Pizzicato Five, “The Sound of Music By Pizzicato Five”

pizzicato

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #50 – released October 31, 1995)

Track listing: We Love Pizzicato Five / Rock N’ Roll / The Night Is Still Young / Happy Sad / Groovy Is My Name / Sophisticated Catchy / Strawberry Sleighride / If I Were A Groupie / Sweet Thursday / CDJ / Fortune Cookie / Good / Number 5 / Peace Music (St. Etienne Remix) / Airplane / Rock N’ Roll 2

Before the Internet, the sheer amount of music available for one to discover seemed much smaller. For instance, you probably would have never heard of a band like Pizzicato Five outside of Japan had not hip American indie label Matador surreptitiously signed them in 1994. Then-home to the scruffier, low-fi likes of Liz Phair and Pavement, it was an unlikely fit until you consider the eclecticism of the age—a brief boom period following Nirvana’s massive Nevermind where labels both major and minor looked past previously established parameters as to whom they could sign and presumably make a commercial or at the very least critical success.

P5 was not exactly a new band in 1994—formed nearly a decade before by university friends Yasuhara Konishi and Keitaro Takanami, they went through multiple lineups (early on as a quintet, hence the band name) and musical styles before finding considerable success in their homeland as a Shubiya-kei trio with vocalist Maki Nomiya in the early ‘90s. Named for the Tokyo district from where it emerged, Shibuya-kei was, as Wikipedia notes, “a mixture of jazz, pop and synth-pop” but with an unambiguously retro tint. Think bossa nova, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson-like chamber pop and the groovier side of ‘60s Serge Gainsbourg, but also a cornucopia of kitsch ranging from vintage TV game show themes to hyperkinetic modern dance pop. Additionally, one can spot everything from Motown, funk and soul to disco, new wave and glam coursing throughout the band’s vast catalogue.

Come to think of it, there’s nothing overwhelmingly Japanese about P5 apart from nearly all of their lyrics being of that tongue. Given their love of American music and occasional predilection for pastiche (early hit “Sweet Soul Revue” liberally borrows from certain Staples Singers and Sly and the Family Stone hits), it’s no wonder Matador saw potential in introducing them to an American audience, especially as the band was willing to re-record a handful of tracks in English. Still, P5 were never going to break through to a Western audience in the way their closest American counterparts Deee-Lite did because the level of ironic detachment in their music was through the roof. That’s not to accuse P5 of being insincere, exactly, but this was first and foremost a band fixated on sound over content (it’s right there in the album title); what makes them great is how, despite their poker-faced intensity they can wring considerable emotion out of melody, mood, and all the nonsense words (“do, do do’s”, “la, la, la’s”, etc.) that often provide their most immediate and resonant hooks.

One scan through P5’s discography will leave any newcomer a little overwhelmed. In addition to a dozen or so studio albums and nearly twice as many EPs, you have multiple compilations, a majority of them with alternate, often radically different versions of previously released songs. Luckily, Matador made things easy for Americans by limiting the band’s output here to five albums (going so far as to title the final one as The Fifth Release From Matador), a remixed version of the third album, and a manageable scattering of EPs (although as of this writing, all of it is out of print!). Following Made In USA (1994), an introductory collection of Nomiya-era songs that actually got P5 on MTV with the campy “Twiggy Twiggy” (via a memorable Beavis and Butthead segment where the boys liken a band member to bespectacled Ernie from My Three Sons), Matador put out a second, similar compilation, The Sound of Music By Pizzicato Five the following year (Takanami had left in the interim, reducing P5 to their most iconic lineup as a duo). Made In USA has a half-dozen good singles surrounded by filler, but The Sound of Music By is a fuller representation of what P5 is about, playing like a thoughtfully compiled mixtape, swerving through a variety of content but mostly cohering in spite of itself

After a brief kiddie chorus intro appropriating the Bye Bye Birdie staple “We Love You, Conrad”, “Rock N’ Roll” kicks off the album proper by not sounding anything at all like the song title. Featuring acoustic percussion and a skittering organ, it more resembles ‘60s cocktail music. Nomiya’s perky vocals are flanked by the occasional “ding!” of a correct-answer quiz show buzzer and she concludes the samba with a delightful “ti, ti, tikka-tikka, ti, ti, tikka-tikka, tiiiii.” The exclaimed title of “The Night Is Still Young” (sung in Japanese) immediately follows, swiftly bringing us back to the ‘90s. Easily the closest to Deee-Lite they ever sounded, it whooshes by on a bed of house piano chords, dinky synth hooks, a carefree mechanical beat and exultations of “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Ooh!”

It all builds up to perhaps P5’s single greatest song: “Happy Sad” opens with an American woman teaching Konishi to say, “A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular”, a phrase that reappears throughout The Sound of Music By. He stumbles on the word “Stereophonic” and the woman breaks out in infectious laughter. They try a second time and succeed with flying colors; then comes a wallop of a breakbeat and the song’s endless, transcendent two-chord funk guitar riff. Originally entirely in Japanese apart from the title and backing vocals, Nomiya switches back and forth between English and her native language for this version and surprisingly sounds just as natural on the former. As both crisp and lush as ‘70s Philly soul and as tightly constructed as the best ABBA, “Happy Sad” is on my shortlist for Most Ebullient Pop Song Ever Recorded; true to its title, its winsome melody carries an ever-so-slight melancholy afterglow, even alongside all the huskier, diva-tastic backing vocals that fortify its back half.

