Review Summary: This is for the hearts still beating.
Look, I don’t know about you, but the emergence of City Pop in the past few years haven’t been all too kind to the genre. Originally, it was something associated with luxury and sophistication; in correlation with a bustling economy and the Japanese city life, the niche genre was something aimed at a contemporary audience with, shall we say, equally sophisticated tastes. In the present day, the target audience has grown older and in the age of mass media spreading content worldwide, City Pop has found a home on internet forums, blogs, and most notably, Youtube. If by chance you were to stumble upon something like Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love,” you’d be subjected to a flood of similar songs you’d never know exist otherwise; which is why the reappraisal of the genre does not surprise me. It could be something totally alien to Western audiences – that being the combination of a variety of genres not regularly associated with 21st century pop music – and something entirely unique, despite the accessibility of City Pop as a whole.
One of the stalwarts of the genre in its second wind, and like many of them, unappreciated on its initial outing, Sunshower
is a diamond in the rough: it’s quirky, it’s clever, and is certainly eclectic, which cannot be said for a solid third of the array of City Pop records that have found their way to a many persons’ internet collections. City Pop was incredibly conceited back in the day, and even now, reflects upon a lifestyle that dwells in its fantasies and is honestly bland no matter how you want to put it. Many of these albums you see being touted as some obscure gem, at best, contain one hell of a single and very little else to entice someone to listen to it more than once. It’s not encouraging to say the least. That I can’t say about Onuki’s body of work, fortunately enough.
Taeko Onuki, once a member of Sugar Babe, was onto something with 1976’s Grey Skies
. While it wasn’t all that it sought to be, it was a record with surefire ambition; it had personality in spades and tended to overachieve when it fell short of the mark and into the grey area of adequacy. For an artist setting out on her own, Onuki had yet to reach, nor comprehend the heights she could reach as a solo musician. The hard part was recording an album that could set her apart from the rest; she had an all-star lineup returning from Grey Skies
, the most notable being Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono of Yellow Magic Orchestra fame, with Sakamoto bearing the duty of putting together the arrangements and musical direction for the recording of Sunshower
. Grey Skies
could be easily seen as Onuki and Sakamoto’s dry run, an album that tested the brawn of its composer and those who accompanied her but at the end of the day, it was your average City Pop album. Sunshower
benefits from two things in exact; it has the infectious catchiness of your regular old pop song in unison with soothing harmonies and a smoking hot band laying down grooves bound to worm its way into your head, and it has the capability to experiment with the pop art form and could afford to take risks with deep cuts such as the delicate ambiance of “Sargasso Sea” and the classical-meets-funk fusion “Furiko no Yagi” to back it up.
The inclusion of eclectic mood pieces makes the charm of Sunshower
all the more apparent. It’s a record with blatant jazz inflections so smooth, so cool, that it’d be jarring not
to hear a stylish melody joining Onuki’s soft voice on a song like “Tokai,” where the harmonies and electronic jittering are a part of why that song works so well. Were you to take the safety net of jazz and funky rhythms out of Onuki’s cunning hands, Sunshower
would be a record without its character – it’d still have its talented ensemble and creativity – but it’d be devoid of the personality and the individuality of the people who put their time and effort into recording the album. To some, the abundance of City Pop bastardizing jazz and folk by incorporating it into far more streamlined sounds is nothing short of unspeakable; an act that bankrupts the integrity of its artists and the art form by shoehorning it into songs about how good life in the city is (and other sweet nothings), but when I hear something like “Summer Connection,” all that shit is thrown out the window. Why should I care about integrity when I could find enjoyment in quality pop music? That’s exactly
what I get from an album like Sunshower
in all its jumbled glory, and that’s what you should get from it too.
But when looking back at City Pop at a whole, it represented a time that went as fast as it came – bottoming out by 1990 – and never reaching its former peak again. Everything everywhere, not just in Japan, rose in price; luxury now being something far more restricted to those who had the money to afford it and the rise of DIY signaling the death knell of a niche that gorged itself on decadence and spewed out false promises to a generation of people who had yet to experience the hardships of life. I could be getting way too ahead of myself, and you could call this review a critique of City Pop as a concept, but if you were to ever
find yourself in a situation where you had nothing to listen to and needed a record to simultaneously entertain you and
enhance your appreciation of pop music, Sunshower
would, without a doubt, do just that for anyone. I won’t go as far to say it’s the “definitive” City Pop album, but for a genre with very little to offer outside watered-down jazz funk clichés and folk pastiches, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to “definitive.”
It’s not about the way Sunshower
presents itself to its unsuspecting listener, but more about how
it sets its case. It’s convincing in its conviction to exceed expectations and does more than enough to cast aside the tropes unbecoming of its creator, no matter how busy its songs sound or how nuanced they are. But most importantly, to the album and to City Pop as a genre, it is willing to accept that the glamour of city life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. To languor in decades of obscurity (despite Onuki being one of the more successful artists from the City Pop boom) without so much as seeing widespread reappraisal is unbecoming of an album like Sunshower
, and only goes to show how ahead of its time it is despite its accessible approaches to experimentation and its rejection of the grandiosity that found its way to so many other records of its time.