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Issue #54: The Quiet Before the Storm
Discussing the new Young Coco album, Ippu-Do's "Sumire September Love" and some of the other great Showa singles commissioned by Kanebo
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The research for this issue’s Oricon flashback single deepened my interest on a lot of different pockets of Japanese pop culture, including the short history of tie-up songs commissioned by Kanebo. Several Showa-nostalgic bloggers and columnists recalled an intensely competitive air from the ad campaigns between the cosmetics company and its competitor Shiseido—a few referring to the event as the “commercial song wars.”
While they each had already begun building up their momentum a few years prior, 1978 was the year both companies achieved their first commercial breakthroughs. Shiseido scored a number-one hit that summer with Eikichi Ozawa’s “Jikanyo Tomare.” Kanebo took over the top spot with their own summer campaign song, Circus’s “Mr. Summer Time,” but its competitor’s next ad tie-in, Takao Horiuchi’s “Kimi No Hitomi Wa 10000 Bolt,” swept most of autumn with the era’s idol phenomenon Pink Lady being the only act to interrupt its run.
The arms race between Shisedo and Kanebo continued well into the ‘80s with many different musicians getting involved in the game. They called up leading names in the then-emerging “new music” scene like Yumi Matsutoya, the artsy corners of new wave like Ippu-Do’s Masami Tsuchiya or the rosters of booming idols like Seiko Matsuda. The collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto and RC Succession’s Kiyoshiro Imawano spearheaded by Shiseido in 1982 represents one of the most creatively fruitful (and certainly one of the most expensive) efforts to surface from this effort. Now far from its simple jingle origins, the cosmetic companies brought about legitimate pop hits of the season.
Fitting this huge piece of context in the write-up for this issue’s Oricon flashback would distract from the discussion of the actual song but it’s also too fascinating to ignore it altogether. So I dedicated a separate feature here to go through some other songs commissioned as campaign tie-ups for Kanebo. I focused solely on singles from Kanebo ads because the Oricon flashback selection is also a release from the company, and I disqualified songs that charted number-one in hopes that I can cover those as an official flashback in a future issue—well, except for one selection.
Here is a list of 5 songs commissioned for a Kanebo campaign from 1980-1985:
“Kuchibiruyo, Atsuku Kimi Wo Katare” by Machiko Watanabe [CBS Sony, 1980]
Highest spot on the Oricon at #4; top 10 from March 24 - May 5, 1980
“May your lips do the hot talking,” Machiko Watanabe sings in the titular chorus of “Kuchibiruyo, Atsuku Kimi Wo Katare,” and the arrangements ring just as triumphant as the singer-songwriter’s uplifting words. While she writes about women on paper as a collective subject, the conviction in her voice makes it as though she’s placing direct attention to you, the listener and possible audience for the summer lipstick line. Watanabe establishes enough sincerity in her message for it not to be muddied by the commercial origin of the single, enough to make her sentiment resonate to a new generation four decades later.
“Harusaki Kobeni” by Akiko Yano [Japan, 1981]
Highest spot on the Oricon at #5; top 10 from March 2 - April 20, 1981
The hook for “Harusaki Kobeni” amounts to relatively minor work compared to the rest of what copywriter and lyricist Shigesato Itoi has done, but that only makes its playful brilliance more maddening. “Mini mini mini kitene (come look for me),” Akiko Yano sings in the chorus a sweet, childish pun of a lyric that doubles as the tag line for Kanebo’s Lady 80 mini lipstick. The slightly corny humor fits with the oddball technopop music arranged by Yellow Magic Orchestra, as well as a natural product from Akiko Yano and the whimsy she brings to the track.
This issue’s Oricon flashback also took me down the path of Japan’s post-punk new wave scene during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. (Again, me dipping into these seemingly disparate spheres, make-up commercials and new wave, will hopefully make a lot more sense once you get to that section.) Bands like Plastics and P-MODEL, the former band which I finally checked out for the first time—I recommend Welcome Plastics! It so happened that I did this dive into this scene around the time I also saw Kraftwerk, the grandfather of all these bands, live in concert. It was such an amazing show, partly because so much of the music reminded me of other fascinating music that it inspired: Detroit techno and electro, Afrika Bambataa, Yellow Magic Orchestra and, yes, so much of new wave.