Having established their pop group prowess in three tracks, The Sound of Music By proceeds to paint a widescreen view of what musical polymaths P5 actually are. After “Happy Sad”, there’s barely a second to catch one’s breath before “Groovy Is My Name” crescendos in with its relentless rhythm guitar, lounge piano filigrees, muted trumpets and Motown chord changes. The word “groovy” figures so heavily into the lyrics that it doesn’t even matter to non-Japanese listeners what else Nomiya is singing (apart from all the “ba, ba, ba’s”, of course). Holding the tempo but altering the melody, “Sophisticated Catchy” forms a medley with it, similarly getting a lot of mileage out of Nomiya simply repeating the word “catchy” (the track’s sole lyric, in fact).

“Strawberry Sleighride” promises a sugar overdose from its title and of course it delivers, gliding on by with an even creamier array of “ba, ba, ba’s”; “If I Were A Groupie” then suddenly shifts gears, creating a playful, loping collage of samples and beats, occasionally making room for an actual chorus but clearly having more fun with Nomiya delivering a groupie’s soliloquy on the left channel (replicated in English by a Parker Posey-sound-alike on the right). “Sweet Thursday” is a Michel Legrand-esque waltz, elegant, tender and suffused with harmonica, while gospel/house banger “CDJ” abruptly jumps back onto the dance floor—it’s convincingly the most ultra-contemporary track here, even if Nomiya can’t quite hold her own with the big-voiced belters providing additional English vocals.

Fortunately, just as The Sound of Music By begins to drift, you get an unexpected gem like “Fortune Cookie”: a former B-side that also happens to be a classy, sublime Dionne Warwick pastiche, it emits enough feeling and warmth to come off as far more than mere imitation. And only an outfit as cheeky and confident as P5 would follow it with a cover of “Good” by the Japanese new wavers The Plastics. Very much like a lost track off The B-52s’ 1983 LP Whammy!, P5’s version is arch, spazzy fun, pivoting between a sparkly, circular synth hook, perky, English-as-a-second language spoken-word vocals and guitar rumbling disrupted by the occasional sonic “Pow!”

You’ll remember I said the album mostly coheres, because it does get a little random towards the end. “Number 5” brings back the cocktail lounge vibe only this time in an entirely live setting (complete with acoustic piano, bongos and vibes). The track’s more notable for its hummable melody and “do-do-do” wordless chorus than anything else, although at the very least it shows P5 had some validity as a live act and was not solely a studio creation. However, placing “Peace Music (Saint Etienne remix)” next to it induces whiplash. The British trio samples one line from the song’s original version (included on Made In USA) and extends it into an impressionist dub for over eight minutes. A baffling inclusion, for sure (Saint Etienne weren’t that well known to American audiences), it certainly displays a different side of P5, although I admit I usually skip over it.

Happily, if you must listen to an album in sequence, then it’s worth sitting through the track for the exquisite “Airplane”. Hyperactive and naggingly catchy, the song is warp-speed bubblegum encapsulating just about everything people either love or hate about P5. Its tinkling harpsichord is undercut by swooping horns and guitar scuz; the melody is a merry-go-round forever threatening to go off the rails, veering back and forth between the same two chords. It builds, and builds, and then practically explodes on a sample of Donovan’s “Epistle to Dippy”, and it just keeps going, only fading out as an actual airplane sound smothers everything else at the end. Then The Sound of Music By circles back through itself, concluding by pilfering a spoken line from “CDJ” (“So, that’s all, DJ—the time has come”) and briefly reprising an instrumental version of “Rock N’ Roll”. It doesn’t exactly tie all the loose ends together, but it satisfies, giving off an illusion of completeness.

P5’s next three Matador releases were all mostly intact equivalents of original Japanese studio albums. When they broke up in 2001, I was saddened but also a little relieved—just how long could they have kept up this pace, anyway? Predictably, after a few years I ate those words, now aching for new P5 music in my life. Only recently have I begun exploring beyond the Matador albums, and really, The Sound of Music By is only a tiny fingernail on a vast body of notable work. For instance, take the Japan-only comp Big Hits and Jet Lags: 1994-1997, which is every bit as worthy, containing alternate versions of “Happy Sad” and “The Night is Still Young” but also a handful of superlative singles never released in the US (such as “Triste”, an inspired cross between Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me” and Chicago’s “Saturday In The Park”). Today, any listener has enough resources to slip down an online rabbit hole and compile their favorite bits and pieces of a band’s oeuvre. Once upon a time, only the artist or their record label could do this. Fortunately for P5, The Sound of Music By did this sort of thing exceptionally well.

Next: Assessing this project’s Halfway Point.

“Happy Sad”*:

(*sadly, there’s no version of this song YouTube with both the intro and the English language first verse, so I picked a charming one that at least has the former.)

“Airplane”:

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