The Pizzicato Five Discography: Pre-Canon 1985-1991
W. David Marx listened to every single major release from legendary Shibuya-kei band, Pizzicato Five, so you don’t have to. This is part two of a five-part series, covering the band’s first eight releases.
|“Audrey Hepburn Complex” (August 1985)|
|Pizzicato V debuted as one of many “YMO children” on the Non STANDARD label. And as such, producer Hosono Haruomi (of Happy End and Yellow Magic Orchestra) roughed up P5’s dainty vocals, dainty melodies, and references to dainty 1950s cinema icon Audrey Hepburn with clackety drum machines, dissonant piano chords, and proggy structural complications. (No organic instruments were harmed in the production of this record.) The title song would function well as background music in a B-grade American 1980s film where the protagonist is walking town feeling tortured. On the brighter side, Hosono also brought us the delightfully wispy synth lines that carry both the Simon & Garfunkel cover “The 59th Street Bridge Song” and the vaguely-Hawaiian “Let’s Go Away for a While.” But no matter how solid the songs, the production never emerges from the gray fog of early 1980s New Wave.|
|(B+) — A dated Eighties sound, but an auspicious start|
|“From Party to Party” (October 1985)|
|A Christmas-themed dance song relying on high-speed drum machine hi-hats, 1960s surf guitar, and James Bond ambience. In case you worried about commitment to the holiday theme, there is a vibraphone solo that morphs into “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Not a particularly important track in the band’s history, but musicologists will be able to dredge up elements of “Twiggy Twiggy” in the primordial swamp.|
|(B) — A demented Christmas song|
|“In Action” (January 1986)|
|Although Hosono is still listed as producer, Konishi and co. managed to escape YMO’s exclusively electronic cell. “Action Painting” gets one step closer to the classic Pizzicato Five — bouncy piano-driven Motown-inspired vocal pop. But the sound is still buried under grey ‘80s reverb and fake synth horn stabs. “Boy Meets Girl” meanwhile is full out moody New Wave: primitive drum machines lacking any nuance, slap bass samples, fairy synths, and digital replicas of steel pan sequenced into rococo solos. A relatively robotic extreme for P5.|
|(B+) — Exactly as if 1990s P5 were transported back to the 1980s|
|Couples (April 1987)|
|Whether it was their new record label Sony or an old obsession with Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends, Pizzicato Five decided on a collection of soft vocal pop for their first full-length album. They evidently sought out a cozy studio with no synthesizers and very comfortable couches. The result is a Bubble economy version of easy listening, equivalent to one of the song titles on the album: “Two Sleepy People.” There are occasional flashes of energy from Tom Jones pastiche, but otherwise, many flute flourishes and whispers for bedtime. Surely it was strange for a Japanese band in 1987 to make a 1960s muzak album with nods to Walter Wanderley and Sergio Mendes, but they had yet realized there could be danger in mining for forgotten lounge sounds.|
|(B-) — Whispery sweet nothings for your nap date at the trendy café|
|Bellissima! (September 1988)|
|At Sony’s request, P5 fired singer Sasaki Mamiko, so Konishi went out to request the services of Tajima Takao, male vocalist of J-blue-eyed-soul band Original Love. Pizzicato Five, Attempt Two bares little resemblance to the previous incarnation. No more manic pixie girls: Tajima belts out smooth invitations straight to the bedroom over upbeat, funky, and organic sounds from real life musicians. By the second track “Temptation Talk,” it is unclear this album has anything to do with the indie music of Hosono and Non STANDARD. At its worst, this is Terence Trent D’Arby, but even at its best: Tony Bennett? Trivia: You will recognize the song “Couples” from its melody’s re-use in “Baby Love Child.”|
|(C) — Maybe the least canonical true album: dated, cheesy, unrelated|
|On Her Majesty’s Request (July 1989)|
