Haruomi Hosono, The Tale of Genji (1985)

Posted in Electronic, Japan, Soundtrack on September 12, 2009 by Gregor

hosono genji

Arrestingly exotic, hypnotic to the extreme, subtly erotic, and hauntingly sensual – this beguiling album from the godfather of Japanese Electronica lingers like an ancient spirit come to call.  Its music seeps from the speakers with a will of its own, hovering and roiling in the air like incense smoke; play it at just the right volume and you can feel it drift across the surface of your skin.  How does an album so seamlessly fuse traditional and modern sensibilities into a cohesive whole that belongs to half a dozen genres while simultaneously transcending them all?

The answer is embodied by the album’s creator: Haruomi Hosono, Japan’s musical jack of all trades whose indelible handprint extends to a near hundred albums as composer, performer, or producer.  His only possible equivalent in the West is Brian Eno, and even then the comparison barely scratches the illustrious surface of Hosono-san’s career.

After cutting his teeth in the seminal 70s Psych bands Apryl Fool and Happy End, Hosono carved a niche for himself in the middle of that decade as the purveyor provocateur of a Tropical Lounge revival, so deadpan tongue-in-cheek that it fills a gap in the genre that not even some of its pioneers could tackle.

After riding this wave for a few years, Hosono ditched the Hawaiian shirts and stuffed parrot on his shoulder and embraced the synthesizer like a lost child.  Together with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yujihiro Takahashi, Yellow Magic Orchestra was born.  The Techno-Pop sound ushered in by YMO in the late 70s hit Japan like a literal tsunami, possessed with a bouncy lightness that their transglobal soul brothers Kraftwerk could never quite manage.  YMO were the first Japanese band to hit the big time outside of their native country, a feat only ever matched by Pizzicato Five.  Benchmarks of their success (they performed on Soul Train, probably the only Japanese band to do so) and influence (J-Lo sampled their monster 1978 hit “Firecracker” on her “I’m Real” single) remain impressive.   Though originally intended by Hosono to be a one-off side project, YMO’s popularity swept the island nation akin to Beatlemania.  They were only technically together for six years, but their presence in Japan continues to this day (the three have performed and recorded since 2007 as Human Audio Sponge/HASYMO).

By 1987, Hosono’s post-YMO albums were never the same.  Progressively shaping instrumental J-Pop into Electronica, Hosono soon became in demand as producer and arranger for scores of artists in the mid-to-late 80s (he in fact helped birth the earliest incarnation of Pizzicato Five on their 1984 debut).  Pop, Electronica, Jazz, Funk, Lounge, video game music, film, TV commercials – you name it, Hosono was there.

Shikibu Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji is Japan’s Don Quixote: a classic work that’s ingrained into the national heritage.  Believed to have been written in the early 11th century, it’s also considered by many scholars as the first modern novel in recorded history.  A handful of major films had taken a crack at adapting it to the screen, but Sugii Gisaburō’s 1987 feature was the first animated version, albeit of only a fraction of the epic’s storyline (the hardcore anime enthusiasts will recognize Gisaburō’s name from the original Astro Boy series).  Hosono rose to the challenge with a score as richly textured and ripe with allusion as the story itself.  Even for someone whose career is defined by concocting unusual hybrids, Genji’s soundtrack stands far apart from his other albums, not so much sprung from some secretly squirreled recess of his imagination as sparked from some dormant force subconsciously savored for the right planets to align.

Opening with the delicate plucks and scrapes of a koto against a moody carpet of ambience, the tone is instantly set for an atmospheric storm somehow brewed with tranquility:

Play: 月読 (Tsukiyomi)

The power this album has is almost indescribable.  It’s so much more atmospheric than your average soundtrack, offering pure moods instead of typical movie-music melodies.  And it doesn’t feel overly electronic — the synths are in service of the traditional elements.  It’s a tea ceremony of an album; a ritualized elongation of formal elements that envelope you with the ambience of time itself.  It’s almost as if Hosono uses specific aspects of traditional Japanese music as compositional elements of their own, layering one upon the other into dense and clouds that breathe and even swoon before you.

