Review Summary: Fishmans were trendsetters before anyone in the Western world knew their name, and “Uchuu Nippon Setagaya” proves it repeatedly.
In a counterintuitive way, the deliberate minimalism of “Uchuu Nippon Setagaya” required me to pay even closer attention. I played Fishmans’ final full-length release during several portions of my daily routine, but it never clicked while I was driving, doing yard work, or trying in vain to do my job without distracting myself. Despite its barebones nature, this is not a record I could multitask to and appreciate; I never had this problem with the band’s previous release “Long Season”, as its ambitious nature and unique construction engaged me from the get go. “Uchuu Nippon Setagaya” is sonically similar in places, but a different beast entirely, as it didn’t reveal itself to me until I sat down in one spot, offered it my full attention, and let it entrance me.
Fishmans were trendsetters before anyone in the Western world knew their name, and “Uchuu Nippon Setagaya” proves it repeatedly. With its love of major 7th chords and injection of warm, reverb-drenched keyboards, the album is ahead of its time when examining the indie/psychedelia scene today, where this same sound exists with an entirely different aesthetic and much less soul. What still separates Fishmans from the pack twenty plus years down the road are their songwriting chops, effortless genre-blending, and their incomparable frontman, the late Shinji Sato. Despite the success of the band’s more minimalistic moments here (see “In The Flight”, an acoustic number that recalls Part 4 of “Long Season”), this record is at its best when leaning into its ornate pop sensibilities, which Sato’s vocal stylings are at the forefront of. The bookends of the album are nothing less than infectious; opener “Pokka Pokka” floats on a gentle cloud of Sato’s gorgeous harmonies, while titanic closer “Daydream” locks into an unshakable groove for him to croon unforgettably over. These tracks are definite highlights, but the poppiest and most irresistible moment here has to be “Magic Love”, a 5-minute sugar high that places Fishmans’ dub/reggae sound front and center while also boasting a gargantuan hook and the captivating basslines of Yuzuru Kashiwabara.
In the midst of everything great Fishmans do with “Magic Love”, its greatest strength as a song is something that it doesn’t do, which is overstay its welcome. Some songs here have a tendency to overdo it at times, and repetition is all well and good, but it must begin an idea that is worth repeating. “Long Season” succeeds as an album because it is constantly evolving as a composition over its 35-minute runtime. Many tracks here begin with an engaging idea and continue to layer it until it takes flight; early highlight “Weather Report” is a great example, beginning with nothing but a skeletal drum loop that evolves into a dream pop masterpiece, with a wonderfully tasteful key change at the midway point to boot. However, some other longer pieces here cannot justify their duration and stagnate toward the finish line. “Stuck in the Backbeat” starts in a strong place and then stays there for eight minutes, with no desire to change or gather any energy. “Walking In The Rhythm” starts even stronger, and is absolutely spellbinding for its first two thirds, the highlight of the track being a freakout from the strings section that has to be heard to be believed. The coda, however, is entirely unnecessary, and it’s a shame that this beautiful song ends with essentially four minutes of nothing. Sato’s repeated belting of the song’s title is impressive and impactful, so why the band decided to end the song by droning out the phrase “walking in the rhythm” with the enthusiasm of Ben Stein taking attendance is beyond me. The arrangement behind them doesn’t conclude so much as it slowly dies out, dragging the song’s remaining potential down with it. “Walking In The Rhythm” is still a good song, but it’s sad to know that it could have been truly great.
As an album, however, “Uchuu Nippon Setagaya” is truly great, and a fruit of artistic expression that every remaining member of Fishmans should still be proud of. It combines the carefree attitude of their early work with the ambition and maturity of “Long Season” to create a hypnotic ocean of sound that can hold its own against the band’s aforementioned masterpiece, despite not quite being on its level. It took me a handful of listens to properly appreciate, but Fishmans’ final record is a success in spite of its flaws, and an engrossing portrait of a group that had so much more to give.