A stunningly beautiful work of Great 3 genius

by Steve McClure

One sure sign of the maturation of a pop-music culture is when artists start releasing albums that are organic, cohesive works of art, instead of collections of their latest hit singles with some B-grade tracks as filler. “May and December,” the latest from Japanese pop/rock band the Great 3, is such an album. It’s a stunningly beautiful collection of songs that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the J-pop pack.

The Great 3, music connoissuers making eclectic pop

The group was formed in 1994, when guitarist Akito Katayose, bassist Kiyoshi Takakuwa and drummer Kenichi Shirane left the Rotten Hats to form a new musical ensemble. The result was the Great 3 (the name refers to the fact that all three guys are rather tall). Frontman Katayose is what’s known in Japanese as a kurotogonomi, which roughly translates as “connoisseur.” When I interviewed the band a while back, Katayose confessed to buying more than 50 CDs a month, which goes some way to explaining the Great 3’s diverse set of influences.

Live, the Great 3 is a hard-rocking power-pop band whose sound is fleshed out by additional musicians. In the studio, they go for eclecticism with a capital “E.” Brian Wilson and the High Llamas are the band’s most obvious stylistic reference points, but Jimi Hendrix, bluegrass, soul and Japanese kayokyoku pop are other key influences. On “May and December,” all of those styles have come together in a brilliant, organic fashion. The album reminds me of Shuggie Otis’ recently reissued “psychedelic soul” masterpiece, “Inspiration Information.”

Now, I should point out that the Japanese music scene has produced classic albums over the years. “Blood Line” by Shokichi Kina and Champloose, “Hosono House” by Haruomi Hosono and, most recently, “First Love” by Hikaru Utada are just a few of the albums that deserve repeated listenings and will hold up as works of art for years to come. But in a music market that still largely caters to the teenage and thus singles-oriented demographic, such albums are more the exception than the rule.

Here’s a whizzo analogy for you: An album is to a single what a novel is to a short story. Singles and short stories have a direct, immediate impact, while albums and novels derive their power from a series of impressions that add up to a cumulative whole. You may not remember all the details of the first few chapters of a book or the opening songs on an album, but they resonate on some level in your mind as you reach the end.

A great album should be more than the sum of its parts — dare I mention the dread word “synergy”? In pop music, the classic example is the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s,” where the individual songs (with the possible exception of the magnificent “A Day in the Life”) aren’t as impressive as the album’s total 39 minutes and 50 seconds. “May and December” is just 44 minutes, but the Great 3 manages to pack it with more musical wallop than most bands can with much longer albums.

The album’s prevailing mood is a kind of melodic melancholy. Each song flows into the next almost imperceptibly, in much the same way as the tunes do on the Beach Boys’ masterpiece “Pet Sounds.” The first two songs, “Bee” and “Sad Dancer,” set the tone: mellow without being soporific, wistful but not wimpy. The third track, “ACAN,” is one of the album’s standout tracks, with its hypnotic, loping bass line and cryptic, minimalist lyrics. On tracks such as “Brother’s Shadow,” the Great 3 leave their rock roots far behind as they venture into jazz-tinged sonic territory, with complex arrangements featuring horns, harpsichord and woodwinds. It’s this determinedly eclectic approach that has always made the Great 3 a hard sell for their label, Toshiba-EMI.

“Quincy,” previously released as a single, to me makes more sense as part of the song cycle that makes “May and December” such an artistic triumph. While the band is credited with composing, arranging, performing and producing all the songs on the album, it’s significant that American musician/producer John McEntire (best known for his work with Tortoise and The Sea and Cake) is given prominent billing as mixer. But “May and December” is very much the Great 3’s creation — McEntire is not a Phil Spector, imposing his musical vision on a group of performers in the studio.

Maybe — just maybe — “May and December” will be the Great 3’s breakthrough album. It’s already on my list of top 10 J-pop albums of 2001.