Yellow Magic Orchestra burst upon the scene in the late ’70s with a refreshing and original blend of pop music and electronic sounds that established a new pop template and influenced musicians all over the world. The band broke up in 1983 and, apart from 1993′s one-off reunion album, “Technodon,” its three members — Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi — hadn’t worked together since.
So I was intrigued when I came upon “Audio Sponge,” which was released Sept. 19 by Hosono and Takahashi under the name Sketch Show. Not only is the album in the pop-electronica fusion tradition pioneered by YMO, it even features Sakamoto on two tracks.
Like much of Hosono’s recent work, “Audio Sponge” has a very sparse, minimalist feel. What’s missing are the great hooks and melodies that characterized classic YMO. Even the collaborations with Sakamoto — “Wonderful to Me” and “Supreme Secret” — don’t help raise the energy level much. It’s a fine line between ambient and soporific.
Slightly more interesting (at least to a ’60s music fan like me) are the tracks “Wilson” and “Flying George.’ The former features some lovely Beach Boys-style harmonies, while on the latter, Hosono and Takahashi momentarily abandon the pose of detached ironic cool that dominates the rest of the album and express their respect for the former Beatle. “You brought me the truth in northern songs,” the lyrics go. “You brought me the truth.” (Northern Songs was the name of the Beatles’ music publishing company, FYI).
According to the Sketch Show Web site, the album was recorded at various points during the past year when Hosono’s and Takahashi’s schedules allowed them to spend time in the studio together. So perhaps that explains the album’s disjointed, tentative quality. Both men are great talents — maybe next time they’ll paint a full musical canvas instead of a sketchy work like this.
Sketch Show will perform Dec. 5, 7 p.m., at Osaka’s Namba Hatch and Dec. 8, 7 p.m., at Tokyo’s Shibuya AX.
One of the latest sample CDs to show up on my doorstep is “Hello Copycat,” a three-song set by a New York-based band called Gaijin a Go-Go, which is made up of Americans (mainly Caucasians, as far as I can tell) who sing in Japanese and who have a yen, as it were, for Japanese pop culture.
And oh what funny monikers the band members have: There’s lead vocalist Kiku Kimonolisa, bassist Saiko Mikan, guitarist Kinki Pajamamoto, organist Mikasa S. Sukasa (geddit?), drummer Tatami Matt and back-up vocalist Kirin Karpernter. Ouch.
“For years, Japanese bands have been creating an altogether different, accidentally global, style of music by singing their songs in English,” states the band’s publicity handout. “Now it’s our turn.”
What condescending crap. Lots of Japanese musicians create great, original music not because they sing in English but because they are creative and inspired. Novelty acts like Shonen Knife who trade on their wacked-out English are hardly representative of J-pop as a whole.
Such cavils aside, “Hello Copycat” is a very fun CD. The opening track, “Ai Suru Tame Ni,” with its bright, ’60s-pop vibe, sounds like a head-on collision between Smashmouth and a beginning-level Japanese-language textbook. Sample lyrics:
“Hito wa ai suru tame ni/Hito wa ai ni ikiru (People live to love/People live for love).”
The title track is in a similar vein, while the third song, “Peggy Tsunami,” is a weird slice of pop psychedelia in which Ms. Kimonolisa tries to sound like Nina Hagen’s Japanese understudy. A rather frightening thought, actually.
Gaijin a Go-Go, who apparently opened for Puffy in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston this summer, do not yet have a deal with a Japanese record label. But I am told that “Hello Copycat” is available at the HMV store in Shinjuku.