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‘Sakana Zukan’: Sakanaction excels when it wades through shallow territory

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Now that Spotify playlists have supplanted albums as the preferred method of consuming an artist’s work, the concept of greatest-hits compilations feels both prescient and redundant, like releasing DJ mix albums in the era of SoundCloud. For the musicians themselves, though, such compilations can offer an opportunity to reappraise discographies and reshuffle the pieces to more flattering effect.

Sakanaction’s Ichiro Yamaguchi has apparently never come across a piscine metaphor he didn’t like, and he approaches the task of filleting his band’s oeuvre with academic diligence. “Sakana Zukan” (“Book of Fishes”) comes packaged with a dense textbook of trivia and is available in two- and three-disc versions, the latter of which clocks in at nearly four hours.

The release arrives at an interesting time for the band, currently prepping a follow-up to its self-titled 2013 album — its first to reach the top spot on the Oricon charts. Rather than opt for a standard chronological approach, Yamaguchi and co. have scattered selections from throughout their career over the discs, which are organized into three categories: “Shallows,” “Mid-Water” and “Deep Sea.”

While that might seem to signal a clear division between singles, album tracks and rarities, it doesn’t prove to be quite so simple. The 2015 compilation “Natsukashii Tsuki wa Atarashii Tsuki” (“A Nostalgic Moon is a New Moon”) has already rounded up all the outliers in the group’s discography, so aside from a token new song (“Kagerou”) and an acoustic version of an older one (“Good-Bye”), there’s nothing here that dedicated fans won’t already have.

Nor is it a case of the band saving its most experimental moments for the deeper reaches of its catalog. Yamaguchi has always been up-front about his desire to appeal to a wider audience, and his understanding of the different approaches that this entails. But one of the pleasures of his songwriting — and the band’s arrangements — is the way it often reserves its boldest gambits for the most overtly crowd-pleasing moments.

The first disc, “Shallows,” offers ample evidence of this. The exuberant “Yoru no Odoriko” waits nearly three minutes to get to its glow stick-worthy chorus; “Rookie” and “Light Dance” are both generously laden with hooks but seem more interested in showing off their groovy synth sounds than in going for the jugular.

On “Bach no Senritsu o Yoru ni Kiita Sei Desu” (“It’s Because of Listening to Bach Melodies at Night”), the anthemic chorus segues abruptly into a snippet of the titular composer’s “Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.” The 2007 song “Night Fishing is Good” pivots from quotidian guitar-rock to fleet disco-funk, to the kind of operetta vocal arrangements that 10CC used to go in for.

In the band’s most cravenly populist moments — like “Aoi,” which sounds exactly like you’d expect a song written to accompany TV soccer broadcasts to sound — you could be listening to any of a dozen other mainstream J-rock acts. Yet it’s striking how many of the “big” songs don’t go for the easy option.

The opening stretch of the second disc (“Mid-Water”) rounds up some of Sakanaction’s more restrained exercises in dance-pop, and while the selections are individually solid enough, they’re so similar in structure and tempo that they lose impact when heard back-to-back. Things get more interesting later on: “Kamen no Machi” is as endearingly cheesy as anything Scissor Sisters has done, while “Endless” and “Years” both threaten to get mired in whiny indie-rock before unleashing their inner dancing queen.

There are a few diverting stylistic experiments on the third disc, “Deep Sea,” but the abiding impression is that Sakanaction has done some of its best work while sticking to shallower waters.