It’s never worked before, so why on earth should it work now? Shonen Knife, Pizzicato Five, Puffy Amiyumi … despite their ineffable charms, progressive Japanese pop bands have consistently failed to capture the American imagination, beyond discerning indie cognoscenti or cartoon fans. Thus the decision to introduce long-running J-pop duo Love Psychedelico to U.S. audiences seems counterintuitive, at best.
And thank God for that. It’s deeply encouraging to see a label like HackTone make the unsound business decision to place a bad bet like this. The label’s raison d’être – “to rescue albums unjustly languishing in obscurity” – pretty much guarantees they’ll never be popping champagne corks when the stock splits. But it also means that they care enough about the music they’re releasing to give it the love-and-care promotion it deserves. And a male-female Japanese pop duo with a vibe that’s less Shinjuku than Sheryl Crow is gonna need a whole lot of love and care.
If this is beginning to sound less like a record review than a 100-level class in How Not To Succeed in the Music Business, let me get one thing out of the way quickly: I’ve been an enormous fan of this band for most of the 21st century. Having picked up one of their earliest singles on a trip to Japan, and being summarily blown away by the fact that a band had the temerity to make a song called “Lady Madonna” that had nothing to do with the Beatles, I’ve kept a half-world-away eye on what they’ve done in the meantime. To start with (and speaking of temerity), they called their first album The Greatest Hits, which seemed to me less an empty bluff than a desire that radio were populated with quirky, languorous pop-rock like “Are You Still Dreaming Ever-Free?” and “Your Song.” And if you’ve ever heard the radio in Tokyo, you must understand that their desire for such progress is probably a lot more rabid than ours.
The latter track along with “Lady Madonna” and 11 other cuts culled from the group’s four studio albums comprise this compilation. Trafficking in a sophisticated and organic approach that owes a considerable debt to American classic rock and AM pop, Love Psychedelico defies nearly every stereotype of Japanese pop. There’s no squealing, helium-constricted baby-girl vocal shouts, no syrupy reconfigurations of ’90s synth-drum patterns or giddy bubblegum dance pabulum. It’s J-pop for grown-ups … grown-ups who don’t mind being utterly baffled by the seamless shifts that singer Kumi makes between Japanese and abstract English. That is the only cultural barrier Love Psychedelico puts up for non-Japanese listeners. Perhaps this compilation stands a better chance than I’m giving it, after all.