I usually reserve the digging of older music for the Flipped issues, but I couldn’t resist for this issue. You’ll of course be catching up with new music from here on and out until you reach the Oricon flashback. Maybe new to the point of whiplash diving straight into the Album of the Week and some of the selections on Singles Club.
Oh, and I reviewed a song from the latest EP by valknee—a This Side of Japan favorite—for Pitchfork! It’s my first byline for the site, so I am very happy I got to write about it there. You can check that out here.
I talked a lot more than usual, so I’ll get to the main content.
Album of the Week
The quiet before the storm by Young Coco [Hybrid]
If Young Coco took notes from Gunna for the sleepy cadence of the 2020 release NOT REGULAR, the rapper began to turn his ear to a different name in the Young Thug-led YSL crew for a more animated style in last year’s 05:56 KOKORO. A switch into a high-pitched chirp and whine suggested Lil Keed now may be his new inspiration as he explored new colors to extract from his voice with assistance of Auto-Tune. He returns with a deft grasp of his voice for The quiet before the storm, not only bending it into alien shapes in his verses but also crowding warped ad libs in between an already-noisy space. Paired with a series of bit-crushed production, Young Coco lays out one psychedelic experience in his latest album.
The vocal manipulations featured in The quiet before the storm gestures to another new rapper stitched into Young Coco’s stylistic patchwork. The exaggerated pinching and deepening of vocals recalls the technique of Playboi Carti and Whole Lotta Red; the turbulent rush of ad libs, and the repertoire of them, also resembles a product mined from the 2020 album. The titular word of “Amiri” alone serves as a springboard for Young Coco to flex his voice into a warbled, hyped stretch while inviting a swarming chorus of ad libs. A dozen of his voices bounce around like an echo chamber in “Feta!” with fuzzy streaks of his own Auto-Tuned croons splattered across the blown-out beat. He has to clear house in “Trust Nobody” and settle on a singular vocal tone so the lone featured rapper Jin Dogg isn’t drowned out.
The cacophony intensifies when housed in the album’s stormy production, a brash yet hypnotic collection of “rage” beats. Neon synths meet corrosive bass like an acid bath, and sputtering drums keep a propulsive, restless momentum. With it moving in such a blur, The quiet before the storm can sometimes function as an aural experience as much as a lyrical one. “Mmm” in particular is more focused on texture: the hook consists of literal humming, like it’s channeling the melodic ghost of NAV, while the ad libs take up as much stock in the verses as the actual bars. It favors letting the gang of sounds overwhelm than whatever boasting it’s supposed to decorate.
The velocity of the beats plays crucial to not let its respective tracks drag. Energy does a lot of the heavy lifting for Young Coco’s refrains, which is infectious on record when shouted ad nauseum but shallow when laid out as-is on paper. His verses don’t inspire too deep a thinking, with prideful boasting and vain indulgence occupying much of the writing, and the beats encourage one to move on to the next without letting a fragment linger for long. He reveals slivers of personal history on a few occasions: “I can’t go back to when I was poor / those days, bye bye,” he blurts in “Bigbank!” as the beat and ad libs whiz by. But a lot of the triple-time-delivered bars serve more as bedrock for the album’s whiplash of restless energy.
The chaos swirling around The quiet before the storm is magnetic as it is intimidating, like the mosh pits that this kind of rage music tends to inspire, and the central rapper maintains a similar feeling of distance. “Typhoon!” sums it up from title to sound: Young Coco basks in the tightness of his personal circle, but while the camaraderie looks captivating from afar, he won’t hesitate to immediately spit back out those who dare to enter without approval. “No one like our crew around us / bring them with us and we get dumb wild in every town,” the rapper later squeaks in the album closer, “Osaka to Kobe,” “if we’re here, you know what that means?” Like the album title suggests, Young Coco and his gang presage a turbulent ride to come wherever they choose to roam, ready to devour before quickly go on to the next.
“A Shade of Color” by midori [self-released]
Midori serves as a slightly on-the-nose yet nevertheless suiting name for a trio of musicians for whom nature provides a rich background for their respective solo works. But whereas AOKI,hayato and Gen Tanabe both freely wander come their own work, the two guitar-players give more of a shape to their compositions when they come together as two-thirds of Midori. Singer Yuni Mori sounds at home in the breezy, translucent timbre of her collaborators’ guitars, and the music in turn provides a lush backdrop for her intimate reflections. “My pen starts to rush / feeling the clear September winds,” she notes, and Mori continues to get lost staring at the blue sky, sincerely taking in the beauty of natural world. The music, meanwhile, remains as still as the clouds.
