I’m pretty sure that anyone who has had the good fortune to have come across the pillows can agree on one simple thing: they’re an undeniably cool band. It’s a pity that Japanese music gets such a bad rap due to its supposed over saturation of nasally, synthed-up, hentai-soundtrack-recording J-pop stars. I mean, the country produced the pillows, who are among the most creative and musically diverse bands of, well, all time. Throughout the course of their career, the pillows have encompassed sounds ranging from metal to indie pop, even mixing blues and progressive undertones into their music. On their third album, 1994’s Kool Spice
, the band explored a previously uncharted territory for their music, their peer’s music, and Japanese music in general: jazz.
Eschewing any retreads to their former sound (and yet giving no hints to future releases), Kool Spice
could almost be considered a straight up jazz fusion album. Considering the fact that the pillows are responsible for writing some of the most addictive pop and rock melodies of the past decade, their unique approach to Kool Spice
is a refreshingly surprising change of pace. Rather than focus on hooks and other pop aesthetics, the pillows choose to focus on technicality. The result is a sonically diverse record with decidedly minimalist tastes, yet with a jazzy funk to it that is two parts Medeski, Martin, and Wood
, one part Red Hot Chili Peppers
. Making such a beautifully dissimilar album may seem like a risky move, but the pillows have the sheer talent to pull it off flawlessly.
put slightly more emphasis on English phrases being worked into the lyrics sheet than the pillows’ previous releases. Songs like “Twilight Park Waltz” and “Naked Shuffle” for example, feature front man Sawao Yamanaka performing in dual languages, not unlike Cedric Bixler-Zavala, renowned voice of prog-rockers The Mars Volta
. “Twilight Park Waltz” is also an excellent showcase of the skill of Yamanaka and his fellow band mate Yoshiaki Manabe, on guitar. The beautiful guitar lines that flow over the song are reminiscent of John Mclaughlin
. Everything right up to the brilliant pseudo-solo is breathtakingly spectacular. If the pillows’ six-stringers ever needed to prove their mettle, I would recommend that they perform this song first and foremost. The brilliant guitar work extends to the rest of Kool Spice
as well. The introduction track, Monochrome Lovers
feels like a subtle fusion of the simplest U2
song, and a piece of summertime jazz that one could easily find at any corner during said season. “Sha-La-La-Lla” is equally awe-inspiring, crafting a slightly more intoxicating feel to it. The dream pop vocals of Yamanaka combined with the silky smooth guitar work, efficiently thumping bass, and marvelous drumming, make it yet another stand out track that makes Kool Spice
a must listen.
Naturally, “Sha-La-La-Lla” isn’t the only time on the album when drummer Shin'ichiro Sato cuts lose. On “Naked Shuffle,” the eclectic second to last song, Sato pounds the skins and rocks his cymbals with all authority. Sato is quite possibly the most musically talented member of the pillows, and that’s really saying something, given the band’s performance on Kool Spice
(as well as all their other albums). However, Kool Spice
is interesting from another standpoint as well: it is the first album to feature Tatsuya Kashima, the replacement for founding member Kenji Ueda, on bass. Kool Spice
would be the beginning of a seven year tenure for Kashima with the pillows (the longest of any of their revolving cast of bassists’ yet). Many would consider Kashima, who, like any subsequent replacement is considered to be a “support member,” to be a step down from Ueda. For the most part, that is relatively true, as he never quite captures the same happy-go-lucky, almost Flea-like sound of his predecessor. Still, his bass work is more than competent enough to carry the pillows trio of founders to music-induced ecstasy on Kool Spice
. It’s just a tad unfortunate that he couldn’t seem to muster the will to do anything amazing.
the pillows have an amusing habit of paying tribute to their respected peers or inspirations on each of their albums. While not the greatest of their Beatles
offerings (that would come later in the form of a whole album), “Toy Soldiers” seems to pay due homage. The pop-laden beats are relatively unlike the jazz club feel of the rest of Kool Spice
, yet the song contains the same type of feel to it as others on the album. The dual vocals are prevalent once again, especially in the primarily English chorus. Another curve ball that Kool Spice
throws at a listen is the bluesy jazz rock of “Be Careful Of Love Spies,” one of the most charmingly inspired songs on the record. Aside from featuring everything there is to love about the pillows and Kool Spice
, “Be Careful Of Love Spies” also brings new sounds and effects to the table (most prevalently the finger snapping which sounds like it’s straight out of a spoken word poetry reading). To round everything off, the pillows even mesh their Kool Spice
jazz vibe with hints of reggae on “In Front Of A Locked Door.” It’s extremely rare for bands to cover this many genres with such fluid translation, and the pillows prove to be just that: a rare band.
It isn’t all sunshine and roses, however. Kool Spice
has a few glaring weaknesses that seriously detract from it. Up until now, I’ve only mentioned how creative and inventive the dual language performance of Sawao Yamanaka. However, as charismatic a singer he is in his native language, the same doesn’t quite apply when it comes to English. Yamanaka’s voice often grates on your very last nerves, as he sounds like a bastard combination of Eddie Vedder and Brett Anderson (of Pearl Jam
respectively). In addition to the occasionally annoying vocals, what should be one of Kool Spice
’s greatest assets also becomes its greatest weakness: the variation. Not everyone likes to be surrounded by the sounds of mellow jazz, only to be jarred into a harder, faster song (albeit one that retains the same basic qualities). The final complaint to be had with Kool Spice
is it’s length. The album is merely too short at seven songs. A little more exploration into each individual genre (or just jazz in general, as that’s the strongest focal point to be found on the album) would’ve been nice.
Even after factoring in its faults, anyone who has had the good fortune to have heard this album will know one thing: it’s undeniably cool. Much like the pillows themselves. If for nothing else, Kool Spice
is worth a listen, because “Twilight Park Waltz” is quite possibly the perfect song (it’s easy to say this about several of the pillows’ songs, so I don‘t know how much water that still holds). Kool Spice
may not be the best or most creative of the pillows’ album catalog, but it’s certainly ambitious. Make sure that it isn’t your first experience with the band, but also make sure to give it a listen sometime. After all, you want to be undeniably cool, don‘t you?