Play: 若紫 (Wakamurasaki)

But its elegant beauty comes with a price: a pervasive sense of mystery and even menace is never far from the surface.  Percussive chattering and frighteningly sustained flutings permeate the extended resonances and deeply echoed reverberations.  There are moments here that play like the backdrop to a fever dream, but never unbearably.  The power of this record lies in its ability to enchant and seduce with what it implies as much as with what it delivers.

Play: 羅城門 (Rajyoumon)

Play: 御息所 (Miyasundokoro)

This album put the hook in me from the first minute I heard it.  I was working in a record store and stumbled across a stray copy upstairs in the stock area, mixed in among a long-forgotten pile destined for return to distributors (a fervent source for some of the best musical discoveries I ever made).   I picked it up almost more because of its gorgeous artwork, having only heard a couple of Hosono’s other albums at that point.  It cemented my relationship with the man from then on.

The artwork that originally caught my eye had some handsome additions in the booklet accompanying the original vinyl edition:

genji collage

Maddeningly out of print for almost 20 years, this masterpiece finally became available again earlier this year, though still in Japan only – indefinitely rewarding for whatever price you pay.  Though elements would turn up in some of Hosono’s later works, nothing again would ever come close to the depths reached by Genji’s 48 minutes.

Some sources:  CD Japan, MUNDO Mail Order, J-Pop Help

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101 Strings, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000 (1968)

Posted in Far-Out, Lounge, Moogy with tags , , on June 21, 2009 by Gregor

101strings - astro

A small handful of generations ago, there was a time when people actually sought out the soothing sounds of generic instrumental fluff.  Full-blown wall-to-wall orchestral adaptations of popular songs and instrumental classics.  Pure musical gloss drenched in production polish and dripping with sugarcoat.  The lack of stylistic ambition in these albums – telling any two apart could fail any Pepsi Challenge – was often mirrored in their presentation.  With titles like Music to Make You Misty, The Sounds of Spain, and Exciting Strings, this was music designed for people who didn’t want to have to think about their music, who was behind it or where it came from.

easy

This was Easy Listening, the hatching ground for perennial conductor superstars like Percy Faith, Enoch Light, Andre Kostelanetz, and Ray Conniff, amongst many others.  And hard to imagine now as it may be, this stuff wasn’t just a little popular.  If you’ve ever casually flipped through the bargain bins of your favorite record shop or thrift store, you know you’ve seen more Easy Listening than any of the cool shit.  Once upon a time, people bathed in this music.

For those Easy Listeners who didn’t even want to deal with names, 101 Strings were the ideal creation.  Whatever style, genre, or theme desired, this nameless orchestra delivered the goods with almost mechanical virtuosity.  They established a solid reputation yet never revealed the names of their members – an identity characterized by lack of identity – packaged in cheaply designed spineless sleeves that resembled overgrown postcards.

easy-new-1easy-new-2

For no-frills entertainment, their world was your oyster – with one notable exception…

Strings producer Dick L. Miller would occasionally branch out and record something beyond the pale of the ensemble’s devoted following.  By 1968, selling the sounds of “those kids today” to the older generation was a niche market in itself.  Tapping into the post-2001 sci-fi craze, 101 Strings delivered a record that alchemically fused their branded trademark lushness with four-piece Psych band grooves.  Just about every other earnest attempt in the history of music to pull off this feat would inevitably fall flat on its face, but this album, so uncool in its pedigree, so nearly overripe in its essence, it occupies its own orbit in the cosmos of Out-There-ness.

