Finds a lively plot of land among the country-western rock ‘n’ roll, kabuki-inspired enka tunes and corybantic synth play.
Western audiences have had little chance to explore the glowingly playful music of Akiko Yano, one of Japan’s most difficult-to-label pop stars. But Paris-based Wewantsounds has recently begun reissuing her early albums. First was 1981’s Tadaima, Yano’s electro-pop-driven fifth album, which the label released in late 2018. This year saw the reissue of her solo debut, 1976’s Japanese Girl, an experimental pop album situated between the equally distinctive funky sounds of Los Angeles and Japan. Now, we have Iroha Ni Konpeitou, Yano’s sophomore album, which was originally released in 1977.
A great deal of the excitement around these reissues has to do with the legendary personnel involved with their recording. Yano ran in the same circles as famed Japanese musician-composers Ryuichi Sakamoto (to whom she was once married) and Haruomi Hosono, the latter having also been recently introduced via re-release to listeners outside of Japan. She performed with their Yellow Magic Orchestra, and many members of that groundbreaking group appear on her albums. Yano also had the opportunity to work with accomplished American musicians from the time. Side A of her first LP was recorded with Little Feat, and Iroha Ni Konpeitou’s title track features contributions from New York-based Rick Marotta (drums), Will Lee (bass) and David Spinozza (guitar).
While it’s enjoyable enough to note the talents of famous personnel across the 10 tracks of Iroha Ni Konpeitou, it’s important to recognize that this is Akiko Yano’s record through and through. Eight of these songs are her own compositions, and all of them feature her arrangements. The LP is the best Akiko Yano reissue so far, and this is due to the album’s meticulous balance of electronic and acoustic elements. The key term here is restraint, as the album’s famous cover rather goofily demonstrates: she’s got this musical dolphin by the fins.
Iroha Ni Konpeitou finds a lively plot of land among the country-western rock ‘n’ roll, kabuki-inspired enka tunes and corybantic synth play of her other albums. It jumps between various musical idioms in a carefully structured way. The album’s first three tracks provide a great example of this painstaking construction. Instrumental opener “KAWAJI” is all starry-eyed moogs, but the opening chords of “Iroha Ni Konpeitou” interrupt this daydream with piano, percussion and vibraslap. After a while, the moogs return, initially like a frolicking slide whistle and then like a diffuser of essential lasers. The song ends with hesitations of shime-daiko, but, as these begin to disintegrate, we hear the electric guitar and keys of the next song, “Machikutabirete.” Yano so masterfully orchestrates these diverse elements, including her uniquely sportive vocals (featured on every track except the first), that we stop trying to locate genre interstices and let the music define its own cool topos.
Still, the rest of Iroha Ni Konpeitou has plenty of surprises in store, like the space cowboy funk of “Hourou,” the video game peregrinations of “Ike Yanagida” and the flirtatious dystopian bebop of “Ai Ai Gasa.” Perhaps the only unwelcome revelation is the sappy orchestral sound of closer “Yamase,” but its nostalgic vibe somehow seems an appropriate way to end an album that sits somewhere between childhood game and futuristic glamour.
All of this makes Iroha Ni Konpeitou the indispensable ‘70s album you didn’t realize your collection needed. It experiments with various kinds of fusion in subtle, approachable ways and uses Yano’s vocal and musical talents to astounding effect. Maybe it’s the fraternal twin to Kate Bush’s Never for Ever or the bendier best friend of Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel. But it also just seems the perfect, unexpected introduction to Akiko Yano’s virtuosic brilliance.