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There’s more to contemporary Japan than its fun-house-mirror view of the U.S.A., but you wouldn’t know it from Japanese pop music, which is obsessed with both the banality and the outlandishness of Western pop culture. From mainstream stars like the “teen idols” who enjoy brief runs of extraordinary popularity to bleached-blond heavy metalists to underground extremists like the Boredoms, Japanese pop reflects and refracts American style. No wonder that Pizzicato Five—invoking, probably by accident, a little-seen Godard film—has dubbed its first American long-player Made in USA.
Though the Five (actually a trio) produces archly eclectic beatbox-driven music that recalls Britain’s trendy Saint Etienne, it’s been around for almost a decade, recording for the most major of labels (CBS/Sony) and actually having hits in its homeland. Over here, though, the band was an object of amusement and bemusement at New Music Seminar “Psycho Nite” gigs before finally finding a patron in Matador, home of Pavement and Guided by Voices. Throwing such Cocktail Nation favorites as Burt Bacharach and Esquivel! in the blender with seaweed, sushi, hiphop, and the requisite irony, the Five’s sound is the ultimate post-rock imprimatur for Matador—there’s no way this sauntering, guitar-free music could be denounced as “rockist.”
Pizzicato’s Yasuharu Konishi, Keitaro (“K-Taro”) Takanami, and Maki Nomiya are sharper than any Cocktail Nation outfit you could name, capable of geopolitical gags that just wouldn’t occur to Combustible Edison. For example, the Five’s American discs (USA was preceded by a teaser, Five by Five, that duplicates three of the album’s tracks) are in “Super 301 Sound,” a reference to the U.S. trade procedure for penalizing Japan for not opening its markets to certain American products.
Of course, most Americans neither know nor care about Super 301, and despite the power of Sony and Mitsubishi Pizzicato is not negotiating from a position of (cultural) strength. The Tokyo trio obsesses over Americana that doesn’t much matter over here anymore, and is capable of true-romance and let’s-dance sentiments that (whether sung in English or translated on the lyric sheet) are just as banal as their inspirations. The “I want to dance all night long/Till the morning come” manifesto of “Go Go Dancer” could have been written in German, Italian, or Shona, and the Q&A recitation of the slightly tedious “This Year’s Girl 2”—“Who’s your favorite fashion designer? Betsey Johnson/Favorite lipstick? Elizabeth Arden/Foundation? Max Factor”—is not much subverted by un-American answers like “What were you doing last Sunday? Went to Meiji Shrine.” Though Nomiya also sings a strangely ardent song about the allure of chocolate, “Catchy,” Shonen Knife’s earnest cultural dislocations are more poignant than the Pizzicatos’.
Nomiya’s fashion sense—showcased with the CD’s 42 snaps of different hair/hat styles—is reportedly important to the group’s reportedly striking videos, and her wide vocal range is an agreeable change from the unrelenting chirpiness of most Japanese female singers. Still, it’s the music (mostly written by Konishi and Takanami) that really makes the 301 Sound super. Combining disco and hiphop with pre-Beatles pop, light jazz, and movie-soundtrack flourishes, the Five concoct a delirious, surprisingly stirring fusion. There are tunes that stroll like second-string Deee-Lite, but such antic tracks as “Sweet Soul Revue,” “Go Go Dancer,” “Peace Music,” and especially “Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond” play like soundtracks to chase scenes from imaginary ’60s spy movies—naive yet dynamic. As with Saint Etienne, the more gloriously melodic moments can make the indifferent beatbox shuffles seem all the more pointless, but when the Pizzicatos put it all together they really do make the guitar expendable. Made in USA is unlikely to shake up the country of its inspiration, but at best it’s much larger than some Tokyo hipsters’ idea of a cross-cultural joke.
Wherever there’s pop music, there’s the quest for something pure and primal—usually hailing from the south. For the Japanese, that means Okinawa, where the ancient gods haven’t all been paved over and music is traditionally more upbeat and outgoing than in formalistic Japan. The thump of Shang Shang Typhoon‘s opening song, “Paper Tiger,” has a resonance that the Five’s electrobeats never achieve, and subsequent tracks have a polyrhythmic appeal rare in Japanese music.
Unlike Okinawan eccentric Shokichi Kina, however, the seven members of S.S. Typhoon reportedly don’t have deep roots in the southern islands, and much of this album sounds as prefab (though not as knowingly so) as Made in USA. Warbling the praises of public baths, the blue sea, and flowers—or covering “Let It Be”—vocalists Satoko Nishikawa and Emi Shirasaki could be singing about anywhere. In fact, they do, in songs like “Riding on a Camel”—“Let’s go to the shining straits of Bosporus”—and “Take Me to the Elysium,” which conflates the Mediterranean with the Indonesia of “gamelan melodies.”
Gamelan-style percussion helps propel these songs, and deliberate drumming and unison singing give “On the Morning of the Flower Festival” a traditional appeal. Nishikawa and Shirasaki’s voices are one-dimensional, though, and over the course of these 10 mostly sprightly songs the Typhoon loses a lot of force. Nothing matches the kick of the two opening tracks, “Paper Tiger” and “Hot Night in Yokosuka.”
There are simple musical reasons for this, like the fact that “Paper Tiger” breaks the vocal monotony with a male singer. These tunes are also the only two political ones, though, and there’s nothing like a good grudge to animate a pop song. “Hey, Uncle Sam,” the Typhoons taunt, “Your tail’s on fire/Hey, Uncle Sam/Your back’s against the wall/Black-hearted, scheming/Staggering as you walk.” Anti-Americanism is a powerful tonic, and the uptempo propaganda of “Tiger” is even more compelling than “Hot Night,” which merely brushes off randy American sailors. Oddly enough, then, the link between the superslick Pizzicatos and the rustic Typhoons is Yankee imperialism. Whether protesting it or wallowing in it, Japanese popsters just can’t dance without thinking of America.