Most pop music these days is released by multinational corporations, and those companies are of course interested in maximizing the return on their investments. One of the best ways to do that is to sell to new markets music the corporation has already produced. That's why Capitol last year issued "Modern Tokyo Connection, Vol. 1," a compilation of recent Japanese hits. The "Vol. 1" designation proved comically optimistic. American listeners couldn't be bothered even to yawn at the disc's music.
Some Japanese groups have built followings in the United States, but they're not the ones that Japan's major labels understand. The American cult success of such acts as the Boredoms, Hanatarash and the New York-based Cibo Matto is a mystery in Japan. So the country's music biz continues to export bland bands such as Dreams Come True, which makes its Washington debut tomorrow at the 9:30 club, and leave more eccentric acts such as Shonen Knife, Cornelius and Sugar Plant to independent labels. Dreams Come True: Sing or Die'
Recorded in Tokyo, London and New York, Dreams Come True's "Sing or Die" (Virgin) is global pop in the worst sense. That's not to say it's badly made: These 11 synth-based songs (not including the curious "Opening Theme") are brisk and tuneful. Such disco-pop tunes as "Ahaha" and "This Is Not Love at All" could very well charm what's left of the American Top 40 audience, and perhaps also fans of lounge-rock bands such as the Cardigans. Still, this is music that aspires to the depth of advertising jingles.
"Sing or Die" is eclectic to a fault, incorporating Western (and occasionally African) styles into a whole that's poised, glossy and anonymous. There's virtually nothing Japanese about these tunes, which are sung in English, save for the Japanese tendency to treat all English-language concepts as equally upbeat and frivolous: Thus songs with such titles as "Temptation" and "Marry Me?" adjoin one called "Peace!" (In Japan, "Peace" is also a brand of cigarette.) "You can have your cake and eat," announces singer Miwa in the latter song, but "Sing or Die" suggests that's not true. In crafting pop so catchy but characterless, Dreams Come True has prepared a confection that's unlikely to last. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.) Shonen Knife: Happy Hour'
A few years ago, Shonen Knife also recorded for Virgin, but now the Osaka trio is back in the power-pop ghetto. The band's new "Happy Hour" is on Big Deal, the small American home of such pop-rockers as Love Nut, Nick Heyward and Splitsville, and includes a cover of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer." The album opens with a hip-hop experiment, "Shonen Knife Planet," but quickly turns back to the band's long-standing obsession: snacks. Such tunes as "Cookie Day," "Hot Chocolate" and "Banana Chips" find these three women nursing their trademark case of the melodic munchies.
The guitar-playing embodiment of Japan's affinity for cartoonish cuteness, Shonen Knife also extols Japanese food ("Sushi Bar Song"), Chinese food ("Gyoza") and carp ("His Pet") and just says hello ("Konnichiwa"). The poignancy of the band's unlikely rock-star aspirations has faded as its prestige and musical proficiency have increased, but singer-songwriters Naoko Yamano and Michie Nakatani still occasionally pack complex yearnings into the simplest of metaphors: "Don't be afraid of missing the bus/ You will catch your bus," advises Nakatani in "Catch Your Bus," and she's clearly singing about Shonen Knife's dogged insistence on building a career outside Japan's starmaking machinery. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.) Cornelius: Fantasma'
Unlike many American indie labels, Matador has signed some Japanese acts that are actually popular at home: Pizzicato Five and now Cornelius. Unlike many of their peers, these performers don't owe their commercial success to insipid mainstream music. Cornelius's American debut, "Fantasma," is a giddy jumble of pop, rock, hip-hop and a dozen other styles. Typically eclectic are such tracks as "New Music Machine," which opens with a hard-rock guitar flourish and then becomes a breathless samba tune, or "Star Fruits Surf Rider," which launches a similar melody into drum-and-bass orbit.
The Tokyo-based Cornelius, who borrowed his stage name from a character in "Planet of the Apes," is actually Keigo Oyamada, who plays everything on "Fantasma." The musician's personality, however, is only reflected in his choice of material to cut and paste. Thus many of the album's 13 tracks are titled after American or British rock bands ("Clash," "Count Five or Six") or songs ("God Only Knows," "Free Fall"). The music is seamlessly integrated, with various amusing gimmicks to cover the transitions between songs. Cornelius's tactics might be more than merely amusing, though, if he sometimes offered a glimpse of the man behind the ape mask. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8155.) Sugar Plant: Happy/Trance Yellow'
On last year's "After After Hours," Sugar Plant combined the intimate sound of the third Velvet Underground album with laid-back bleeps and whooshes that conjured some tropical-beach planet. The band's new "Happy/Trance Mellow" (World Domination) is even less urgent. Its two CDs (released separately in Japan) contain only 10 songs, but all of them linger languidly for five minutes or more; the longest runs more than 20 minutes. The result isn't quite trance-inducing, but it's certainly designed for listeners who are very mellow.
These extended tracks put a premium on spacey grooves, but the members of Sugar Plant do write actual songs. Though hardly emphatic, such compositions as "Rise" and "Rainy Day" (both from "Happy") have solid melodies, and stress Chinatsu Shoyama's whispery vocals and Shin'ichi Ogawa's rippling guitar over the ambient synthesized burbling. Things are more vague on "Trance Mellow," the more recent of the two discs, which features wispy drones and bell-like tones. The band was named after a sugar refinery in Yokohama, but such bucolic sound sketches as "Meadow" sound about as distant as possible from the clattering Tokyo metroplex. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8156.) CAPTION: Miwa of Dreams Come True: Catchy pop tunes, with nothing too deep and virtually nothing Japanese.