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V/A - Japan for Sale Volume 3

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Artist: V/A

Album: Japan for Sale Volume 3

Label: Columbia

Review date: May. 20, 2003

Bit of a Shame, Despite some High Points

The third volume of the "Japan for Sale" series, like the previous two, brings U.S. listeners a combination of both well-known names and relative newcomers. It also spans a medium-wide range of styles, from hip-hop to pure pop. There's not much here for fans of rock or psychedelia (let alone experimental), as the selections hew to the side of well-polished presentation and essentially mainstream aesthetics. If you're the sort familiar with Japan's indie scene, don't expect it to be represented here, given that this is a Columbia/Sony Music presentation: there's no Miminokoto, Gaji, or Fushitsusha going on, nor even any Rovo, Boredoms, or Mono.

I've found it interesting that during the past decade the Japanese bands making the greatest headway here in the U.S. have generally been those not chained down by major labels. It's far easier and cheaper to buy, in stores or via mail-order, CDs by High Rise, Masonna, and Melt-Banana than it is to find a CD by relatively famous names like Supercar and the Brilliant Green. Having helped stores over here try to import CDs, I can tell you that it's because the major labels seem only to care about the U.S. if another label approaches them offering licensing. They often seem completely uninterested in taking the smaller steps that could help their artists begin to make themselves known in this country. It's a mystery to me why that is. Japanese major-label bands like the Boredoms, Cornelius, and Shonen Knife are the exceptions that prove the rule, being artists with their own idiosyncratic approaches and enough bargaining power to do things their own way.

Despite this, and the Japanese music industry's notorious fondness for manufactured, image-conscious pop, it's good to see some efforts like this series being made. And there is some good work to be found in the major-label sphere. This collection, not surprisingly, spans both the good and the ugly.

On the bright side, there's the talented DJ Krush, of course one of the better-known names on here for American listeners. "The Lost Voices" (featuring Sly & Robbie) is an example of his atmospheric beats, a very effectively eerie piece. Polysics, returning from an earlier volume of this series, offers synthpop that starts out like a Kraftwerk cover, albeit at a much faster tempo. The girlish vocals and vocoder breaks somehow reminded me of '84-era Human League.

I've always had a fondness for the Brilliant Green; or perhaps it's a guilty pleasure, I'm not sure. I like them for their tendency to rock harder than their contemporaries while remaining adamantly hummable, with memorable pop hooks. It is kind of a shame that they've started offering English vocals (stop catering to the closed-minded Americans), but "I'm a player in T.V. games" is still an appealing song. On the flip side, Mai Hoshimura's J-pop struggles for the unique personality of Pizzicato 5, but doesn't quite make it; it's still better than Mayu Kitaki's unredeemably sappy pop. Guitar Vader's "Super Brothers" brings some much-needed punk rock energy to the collection, but it really could have used a lot more.

Electronic sounds continue to take over, with Takkyu Ishino and Yoshinori Sunahara offering electro-rhythm and Art of Noise-inspired work respectively, while Goku blends electronica tendencies with extremely polished hip-hop. Loop Junktion's jazzy hip-hop doesn't rise above an inescapable blandness despite relatively energetic vocals; Kyoto Jazz Massive suffer the same fate, ultimately feeling somehow empty, while Matally's reggae-derived piece at least offers some power.

Overall, this collection certainly offers a lop-sided view of Japan's music scene, but it's not without its high points. Given that this is being made available to college radio around the country, I can certainly see it boosting the profiles of DJ Krush, Polysics, and perhaps Guitar Vader. The problem is just that I could name dozens of more deserving artists in Japan. Seeing efforts like this wasted on primarily cookie-cutter bands is a shame.

By Mason Jones

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