The Japanese obsession with American music is legendary, due primarily to the purity of the actual obsession. Anyone who's ever tried to outbid a Japanese collector for an obscure Blue Note LP, small-label psych-rock record or early hip-hop 12-inch on eBay knows this. It's not so much that the Japanese are bereft of their own musical heritage; quite the contrary. It's just that in the same way that American music nerds find some sort of stylistic integrity in the indigenous music of other countries, the Japanese lustily latch on to those elements in American music that they find missing from their own culture.
Apparently, one of those elements is "soul," as evidenced by a new compilation from Tofu Records. Although based in Santa Monica, the label wants to show- case the more surprising facets of contemporary Japanese music in an effort to dispel the stereotype that Tokyo Pop is nothing more than insipid pop music. (Although it must be said that the label has more than its share of anime music.) "Neo Soul" starts off smartly with a track from Toshi Kubota, the slow-jamming "No Lights ... Candle Light."
What's weirdest about Neo Soul is how weird it isn't. Sure, Miss Monday's hip-hop cadence on "Curious" is, well, curious and hearing the handful of singers here who try to push their octave range down to unnaturally low levels is somewhat disturbing, but for the most part, it appears that Japanese soul music has the same potential and problems as its American inspiration. Kubota and several others go for a smooth, future-groove approach, while the hip-hop tendencies are represented by folks like Rhymester, who hits pretty hard with "Y.E.N." But the goofy track that follows up "Y.E.N." -- "Dream Drive" by Soul'd Out -- is an embarrassing bit of puffery nearly equaled by the clichés that riddle tracks such as "Fortune" by Sowelu. Still, it's not as though American R&B and hip-hop represent inimitable musical perfection. And to that end, it appears that our brothers across the Pacific are indeed keeping it real.