and the club-oriented sounds of artists like DJ Krush, Takkyu Ishino and Ken Ishii.

“Japan for Sale 2″ is mainly aimed at the kind of musically adventurous people who listen to college radio, explains Tomoko Yamamoto, senior manager at Sony Music Entertainment Japan’s international marketing department.

She says another target market for Sony is the Asian-American community, among whom Chinese-Americans are — interestingly enough — the biggest consumers of J-pop in the United States. That’s according to YesAsia ( us.yesasia.com ), which claims to be the largest online source for Asian pop-culture goodies. (Bill Haw, general manager of YesAsia’s Japan office, speculates the reason J-pop is most popular among Chinese-Americans is because of their stronger sense of community and “Asian-ness.”)

The “Japan for Sale” concept (“Japan for Sale 1″ was released in the U.S. in January 2001) is an outgrowth of Sony’s “Japan Not for Sale” series of promo albums, which were distributed to college radio stations and various music mags in the States a few years ago. They proved so popular that Sony decided to market similar compilations to the broader community of Japanophiles and hip trendsetters.

“Japan for Sale 2″ is also set for release in Canada and various parts of Asia in the near future. The album won’t be on sale here in Japan, which is too bad, as there are all too many expatriates living here whose knowledge of Japanese pop music begins and ends with Morning Musume. They could benefit from this compilation, which shows how stylistically diverse Japanese pop music is these days. It also provides ample proof that Japanese recording artists are simply making great, original music — even if you have to dig a little to find the good stuff.

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Ringo Sheena, one of the few Japanese musicians to have managed to retain more than a bit of artistic integrity while selling truckloads of CDs, is back in the studio after taking a year’s maternity leave. She’s now recording an album comprising 18 covers of songs by various artists, both Japanese and foreign, including The Beatles’ “Yer Blues.” That classic Lennon angst anthem is a great choice for a Ringo (Sheena, not Starr) rendition, given her aggressive rock sound and the snarling, vitriolic way she spits out her lyrics. Sheena’s also doing a version of “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” that cloyingly saccharine tune “sung” by Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot.” The mind boggles . . .

The album is titled “Utaite Myori” and will be released on May 27.

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Comeback Dept. Part II: Yoshiki, former drummer/pianist of disbanded rock group X Japan, has announced that he’s forming a new band called VioletUK. According to Yoshiki’s record label, Extasy Japan, VioletUK will play “digitalelic” music, i.e., a rock-techno fusion. Apart from Yoshiki, the other members of the band will be non-Japanese — no word yet on just who they might be. VioletUK’s first album is set for worldwide release out this autumn.

Yoshiki maintained a relatively low profile following the death in 1998 of X Japan guitarist Hide, but in the last couple of months he’s gradually moved back into the limelight with various public appearances. There’s no question that he’s a talented guy, although sometimes it seems he’s had a good-taste bypass — take the egregiously schmaltzy “Eternal Melody” album he did a few years back with Beatles producer George “Can I have my check now?” Martin. More like “Eternal Malady.”

X Japan, with their raucous glam-rock and decadently androgynous image, set the template for the “visual-kei” genre when they burst onto the scene back in the late ’80s and became massively popular for daring to be original. These days “visual-kei” is pretty well a spent force, and Yoshiki doesn’t look like a drag queen on acid anymore. In fact he’s actually a very astute businessman, with a much clearer grasp of the importance of things like copyrights and digital media than most other Japanese musicians. But just how VioletUK will go over with a new generation of music fans is anybody’s guess.