|Konishi felt that Bellissima! was “too serious,” so on the second album with Tajima, the mission was to keep the male singer but bring back the levity of their past songs. The opening instrumental track “Holiday for Audrey H.” achieves this through trumpet solos and hyper-speed harpsichord, foreshadowing their later work. There still may be too much vibraphone, but synthesized beats replace the jazz drumming to reintroduce a sense of speed. “Bellissima ‘90” and “T V A G” are both solid J-pop songs with rock footing, and the latter brings back a few New Wave elements plus a Buffalo Springfield melody reference. Konishi and co. offer a fun suite of songs under fake film soundtrack “Except from the music for film ‘EROTICA Operation,” and then “Satellite Hour” makes club pop from Fairlight vocal samples — thanks to a guest duet with future singer Maki Nomiya. Lowlights are the Tajima-penned funk-lite.|
|(B-) — Music gravitates back to Konishi’s strengths, but scattered|
|Soft Landing On the Moon (May 1990)|
|With this compilation of reworked old songs and outtakes, the band inched towards the peak Pizzicato Five sound. But progress is a slog. The new version of “Party Joke” adds a more sophisticated loungecore to their list of capabilities, but then why do we need a hard rock cover of “Bellissima” or a Soul II Soul-esque remix of “Temptation Talk”? Maybe we don’t. A funny moment is the guest voice-over appearance from Sasaki Mamiko to imply that she’s cool with being kicked out of the group. Overall, there are more pronounced club beats and drum loops, and hey, there’s even a Ohtaki Eiichi cover for good measure. But any album where we have to hear Tajima sing a song called “Sex Machine” just doesn’t hold up in the long-run.|
|(C) — All the worst parts of the Tajima years, but even less essential|
|Hi, guys! Let me teach you(May 1991)|
|A throwaway collection of cheesy instrumentals for use in an educational TV show. Tajima is gone, but the muddily-mixed live band sound lives on. The entire CD sounds like hack musicians at a TV station trying to rip off Pizzicato Five’s 1960s retro but coming up with the worst genres of the past: flute muzak, Ventures instrumentals, and dentist office bossa nova. By the time a harmonica steps in to play the melody lines, you want this root canal to end. A small charm: The song “Matt Dillon ni naritai” (I want to be Matt Dillon) gets the absurd English title “I’ll see ya guys on saturday night, right?” Otherwise, avoid.|
|(F) — A cheesy take on the most boring side of P5|
November 29, 2016 at 9:34 am
I think there’s a reason why Hi Guys was listed awkwardly on the cover as “Takanami Keitaro orchestra & combo a/k/a Pizzicato Five” :) Would be nice to know how it was used in context of the show though
November 29, 2016 at 9:36 am
I’m sure it sounded like slightly cheesy pseudo P5 BGM in the show.
November 29, 2016 at 1:04 pm
One quick anecdotal thought: I really don’t like “Bellissima!” (from my 1998/2016 perspective of what P5 “should” sound like) but the album seems to have been very popular with Japaense Gen Xers.
November 30, 2016 at 7:38 am
Ha… I do like parts of Bellissima. I would say it is the strongest Tajima album, but only a few tracks.. but really strong. World Standard, Couples, This Can’t Be Love…great! I would agree though it is atypical of their later sound though so I could understand your feelings. Same rating as Soft Landing though?? :)
I’ll have to re-listen to On/By Her Majesty’s Request… it’s been a long time.
November 30, 2016 at 2:52 pm
I like SLOTM because it shows the first direct influence of cut’n’paste albums like De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising,” which then returns full force for “This Year’s Girl”. (Actually I like all the first four albums for various reasons.)
November 30, 2016 at 5:11 pm
That’s a very kind take on SLOTM. I will relisten to it as “3 ft High and Rising Japan version” and see if that improves it.
One of the main points of this exercise is (1) to relatively weigh these albums against each other (2) listen to them from a 2016 first-time listening POV where I could. I didn’t want to my own nostalgia for a song to make it sound better or worse.
For you, would you say that you like the first four albums BUT would you say you like them better than the top ones like Bossa Nova 2001?
December 6, 2016 at 11:08 am
Wow, I like P5 fairly well and have never even heard any of the stuff in part 1 of your review! I suppose parts 2 and 3 are where all of my listening history fits.