101strings - astro This bizarre marriage of pulse-perking keyboards and acid-soaked fuzz guitars with the reliable down-blanket comfort of an all-string orchestra succeeds almost in spite of itself, spinning a dark fantasy ride that would resonate with a sensibility light years ahead of its time.  Opening with a shuddering twinge from the Moog synthesizer, Astro-Sounds must have left even the hippest of parents scratching their heads in generation-gapped bewilderment right out of the gate:

clip: Flameout

From there we settle into a future-visioned cocktailia of Jetsons-inspired bachelor pad elegance woven with decidedly Earth-bound cascades of strings that threaten to levitate the needle straight off the record.  This is Space Pop being redefined even as the term was still getting a sense of itself.  This is the embodiment of 21st century sophistication as conceived through late-60s sobriety.  Dig the longing reflection of the flightless star-gazer that permeates “Re-Entry to Mog” [sic?]:

clip: Re-Entry to Mog

Cheesy? Perhaps – but not gimmicky in the way you’d expect a 60s sci-fi pop album to be, completely devoid of any clichéd sci-fi effects.  There are musical chops at work here to be sure, thanks to producer Miller and Alshire label owner Al Sherman, who are credited as the composers.  The back cover’s copy tries to cram just about every hip phrase into a catchy come-on: “A SPACE ODYSSEY IN THE BEAT OF TODAY – WITH THE FAR OUT SOUNDS OF TOMORROW’S UNCHARTED TRIP BEYOND THE NOW GENERATION.”

Too groovy for the folks, too square for the kids, and so wrong that it actually works, breathtakingly so.  The album’s killer centerpiece for me is Side B’s anthemic opener “Barrier X-69”, a mini masterpiece that feels like the lost theme to some sci-fi space epic that never was:

clip: Barrier X-69

Was the casual buyer of 1968 at all prepared for this?  Did the devoted 101 Strings fan truly register how pregnantly anomalous this merger of two so distinct worlds was? Apparently not – producer Miller has attested in recent years that people actually wrote in to complain about this album, putting the skids on any further experiments melding modern sounds with the Strings’ apparently winning formula.  You can almost picture Mr. & Mrs. Middle America tossing this record in the trash and quickly throwing on Bert Kaempfert to calm themselves back down.

In truth, Miller borrowed session tapes cut two years earlier by Jerry Cole and session musicians for an equally mind-blowing album as The Id called The Inner Sounds of the Id.  These tapes would provide Psych fodder for almost a dozen albums by the decade’s end, half of which invented new personas for the same base material: Projection Company’s Give Me Some Lovin’, Bebe Bardon’s The Sounds of Love (with 101 Strings again), Haircut & the Impossibles’ Call It Soul, the ultra-bizarre Modern Sounds Famous Songs of Hank Williams (the cover of which features a come-hither hippie girl feeding red and blue sugar cubes to a horse!), and most notably as the one-shot-wonder The Animated Egg (which in turn was later re-packaged as Black Diamonds’ A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, itself slightly different to the albums with same name and overlapping material by the Purple Fox and Jeff Cooper & the Stoned Angels – got it?).

When the Lounge revival peaked in the mid-90s, this album was mythical.  One of those records you always heard of but never actually heard.  Fortunately, some enterprising bootlegger put out a number of 2-on-1 CDs taken from vinyl, liberating Exotica classics by Esquivel, Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, Tak Shindo, and this jewel (some, unfortunately, were digitized at the wrong speed; Astro-Sounds is a bit too fast in this form).  The demand for these boots made the major labels realize they were sitting on a goldmine, and legit reissues from the master tapes soon followed.  Astro-Sounds finally got its due in righteous presentation thanks to Caroline’s sub-label Scamp, which soon went out of print.  Fortunately, Santa Monica-based indie label 26F Records just reissued it with the same three non-Astro-Sounds bonus tracks as Scamp’s edition.  The clips presented here are just the tip of the iceberg.

By some miracle about a year ago, I chanced upon a copy of the original LP and could hardly believe it.  I had never met anyone who’d even seen a copy, let alone actually owned one.  All I expected was just the beauteous warmth that vinyl more often than not has to offer, but was in for a shock: the LP’s mix favor’s the strings (naturally), coming across as even icier and spookier than on Scamp’s CD (which does a much-needed job of bringing up the bass).  Needless to say, it’s a treasure.

The stock disclaimer: While I’d love to just give this album away with a free download, somewhere out there is a mom & pop store or site that needs your support now more than ever.  Here are some sources for the CD: Dusty Groove, Amazon dealers, ebayers.