Light in the Attic’s reissues of Japanese pop music have been a revelation.
“Experiencing an unknown sensation is the ultimate happiness,” says Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono. With testimonials from such varied artists as Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, indie rock golden boy Mac Demarco and new age master Laraaji, Hosono’s experience—and his music–is as varied as his acolytes. In fact, even though Light in the Attic is reissuing highlights from Hosono’s catalog out of chronological order, it doesn’t really matter, since the restless musician doesn’t repeat himself, from such bands as Apryl Fool (psych-rock), Happy End (West-Coast inspired rock) to Yellow Magic Orchestra (techno-pop), through his own wildly idiosyncratic solo albums. The first batch of Hosono reissues has hit US record stores, and if you like his approach on one, there’s no guarantee you’ll find that same sound on the next. But from hooky, inventive pop to experimental ambient and even to something that could pass for mid-‘80s Chicago house, Hosono achieves whatever he sets out to do with chops, warmth and humor that will make you happy.
Parsing out his catalog is a difficult if rewarding task. The first album out of the gate, Philharmony, was originally released on Yen Records in 1982, while Hosono was taking a break from the success of Yellow Magic Orchestra. The album comes with cover art that suggests René Magritte and music that can seem like a distinctly Japanese synth-pop. But that’s not all that’s going on here. The staccato electronics of opener “Picnic” sound like they could have been plucked from a Cornelius album 15 or 20 years later. On the other hand, “Funiculi Funicura[sic],” is a playful update of the 19th century Neapolitan standard. Shifting yet again, the airy, percussive chords that gently dominate “Luminescent/Hotaru” carry an ethereal melody that echoes traditional Japanese music while at the same time looks distinctly forward with a minimalist new wave that somehow doesn’t sound dated.
That’s three wild shifts in as many tracks, but the album still coheres, if only because Hosono plays nearly all of the instruments himself, recorded at his LDK Studio. The initials come from the home-like intimacy suggested by “Living-Dining-Kitchen,” which by all rights should have been a synth-pop smash. Philharmony careens from the hard repeating angles of the delirious “Birthday Party” to Hosono’s charming dedication to teamwork on “Sports Men,” another potential single: “I’ll be a good sport/ I’ll be a sportsman” is a hook that would have fit right at home on MTV, while closer “Air-Condition” is a Vangelis-like vibration that transforms machinery into something soaring and gorgeous.
Light in the Attic skips around Hosono’s catalog, landing next on the slightly less essential 1989 album omni Sight Seeing. The artist’s original liner notes explain, “apparently a good sound can come from anywhere unannounced.” This music contains multitudes, with lyrics sung in Japanese, French, Arabic and English (including a thematically apt but perhaps unnecessary version of the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan”). Hosono was listening to Algerian rai at the time, and if he namechecks Enya as an example of then-recent trends in “globestyle,” this album sounds nothing like the coffeeshop comfort of “Orinoco Flow” but is far more inventive, from the 12”-worthy Araboiserie of “Andadura” to the rapid-fire “Laugh-Gas,” which sustains a thick house groove for 11 and a half minutes. The title is a mild rebuke to the concept of world music as mere travelogue, Hosono instead offering, “a compilation of music from a multi-directional sightseeing trip.”
The last of the initial Hosono offerings goes back to 1978 for Paraiso, credited to Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band but still considered a solo album. However, after performing on the original track, “Femme Fatale,” Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi went over to Hosono’s house and formed Yellow Magic Orchestra. This AOR-heavy disc opens with the catchiest track among all three albums. “Tokio Rush” is an instant hit, it’s hook delivered by wobbly synth and old-fashioned car horn before Hosono’s smooth vocals remind you how much the Japanese love yacht rock. It’s Los Angeles slick via Tokyo, and its irresistible. Why is its catalog number the chronological third in the label’s Hosono campaign? Maybe so listeners wouldn’t assume that that he always showed so much commercial potential. Indeed, a cover of “Fujiyama Mama” might have given newbies the idea that he was some kind of strange oldies act. This is by far the most accessible of this first batch of Hosono reissues, but the clanging percussion of “Shambhala Signal” proves that at every stage of his career, he defied expectations.
Light in the Attic’s reissues of Japanese pop music have been a revelation for American audiences. The only downside to this bounty is the painful decision one must make between records and food. You can’t eat Hosono’s solo catalog, but each of his titles satisfies an eclectic taste.