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Sophomores who shine in a new light

by Steve McClure

Second albums are notoriously difficult, especially if an act’s first album has been a success. But on “Modern Lights,” Kobe-based pop/jazz duo Orange Pekoe have avoided the “sophomore-album syndrome” by broadening their stylistic template to create a work that demands to be listened to on its own terms, not simply as a followup.

“Modern Lights” (due out July 2) is a much more eclectic group of songs than last year’s “Organic Plastic Music,” which focused on Orange Pekoe’s love of jazz and bossa nova.

“I think that on the first album we wanted to give a certain color, so we focused on jazz and bossa nova,” says vocalist Tomoko Nagashima. “But on the second album, we wanted to make a collection of our favorite music.”

The jazzy vibe is still present on the album’s opening track, “Beautiful Thing,” as well as the second cut, “Metro,” which ventures into pure jazz territory, with some hot guitar, sax and piano improvisation. The rest of the album, though, is all over the place stylistically, with insistent Afro-Latin percussion providing the perfect backing for Nagashima’s impassioned vocals on “Yoakenouta (Evening Song),” for example.

“Gokurakuchou (Bird of Paradise)” has a fun, big-band sound, while “Hasu (Lotus)” has a funky drum-and-bass rhythm track with a ’70s-style synthesizer riff that betrays the duo’s Stevie Wonder influence.

“I really like pop music, especially with beautiful melodies,” says Kazuma Fujimoto, “but I like jazz as well. You can have very sensitive, artistic jazz, as well as very pop-oriented jazz. So I wanted to put all these jazz and pop elements together.”

Fujimoto admits to being an out-and-out Beatles fan — his favorite song is “I Should Have Known Better,” which he starts singing with gusto in the middle of the interview as the pixie-ish Nagashima looks on bemusedly.

Nagashima normally writes her lyrics in Japanese, but on Orange Pekoe’s new single, a delicate ballad called “Niji (Rainbow),” she sings in English (with mixed results, it has to be said).

“Because of the message in ‘Niji,’ we wanted to have more people listen to the song and identify with it,” she explains.

Nagashima says she got the idea for “Niji” while watching TV.

“There was an image of a ship that had been sunk during the war,” she recalls. “It had such a big impact on me. I imagined what it would be like to lose loved ones. I just wished everybody could share the same feeling and look for world peace. I know it sounds idealistic, but if everybody felt the same way . . . “

And the image of a rainbow came to Nagashima when she was listening to one of Fujimoto’s demos. Orange Pekoe’s songwriting modus operandi sees Fujimoto record a basic demo track, which he then passes to Nagashima. She comes up with the lyrics on her own, after letting the music suggest visual images to her.

“When I listened to the tape, I saw a rainbow over the water,” she explains. “I interpreted the rainbow as being like all of us with different colors, different thoughts or ideas. But rather than saying we are different, we should accept and understand the differences between us all.”

And that kind of “unity in diversity” approach is what makes “Modern Lights” such a solid album. Musically solid, yes, but not as overtly commercial as Organic Plastic Music.

* * * What a difference a year makes. While last year’s inaugural MTV Video Music Awards Japan ceremony was an organizational disaster, this year’s show (which took place May 25) ran like clockwork.

Although it was held in the rather soulless confines of the Saitama Super Arena, the show managed to have a much warmer feel than the 2002 event, which took place at the smaller, more conveniently located Tokyo International Forum.

Instead of the hapless London Boots, who emceed the 2002 event, this year’s show was hosted by the very cool and professional duo of male rapper Zeebra and actress/singer Nana Katase. Much of their banter was scripted, of course, but they came across as natural and genuinely happy to be there.

Zeebra, for example, was clearly in awe when he spoke with the two surviving members of Run D.M.C. — Run (Joseph Simmons) and D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) — who were on hand to accept this year’s Legend Award.

Some wags suggested the event should have been titled the “Rip Slyme Awards,” since that Japanese rap group walked away with three awards: Best Video of the Year, Best Group Video (both for “Rakuen Baby”) and Best Hip Hop Video (“Funkastic”).

There were fewer big-name foreign artists on hand compared with last year’s show. Avril Lavigne was in Tokyo at the time of the show, but apparently she’s suffering from awards-show OD. (It’s tough at the top.) She got the Best New Artist in a Video Award, by the way, for “Complicated.”

Eminem, who won the curiously titled Best Video from a Film Award for “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile,” apparently decided to hop it back to the States the day before the show due to his fear of SARS. And we all know what a big problem that is here in Japan. What a mensch.

Speaking of health hazards, Courtney Love, trouper that she is, was on hand to present the Best Rock Video Award. Noting that the nominees included some of her friends and some of her enemies (could she have been referring to the Foo Fighters, perchance?), she announced that the award was going to Red Hot Chili Peppers for their song “By the Way.”

“Unfortunately, they couldn’t be here tonight because Flea is baby-sitting my daughter,” Love explained. But of course.

The Peppers then appeared by the magic of prerecorded video to accept the award, with Flea ending a very funny and surreal set of remarks by saying “God bless Japan and all its beautiful Japanese people and all its beautiful Japanese nipples.” What a tit.

MTV Japan president Yu Sasamoto says next year’s show will likely be held in yet another location to ensure variety.