Chronicles the Japanese city pop movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The latest installment of Light in the Attic’s overview of Japanese pop is less revelatory than the folk-rock of Even a Tree Can Shed Tears or the ambient experiments of Kankyō Ongaku. But Pacific Breeze, which chronicles the city pop movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, may feature the series’ catchiest tunes.
The AOR in the subtitle and the tropical-themed artwork by Hiroshi Nagai point to one of the subgenre’s Western equivalents: yacht rock. But City Pop, whose sound of optimism emerged from Japan’s economic prosperity, was equally at home with R&B or new wave. And as suits such a genre-crossing hunger, one of its driving forces was Haruomi Hosono, the subject of last year’s crucial reissue series on LITA and a pivotal figure who seems to turn up everywhere in the label’s Japanese catalog. The quirky “Sports Men,” originally released on his 1982 album Philharmony, is one of the highlights of Pacific Breeze. But perhaps more typical are tracks from a pair of female singers who themselves have been the subject of a reissue program.
For instance, if there were an audio dictionary of the world’s pop subgenres, the entry for city pop might well be illustrated with Taeko Ohnuki’s “Kusuri Wo Takusan” (Google translates it as “A lot of medicine”). This hummable R&B-flavored fusion comes from her terrific album 1977 album Sunshower, which featured Hosono on bass and arrangements by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The instrumentation features elements from jazz and the tropics – cowbell-like percussion, a woodwind-heavy horn chart, and dreamy overlaid backing vocals, and it all comes together in a light-hearted sound that pretty much embodies the title Pacific Breeze.
Leaning more into the boogie end of the spectrum is the signature city pop of Minako Yoshida, with “Midnight Driver” from her 1980 album Monochrome. As the title suggests, this is the funky nocturnal L.A. side of city pop, with melodic funky choruses starting out its first three minutes (in other words, the length of a 45) before a chant with backing vocals sets up an extended groove for a nearly five-minute vamp, adding up to the perfect length for a 12” single.
The comfortable familiarity of ‘70s and ‘80s R&B and boogie makes much of Pacific Breeze endearing, but the compilation seems less essential than albums from its prime movers. Ohnuki and Yoshida both have a more varied career than the selections here would indicate, and their relatively conventional pop pales next to quirkier work from the likes of Izumi Kobayashi’s “Coffee Rumba,” who moved on from angular new wave funk to become an avant-garde electronic musician. City pop as heard here has a more unresolved relationship with Western pop, and the musical attempts to put their own imprint on their influences sometimes fall short. The six and a half-minute instrumental “In My Jungle” by F.O.E. (Friends of Earth) probably shook up dance floors in 1986 with its heavy bass line, but a quote from Scritti Politti’s “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” seems less convincing than the surprising acoustic piano figure that breaks out near the end of the track. This was highly commercial music after all, and while Shibuya-kei pioneers like Cornelius and Pizzicato Five would take their omnivorous love for all forms of pop music and blend them into something distinctly magical, city pop didn’t always achieve the genre transcendence it reached for. Then again, it can be hard to resist the vocoder-led tropical hybrid of Masayoshi Takanaka’s “Bamboo Vendor.”
One suspects that Pacific Breeze may not be the best possible 70-minute mixtape of the city pop scene. An even longer and more varied mix may have been in order; as it is, the set feels like it’s over too soon. But thanks again to Light in the Attic for illuminating a rewarding path of further research.