Album: More Better Days (Compiled by Chee Shimizu)
Genre: Jazz-Funk, Fusion, Experimental
Label: Better Days
Quality: FLAC (tracks+.cue)
CD 1 – Avant-Wave:
Yasuaki Shimizu – Semi Tori no Hi (4:42)
Mariah – Shonen (5:01)
Mkwaju Ensemble – Tira-Rin (4:27)
Akira Sakata – Meuniere (4:57)
Colored Music – Ei Sei Raku (4:31)
Paradigm Shift – P.S. (:12)
Yasuaki Shimizu – Yume Dewa (4:49)
Mkwaju Ensemble – Wood Dance (7:22)
Colored Music – Heartbeat (5:54)
Pecker – Kylyn (6:39)
Atsuo Fujimoto’s Beat Jazz – Strangers in Island (3:13)
Mariah – Shinzo no Tobira (4:43)
Kylyn & Kazumi Watanabe – Mother Terra (3:33)
Ryuichi Sakamoto – Plastic Bamboo (6:28)
Kyoko Furuya – Harumi Futoh (4:17)
CD 2 – Funky & Mellow:
Tamami Koyake – You Wanna Rain (7:43)
Arakawa Band – Funky Fanky (5:16)
Mikio Masuda – Mickey’s Samba (4:42)
Shuichi “Ponta” Murakami – Huang Di (5:54)
Eri Ohno – Skyfire (5:14)
Pecker – Concrete Jungle (5:06)
Ryojiro Furusawa – Moonlight Slumber (8:07)
Kiyoshi Sugimoto – Night Train (6:17)
Kazumi Watanabe – Mellow Sunshine (6:47)
Eri Ohno – Living Inside Your Love (4:50)
Kylyn & Kazumi Watanabe – I’ll Be There (6:46)
Mikio Masuda – Moon Store (5:56)
The Japanese DJ/producer Chee Shimizu curates a two-volume selection of obscure Japanese pop that runs the gamut from jazz fusion to New Age and prog rock.
It looks as if Japanese music from the 1980s is finally garnering more attention in the west. The closest parallel to this moment might be to the mid ’90s, when German rock and electronic music beyond Kraftwerk and the Scorpions began to gain some traction in the States thanks to some timely reissues. This access in turn allowed kosmische music to be more readily woven into the musical fabric of a new generation, and it was easy to hear the influence of Can, Faust and Neu! on the likes of Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Stereolab, Radiohead, and more.
But navigating Japanese major label legalese has proven to be a stumbling block for enthusiasts hoping to bring much of this music back to light. Thankfully, last year’s reissue of Mariah’s final album Utakata No Hibi hinted that a thaw might finally be occurring. It didn’t hurt that it was an out-of-nowhere underground hit, selling out multiple pressings and landing on year-end lists, not bad for an album full of Japanese drums, skronking sax, ’80s studio slickness, and Armenian vocals. Part of Mariah’s buzz stemmed from the efforts of DJ/producer Chee Shimizu, known to pass copies onto his DJ friends in the west. His Obscure Sound book likely whetted appetites and added to numerous Discogs want lists searching for more of this stuff (the choicest albums on the label go for three-digit sums).
Now comes More Better Days, a two-disc set pulled from the short-lived Better Days label (which originally released the Mariah record) and curated by Shimizu. An offshoot of Nippon Columbia Co, Ltd. in the late ’70s, the sub-label focused on the then-popular jazz/ fusion scene cropping up in the country. Ever the meticulous selector, Shimizu deep-dives into the label’s catalog and divvies up the music along two axes: Avant-Wave and Funky & Mellow. No matter your knowledge of Japanese music, the sets at the very least showcase that country’s uncanny sense of fusion, juxtaposition and impeccable aesthetics that has enchanted and informed any number of western artists, from Bowie to Grace Jones to Björk. New Age abuts blocks of jazz saxophone, shredding prog-rock guitars meets koto drumming and/or early drum machine skitters, while the next song might be dubbed-out disco or what that scene in Lost in Translation might have been like had Bill Murray done a karaoke version of “Lowdown.”
The first disc, subtitled Avant-Wave, is the perfect entry for adventurous listeners, as almost every track presents bizarre musical connections as a matter of course. People thrilled by the manic style-mashing of Oneohtrix Point Never, Grimes, and Arca will find those artists’ strange sensibilities rooted here. Saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu’s (the man behind Mariah and the similarly revered album Kakashi) “Semi Tori No Hi” is a gentle sound bath of chimes and flutes that gets punctuated by martial snares and wobbling feedback, at once serene and destabilized. Colored Music—the lone 1981 collaboration between Atsuo Fujimoto and Ichiko Hashimoto—anticipates techno on the furious “Heartbeat,” while “Ei Sei Raku” somehow combines spiky post-punk guitars, Miles’ “Rated X” organ drones, female coos and a drum break as bombastic as anything Phil Collins did in ’80s Genesis into something coherent and cool.
The furious polyrhythmic patterns of the Mkwaju Ensemble’s “Tira-Rin” and “Wood Dance” will no doubt register for a western listener as similar to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a piece greatly influenced by Far East music systems like Balinese gamelan. So while it’s an exotic sound to our ears, it’s just as fascinating to hear that approach to ever-shifting rhythm and tonalities as just part of the pop fabric.
Inversely, More Better Days shows what it’s like when Japanese players obsess over the likes of Steely Dan, Bob Marley, and Lalo Schifrin. “Funk Fanky” by Arakawa Band sounds like a lost ’70s cop show theme, but one that charges on for over five minutes. “Huang Di” has the bass pop of “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” before taking a sax-laced hypnagogic detour. It’s not quite as charming as it sounds. The highlights include the sleek modern funk/AOR of vocalist Eri Ohno and the contributions from a conga player named Pecker, whose dead-on reggae cover of Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” were abetted by bringing the likes of Sly & Robbie, Aston “Family Man” Barrett and Augustus Pablo in for the session.
One of the major stars to come out of the Better Days imprint was Ryuichi Sakamoto, one-time member of Yellow Magic Orchestra who went on to be an early electro icon and collaborate with the likes of Iggy Pop, David Sylvian, and Fennesz, co-starred with David Bowie on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and most recently, collaborated with Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto on the soundtrack for The Revenant. Sakamoto’s nearly four-decade career is irreducible, and his chameleonic spirit might be the closest to that of Bowie. It’s this changeling quality of his music that informs More Better Days: Sakamoto contributes the effervescent synth-pop of “Plastic Bamboo” and then slides into the background as accompanist on other songs, adding George Duke licks one moment while dissolving into an ambient haze on another. Sakamoto’s sound can be both instantly identifiable and obscure at once, but his music is always surprising. So it goes for the majority of the music on More Better Days, even if the biggest surprise now is that this era of Japanese pop is readily available again.
by Andy Beta