Review Summary: Groovy
Genre innovators are something else. They’re sometimes the same artists that are labeled as “overrated” because their impact isn’t quite felt by everyone; not everyone was necessarily paying attention during their time, and when the offspring of their work floods the industry, some people just don’t quite see it. They may have walked their path for the first time, but after new artists become influenced by them, that path becomes worn and their impact grows transparent. While their music gets tossed in with every copycat, clone and wannabe, it’s easy to see them as garden-variety for the genre they created. Of course, this isn’t always the case.
Another thing is, genre innovators seem to have 2 critical albums in their discography; the album that invented
their sound, and the album that perfected
it. Look at musical pioneers like Massive Attack
. The former created the genre of trip-hop with their Blue Lines
debut, then received more critical praise with their later release Mezzanine
. Likewise, Metallica has Kill ‘Em All
to mark their strides into early thrash metal, and their third LP Master of Puppets
is often considered their strongest release.
Hailing from Hokkaidō, Japan is a lesser-known genre innovator of a lesser-known genre. The group is Pizzicato Five, consisting of members Maki Nomiya, Keitarō Takanami and Yasuharu Konishi, and the genre is “shibuya-kei”. Shibuya-kei is a style of pop music that melts together the genres of jazz, soul, electronic and ye-ye, undertaking a slightly psychedelic brand of 60’s music. They are in fact genre innovators. They debuted with Couples
in 1987, however the band didn’t really “invent” their sound until 1991, when This Year’s Girl
was recorded. This was when the band’s lineup was prime and they showcased their experimental sound properly. It was a classic for the genre, but their 1993 follow-up was even better. Bossa Nova
is Pizzicato Five’s sound perfected, their next classic, their Mezzanine
, and their Master of Puppets
Pizzicato Five gained popularity through their breakthrough single “Sweet Soul Revue”, showing off a newfound energy and melody for the band. Before this album, their sound was more laid back and loungey, with only their previous effort sharing the charisma of the group’s third and last vocalist, Maki Nomiya
. Nomiya pretty much became the heart and soul of the band on Bossa Nova
. On the side she was a fashion designer and model, and she undoubtedly brought her style to P5. The single was a great choice as the rest of Bossa Nova
is just as satisfying, if not more, than the song is. Old-school vibes of the 60’s aim to bring all things retro back in style through pop sensibilities without coming across as pretentious (see “Groovy Is My Name”). Nomiya’s vocal display is both mellow and cheerful, and accompanies the music wonderfully.
was produced by fellow Japanese musician Cornelius
, previously a member of his own shibuya-kei band and known today for his electronic solo work. Production is crisp and colorful to fit with the essence and imagery. On the surface, everything sounds like The Price is Right
’s theme song and very 60’s sounding, heard on “Saga”, “Sleeper” and “Sweet Soul Revue”. Past the aesthetic, and also borrowing from the 60’s theme, is Beatles-esque imagery and psychedelia. “Magic Carpet Ride” is the most way-out, ethereal song on the album, with “Peace Music’s” dreamy acoustic outro coming second. Themes like “Strawberry Sleighride” pervade the album in a fun and dreamy fashion. Besides the slightly trippy parts, the rest of the album is genuinely lively and a bit pretty, nailing the vivacious aspects most of the time but equally mellow with the likes of “Sweet Thursday”, “Eclipse” and “Rain Song”.
What makes this album a great candidate for the best illustration of their genre? Each style that shibuya-kei is inspired by is heard here in full-force. While this record isn’t as jazzy as some of their other pieces, it touches on soul and pop a bit more this time, which is where the aforementioned energy stems from. Everything else is sprinkled in even doses to keep the album rich with variety. Album opener “Rock n’ Roll” kicks things off lounge style, “Sweet Thursday” is a flowery French café ballad, “Eclipse” serves as the obligatory acoustic ballad, and there’s even a bit of salsa in “Go Go Dancer”. Each song can be distinguished for reaching out to a particular mood or style, but while keeping the songs close together instrumentally, never becomes inconsistent or convoluted. As a complete package, Bossa Nova
is identifiably “shibuya-kei”, and it defines the genre as a whole.
Fans of the band are split between 1991’s This Year’s Girl
and Bossa Nova
as to which album is better, but I’m siding with this one. This Year’s Girl
is stunning in its own ways, but their 1993 follow-up goes a step further with ambition, song textures and catchiness. With Bossa Nova
, shibuya-kei became a genre with zest, clever crossbreeding of genres, and charisma. Every song is appealing in its own way, and reaches to a broader audience. As a result, its hard to not see the impact they left on pop music. What demographic would enjoy this album? Any lover of indie-pop, Japanese music, retro resurrection, and legitimately fun music in general can find something to like here. Yes Pizzicato Five are genre innovators, yes the genre has flourished across the globe since, but no, they are not “overrated”, and when their genre is a little more underground like shibuya-kei, it’s hard to see them that way. In a way, the band is one of Japan’s best kept secrets, but completely worth checking out regardless.
"Sweet Soul Revue"
"Magic Carpet Ride"
"Groovy Is My Name"