Yellow Magic Orchestra - The Catalog

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Xenu
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Yellow Magic Orchestra - The Catalog

Postby Xenu » Thu Jan 25, 2007 9:54 pm

I've been writing and re-writing a review recently of the entire Moon Riders catalog...whether it's the fact that I've been out of school for a year or some other nefarious factor, though, I just can't make it sound like I want it. So, in its place, I submit a far more mainstream venture, inspired by a DVD I'm making for ONE OF OUR OWN FORUM MEMBERS (who needs to read his PMs and send me his address). Here're my quick thoughts on the output of Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of Japan's premier late-70s-early-80s cultural exports...and a band I resisted listening to for a long time, because:

a) They're popular, which is never a good sign when Japan's in the mix.

b) Until recently, Ryuichi Sakamoto lived in my town, and I went to school with his daughter. It's so lame to listen to your classmate's dad's technopop group, y'know?

Anyway, I divide the group into three "phases," which will quickly make sense. Additionally, YMO have the intelligence to use actual English-speaking people for their English lyrics right from the get-go. And so we embark...

YMO Mark I: The Unexpected Pop-Star Years
Yellow Magic Orchestra: YMO were originally intended as a one-off project, or so the story goes, and this thing sounds for all the world like a gag. Sounds from various "computer games" (read: some serious 70s bleeps and bloops) accompany some instrumentals of a decidedly "oriental" flavor. It isn't bad, but it's inauspicious, as debut albums should rightly be. I don't particularly care for most of it, but it's hardly bad.

Solid State Survivor: YMO's second album draws superlatives from several corners, and while I (conditionally) agree with some of those raves, I don't think the album has aged particularly well. Here's the problem: the synth used on SSS sounds like fucking Sega Genesis music. Oh, I know that's a total inversion of proper temporal causation, and it's completely unfair to judge something based on that sort of criteria (by that standard, lots of Kraftwerk sounds like Nintendo music), but high-minded critiques of reviewing standards vanish when "Absolute Ego Dance" comes on, and you're immediately transported to "Green Hill Zone."

Otherwise, I mostly like it. The "oriental" routines of the first album are still around (both musically and in the some lyrics), but they're far more limited in scope, and the gimmicks have been scaled wayyy back. One of the nicest things to emerge with this album is the compositional and vocal talent of Yukihiro Takahashi, whose descent into post-YMO AOR semi-banality (some people call him the Japanese Phil Collins, and while I resisted that label for as long as I could, I kind of see the point...he REALLY needs contributors to keep him under control) obscures the fact that he's a really interesting singer, with a fascinating melodic style that can swing precariously towards mannerism.

As for particular favorites: I love the title track (a live favorite, seemingly, but one that I think is best served in its original studio version), as well as the superbly moody "Castalia," which foreshadows their darker instrumentals to come

Xoo Multiplies: When your third album is a rip-off release...OK, so lemme explain. YMO's third effort was released in Japan as a 10" platter, with comedy routines between each track. As Solid State Survivor hadn't been released in the US, though, A&M thought it wise to combine some of the tracks from the 10" EP with some of the SSS tracks. It's confusing. Regardless, the only one I'm familiar with is the EP, which is as half-baked as half-baked gets.

The comedy skits are, unsurprisingly, one of the lesser aspects of "Multiplies." As I understand it, Snakeman Snow are actually a fairly well-respected troupe, and the two English skits are admittedly amusing (err, at least the first time through...and one of them has some foul language that can surprise a carload of people if you're not careful). But c'mon. Fucking comedy skits! Japanese is a great language to scream in, though.

Anyway, I digress. "Multiplies" starts out strong with "Nice Age," the best and frothiest pure-pop song the band ever released (they'd try again a few albums later, but wouldn't quite scale these heights). It's the quintessential 1980s pop tune, and I can't say enough nice things about it--Takahashi's in great voice, the hook is absolutely irresistible, the "freak out" section is just strange enough to be compelling, and so on. After that, though, it's mostly downhill. The endless "Tighten Up" remake gets old quickly, as does the "WE AHH! THE NUMBAH ONE! BAND! WE DON'T SIGHT SEE! WE DANCE!" shtick--seeing YMO mime this on Soul Train has to be a defining moment of civilization. "Citizens of Science" often gets cited as a highlight, but has always sounded like a "Solid State Survivor" re-write to me, albeit a good one.

All in all, pretty disposable. You can tell the band is teetering on the brink between total sell-out and artistic respectability, having just completed several tours of the US and being absolute fucking megastars at home...

Live Albums from the Mark I Period: This category includes ~80% of the band's live output, honestly. Again, megastars, actually TOURING EUROPE AND AMERICA, and so they recorded what looks to be most of the stops on the tour. The first release from this cache was "Public Pressure," a single-LP affair which (for contractural reasons) dubbed out the touring guitar player and replaced him with synths. Much of the rest has dribbled out over the years, to be recycled in endless boxed-sets and so on. I generally find much of this tour to be uninspiring; for one, the "drummer/lead singer" thing is hard for Takahashi to pull off (he'd get smarter about this later on), and I think Akiko Yano's backing vocals are woefully out of place most of the time. A few songs are only available on these live sets, though...I particularly like "Radio Junk," which I'm surprised the group didn't bother to record.
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"Fuckin' Koreans" - Reno 911

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Xenu
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Postby Xenu » Thu Jan 25, 2007 10:02 pm

YMO Mark II

BGM: Suddenly, the mood changes. I can't quite describe it, but I'll make a stab: it's suddenly as if the band went "Wait, OK, we're stars, but we're some pretty talented guys. Let's get serious." And they do, and it works astoundingly well. BGM is such an effective about-face that it's hard to believe that these are the same guys from Xoo Multiplies.

Take "Ballet," for example. It isn't so far away from "Nice Age," yet it sounds light years apart, from the arrangement--spooky synths, odd vocal effects--to the sheer emphasis placed on atmosphere. Most of the rest of the album is this strong, and even the instrumentals suddenly have a "bite" that was lacking before.

I'd like to take a moment, too, to defend one of the most indefensible tracks in YMO's catalog. "Rap Phenomena" gets slagged on endlessly, but I really like it. Yes, if you think of it in terms of late-80s/early-90s hiphop, it bears absolutely no resemblence, but it isn't supposed to, and someone needs to explain to me why this sort of electronic deconstruction is embarassing, but "Day Tripper" isn't. It isn't half as bad as you've been told it is. Actually, the album's low point for me comes in the form of the middle's "filler" instrumentals (1000 Knives, Happy End), but meh.

Technodelic: Can we say "Crowning Achievement?" Taking BGM a step further, Technodelic is an absolutely brutal little thing: at times bleak, and at times amusing, it's nevertheless the most musically sophisticated thing these guys did by far. A few tracks are distinctly ahead of their time ("Prologue," "Pure Jam," "Seoul Music"), and even the goofiness is expertly done ("Taiso"). Hosono's one vocal track, while a bit MOR, is quite enjoyable. The only "low points" that I'd consider to be significant are the "Light" and "Tanz," which overstay their welcome slightly. Otherwise: god, I love this record.

(to be continued)
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Xenu
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Postby Xenu » Thu Mar 08, 2007 4:23 pm

Nobody?
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"Fuckin' Koreans" - Reno 911

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Postby lukpac » Thu Mar 08, 2007 4:41 pm

Not me.
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