Towa Tei, “Future Listening!”

Future Listening!

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #48 – released April 25, 1995)

Track listing: I Want To Relax, Please! / Technova (La em Copacabana) / Batucada / Luv Connection / Meditation! / Raga Musgo / Son of Bambi (Walk Tuff) / La Douce Vie (Amai Seikatu) / Obrigado / Dubnova (Part 1 & 2)

Borrowing heavily from the past was not a new thing in 1990s music. Even The Beatles covered Chuck Berry (“Rock and Roll Music”) at the height of their fame and created “old-timey” music hall pastiches (“Honey Pie”, “When I’m 64”) later still. Since then, we’ve seen nostalgia repeat itself in roughly a twenty-year cycle: the ‘70s gave us Sha Na Na and Happy Days, while the ‘80s brought back the ‘60s in everything from Dirty Dancing and The Monkees revival to the light psychedelia co-opted by bands both mainstream and cultish from R.E.M. to XTC.

At the dawn of the ‘90s, it was the 1970s’ turn to re-emerge; preceding such me-decade rock revivalists as the Black Crowes and Lenny Kravitz, you had house/dance trio Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart”, an unabashed funk/disco track whose deliriously campy video (bursting with period fashions and Day-Glo colors) drove home the song’s overtly retro vibe. Still, those visuals can’t entirely take credit for the song’s massive success—built on that irresistible bassline and Lady Miss Kier’s fabulous, sonorous voice, it was an instant party/dancefloor anthem that didn’t take long in crossing over to pop. It simultaneously seemed retro and fresh thanks to an ultra-catchy melody, but also a beaming optimism that all but shouted, “We are here now, we are having fun, and the future has no limits.”

Although a one-hit wonder that flamed out after three albums, Deee-Lite deserves more credit. Their 1990 debut, World Clique (which includes “Groove Is In The Heart”) is nearly as much fun as anything by the B-52’s. I came close to giving it its own 100 Albums entry but instead opted to write about the first album from one of its members. Towa Tei, fondly remembered as the Japanese guy in the group, left in the middle of recording their final album. Solo, he never scored even a fraction of Deee-Lite’s fleeting success, but Future Listening! remains a fully realized advancement of his ex-band’s sound that warrants a cult following. I first heard it at a used-CD store and was intrigued—this is what I wanted Deee-Lite’s unfocused World Clique follow-ups to sound more like, to take the free spirit behind “Groove Is In The Heart” and develop it further and deeper into an accessible but adventurous collage of retro cool and, as the title implies, up-to-date technology.

“I Want to Relax, Please!” opens with a sample of a buttoned-up man uttering those very words, followed by a decidedly more playful sounding, “Okay!”. From there, Tei mixes electrobeats with what resembles a horn chart from an ancient swing number, which would seem a little hokey if those two disparate strands didn’t end up fitting so snugly together. It’s not necessarily anything new: British outfit US3 did almost exactly the same thing two years before, mixing samples from jazz label Blue Note’s back catalog with hip-hop beats and even scoring a mainstream hit (“Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”). Although Tei takes a similar approach, sifting through found sounds and applying them to new rhythms, his creativity is such that you sense an overriding vision at work rather than just a crafty attempt at resuscitating something old.

The second track’s title, “Technova (La em Copacabana)”, could not be more explicit, melding techno sounds with 1960s bossa nova rhythms. It’s like a updated version of Getz/Gilberto, the classic 1964 album from jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto that created a bossa-nova craze in America, scoring a big pop hit with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”, sung by Gilberto’s wife, Astrud. Not only does Tei get a Getz-like sax solo from Yasuaki Shimizu on “Technova”, João’s daughter Bebel (whom he later had with the singer Miúcha) provides the vocals, adding credibility and authenticity.

The “Technova” sound is all over Future Listening!, from a juiced-up, synth-heavy cover of the old genre standard “Batucada” (also sung by Bebel Gilberto) to the eleven-minute closer “Dubnova (Part 1 and 2)” which begins like a straightforward, extended remix of “Technova” but becomes increasingly impressionistic, ebbing the melody until it nearly resembles ambient music in its final section. However, Tei also displays an obvious love for the original genre he’s co-opted. “La Douce Vie (Amai Seikatsu)” is a full-on collaboration with Pizzicato Five, a ‘90s Japanese pop band with a similar sensibility that both looked back and ahead. While the song’s still laced with subtle electronics, they’re secondary to more organic elements like accordion, electric sitar and Maki Nomiya’s lounge-ish (but lovely) vocals. “Obrigado” sounds even closer to the real thing, as Bebel and former skronk-rocker-turned-demure-crooner Arto Lindsay duet over a romantic, sweeping but still understated jazz arrangement with exotica overtones (like the pleasantly stoned electric sitar solo).

Still, bossa nova is only one (albeit significant) part of the album’s sound palette. Future Listening! really lives up to its name in a handful of more experimental tracks. After the brief, gauzy, Middle-Eastern tinged instrumental “Raga Musgo” comes “Son of Bambi (Walk Tuff)”, an extended, nearly unclassifiable number with vocals from female British reggae/Dancehall toaster MC Kinky, an electric sitar hook that’s an interpolation of the Richie Havens song “Something Else Again” and a big beat that seems to prefigure the one used in the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be” five years later. It’s heady stuff, but as with most of Tei’s work, it’s disarmingly playful, too. Even better is “Meditation!”, a psychedelic free fall into spoken-word jazz (coolly, delicately performed by Natasha Latasha Diggs). It conjures an aural wonderland full of acoustic guitar, upright bass, skittering flutes, cascading beats and samples of Raymond Scott’s proto-electronica jingle “Lightworks”. The familiarity of these disparate elements makes palatable and enticing the futurism that comes from how Tei impishly rearranges them into the song’s framework.

For all his attempts to innovate, Tei also understands the value of good, old-fashioned pop song (he would cover Hall and Oates’ “Private Eyes” a few years later). “Luv Connection” is simple enough to fit on any of Deee-Lite’s albums and, in a perfect world, might have received radio airplay alongside “Groove Is In The Heart”. Club diva vocalist/lyricist Joi Cardwell sings over a mid-tempo house dance beat, while another electric sitar provides the song’s most engaging hook. It stretches on for over seven minutes but never wears out its welcome, thanks mostly to the smooth, soulful Cardwell, who serves the song’s melody well enough but also interjects effervescence via her delicate improvisations. Although decidedly less unique than much of what surrounds it, “Luv Connection” is such a perfect sigh of a song that its approachability doesn’t diminish it.

Tei’s still around, although I haven’t heard much of his under-the-radar work beyond this album’s similar, somewhat inferior follow-up, Sound Museum (1998). Unlike a few other recordings I’ve written about from this period, even though I still enjoy Future Listening!, I don’t particularly hear anything new in it with each spin. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s now seriously dated; instead, it’s an album that simply accomplished what it set out to do (which can’t be said of every album), combining old and new into something that was both but also entirely its own thing. As artists today continue mining the past for inspiration, they should look to Tei as an example of how to do it right.

Up next: Curiously out of time.


“Luv Connection”:

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