Wednesday, April 16, 2008

the very best of... japan

the musical journey continues albeit meandering down another path which appears to be sign posted 'new romantic' but then has been hastily scribbled out by another hand rather crudely. ah Japan, until today only a dimly acknowledged existence in my mind but from today an essential part of a late 70s, early 80s musical odyssey. and yes you have to be quick as japan had a pretty short shelf life, like the associates imploding at the height of their chart success, a long-winded climb which saw many fits and start, break-ups and changes of direction from glam rock poseurs to new romantic visionaries. japan are also credited with producing one of the most oddest chart hits in 'ghosts', its anxious vocals laid over seemingly random, atonal synth creations (like someone messing in the studio) but strangely compelling as these songs always are. 'ghosts' kicks off this retrospective which largely ignores the glam rock beginnings and starts from third album 'quiet life' where they ditched this direction and set off on a far more melodic path augmented with synths, brass, sax, but as opposed to their peers (like Ultravox for instance) setting it off on a creative tangent towards the East. i would suggest that whilst every CD insert wishes to claim some kind of superiority for every single outsider 80s band in inspiring a myriad copyists, Japan is the only band so far where I can hear the obvious. 'Quiet life' for instance resonates with staccato guitar, chundering synth and David Sylvian's rich, languorous, if drawling, voice, immediately showing where Duran Duran got most (if not all) their inspiration from - 'girls on film' is clearly 'quiet life' recycled and re-processed. sure there are also references in the music, most obvious to me from roxy music (sometimes sylvian sounds uncannily like bryan ferry) and probably david bowie as well since every band in this period seems to owe a debt to Bowie (one day I might listen to him to find out how). a glance at the videos on Youtube also shows why japan are credited with the 'new romantic' tag, they are all bouffant hair, lipgloss, eyeliner and quiet flamboyance. apparently david sylvian was thrown out of school for wearing make up and dying his hair, still pretty subversive now since you only have to look at the comments on youtube to see that people cannot cope with such expressions of individualism without having to denigrate them. Like the best pop songs here you will find defiance in the face of indifference, flamboyance shot through with melancholy or something more sinister. the lyrics of 'gentlemen take polaroids' for instance seem to have a creepy subtext but you would not guess that from the way the song floats along woozily from the speakers and into your ears, until the prolonged ending of ghostly sighs. two songs about parties - 'the art of parties' and a cover of 'all tomorrow's parties' - promise disappointment rather than the smiles that come from balloons and jelly and ice cream (add 'party fears two' and 'i'm a party' to make the most miserable party ever!) as i'm keeping a tally i might as well mention that yes there is saxophone, most noticeably on 'methods of dance' which is also the stand out track for me here, blending female vocals, the afore-mentioned high keening noodling sax, moaning bass, glockenspiels, and near-indecipherable lyrics, all of which hit their emotional receptors in my brain with gusto. kudos also to the mesmerising 'taking islands in africa' and 'nightporter' which showcases Sylvian's voice with minimal backing of piano and oboe (or clarinet), very affecting. as an introduction it worked its magic on me and now I am seeking to investigate the japan back catalogue. see you in the racks!

No comments: