Japanese pop travels badly Tune in: Japanese pop music may sound a little strange to Americans, but that's no reason not to listen.

February 19, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When the average American music fan slips a CD into the stereo and hits "play," there's a very good chance that the machine doing the playing is Japanese. It's a sure thing, though, that the music being played isn't.

Despite the fact that Japan has one of the largest and most active music markets in the world -- $3.6 billion in sales for the first six months of 1995, as compared with $5.1 billion in the United States, according to the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry -- Japanese pop remains a world unto itself. Japanese albums and singles don't chart in the United States or Europe, nor do names like Maki Ohguro, Namie Amuro or TRF mean much outside Japan.

Even when they do get recording contracts in the United States, artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Akiko Yano and Shonen Knife rarely garner more than a cult audience. So why hasn't Japanese pop produced an equivalent to baseball's Hideo Nomo?

Obviously, some of the problem lies with the language barrier. The last time a song sung in Japanese cracked the American Top 40 was 1963, when Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki" topped the charts. It's worth noting, though, that the single was called "Sukiyaki" because the record company assumed Americans wouldn't accept a song titled "Ue O Muite Aruko," and that both subsequent hit versions of the song were recorded in English (by Taste of Honey in 1981 and 4 P.M. last year).

But language isn't the only factor. There's also a difference in the Japanese approach to pop music, and that makes even mainstream pop seem slightly odd to American ears.

Take Pizzicato Five, for example. This group -- essentially just singer Maki Nomiya and composer/multi-instrumentalist Yasuharu Konishi -- is better established than most Japanese pop acts, with three EPs and two albums, including "The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five" (Matador OLE 166). Clearly, some of that acceptance has to do with the group's fondness for American pop idioms and its ability to stay on the cutting edge of fashion (not for nothing was the song "Happy Sad" featured in the film "Unzipped").

But unlike Western pop acts, Pizzicato Five doesn't play with older pop forms in order to seem "retro." For them, the only reason to work a bossa nova beat or a Bacharach & David-style vocal arrangement into a song is that it adds a flavor to the music. As a result, the P-5 sound is often astonishingly eclectic, taking a post-modernist glee in the variety of its allusions and borrowings. But no matter how wide its range of influences, the group makes sure to ground every track with a strong hook and a steady beat.

To that end, "The Sound of Music" makes an excellent introduction to the group, for not only does its track listing draw from a number of the Five's Japanese hits, it actually ups the English-language content on "Happy Sad," "CDJ" and "Groupie." It also boasts an inventive, Japanese-style package that includes a bilingual lyric book and a "Carte Pizzicato" fan club card.

"The Sound of Music" is not the P-5's most current release, however. That honor lies with "Romantique 96" (Triad COCA-12886, Japanese Import), a concept album boasting tougher beats (including the techno-style "Flying High" and the sample-heavy "Contact"), lusher ballads ("Tokyo, Mon Amour") and even a fling with rap ("Ice Cream Meltin' Mellow").

Just as eclectic -- but far more daring -- are Super Junky Monkey and Cibo Matto.

Super Junky Monkey is a Tokyo-based quartet whose sound is much harder than P-5's, skewing more to punk and hardcore hip-hop than the glossy pop Pizzicato Five prefers. Not only does the group seem equally fond of Public Image Ltd., Metallica and the Beastie Boys, but it has no trouble finding common ground among those sounds.

"Bakabatka" (literally, "Dummydummy!"), from the album "Screw Up" (Tristar 35015), matches funk drumming, droning punk guitar and dancehall toasting (in Japanese, no less), while "Kioku no netsuzou" alternates between crunchy Metallica-style power riffs and angular, King Crimson dissonance before dropping a few rap-style rhymes. Add in surprisingly accurate gloss on the Balinese gamelan Monkey Chant in "Shukuchoku no choro wa chirou de sourou," and you'll have a sense of just how varied Super Junky Monkey's sound is.

Cibo Matto, by contrast, takes a quieter and more accessible approach to its music. That's not to say the group's debut, "Viva! La Woman" (Warner Bros. 45986), is in any way a conventional pop album. As conceived by Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, two Japanese expatriates living in New York, Cibo Matto's music is moody, atmospheric and episodic, avoiding such niceties as normal song structure, conventional choruses and easily grasped hooks.

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