Midori 2 is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Formation 1992” by Seimei [Trekkie Trax]
Seimei builds his own pirate garage anthem in “Formation 1992” to kick off his latest album, The Truth of the Myth. Like his best works, the track doesn’t deal so much with peaks and valleys than it does snowball once the stomping drum loop gets rolling. Thunderous synth stabs quickly grow larger inside the spin cycle while the producer inserts a brash refrain nicked from an anonymous emcee. He might mute some tracks, include a filter sweep or two, but it’s all about getting lost inside the classic rave riff as the drum loop ensure heads don’t stop bobbing.
“S!CK LOV3” by Yung sticky wom [self-released]
For his general style, Yung sticky wom mixes together the contemporary ingredients of Auto-Tune crooning and candied ringtone synths consisting in today’s popular heartbreak rap. He indulges more literally for the title track of his latest S!CK LOV3 EP, trying to get a prescription to soothe his lovelessness. A tried remedy, of course, is a pour of Promethazine, like he’s baby Future, only to be forced to accept nothing will do the trick. The sourness that spouts from his warbling voice makes the synth-rap go down a little too sweet, like the track’s been sitting out for long with its core rapidly rotting away.
S!CK LOV3 is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1982…
This section is usually dedicated to the Oricon number ones throughout the chart’s history, but for this issue, I’ll write about a hit that did not make it at the very top.
“Sumire September Love” by Ippu-Do [Epic, 1982]
Released July 21, 1982; highest chart position at No. 2 during the weeks of Oct. 11-18, 1982 | Listen to it on Spotify
As luck would have it, Masami Tsuchiya had to be beamed in from London when his band Ippu-Do made their TV break with their only top-ten hit, “Sumire September Love.” The frontman had been playing with UK band Japan as part of their touring bandwhile the new wave band’s single began its climb up the Oricon during when its tie-in commercial of Kanebo’s fall sumire-violet make-up collection went on air. “I actually didn’t think it would stay in the charts for long, so I thought there would be only one broadcast,” he told the magazine Showa 40nen Otoko in 2013. “We would run out of places to perform at after trying to find different locations so it wouldn’t repeat with other stations, eventually to the point I’d play sitting in a salon chair. It was out of control.”
Tsuchiya’s own modest expectation of his single undermines the amount of power behind Kanebo around this time. The cosmetics company had generated more than several Oricon hits since the late ‘70s, and it looked to elevate its package to outdo not only themselves but competitors like Shiseido, which also challenged them on the Oricon with its tie-in singles. For the sumire campaign, Kanebo flexed enough by getting Brooke Shields to star, but the company’s decision to get the big-name actress to simply dance along to Ippu-Do’s crooked yet glittery funk appeared even more boastful. “It was even humorous watching this well-built, 183 cm model do this dance that resembled a bad rendition of a bon odori,” columnist 0onos wrote on Reminder in 2017.
That said, I also don’t blame Tsuchiya for not being too invested on a Ippu-Do song so straightforward and wholesome in comparison to the rest of what he does. Ippu-Do aligned themselves spiritually to post-punk acts like Devo, Talking Heads and Japan’s own Plastics, who interrogated modern life from a cold, sometimes ironic distance. The band had then-recently embraced krautrock and a Kraftwerk-ian approach to modernity in Real—opening song ”German Road” wears its debt to “Autobahn” on its sleeve—and “Sumire September Love” follows up 1981’s Radio Fantasy, which collects surrealist interpretations of commercial music: not only do they cook up their own imaginary spy-film theme for the title track, the band also pull off a twisted cover of the Mission Impossible theme.
The production of “Sumire September Love” contains none of the fun-house mirror theatrics of Radio Fantasy, but its flowery sheen nevertheless sticks out from the Ippu-Do catalog. Lyrics by outside writer Machiko Ryu—who also wrote for Kanebo’s first tie-in number-one—shape the song into a fantastical disco. The ethereal flourishes complements a song that begins with a reminiscence: “It happened on September / ‘twas a strange season,” Tsuchiya sings as though he’s recalling a sweet dream. The guitars cut into the song at striking angles while the frontman continues to sigh and swoon, not quite sure whether or not he really did see this alluring person on the dancefloor.
“Sumire September Love” resided near the top of the Oricon for almost all of autumn, and it remains the strongest, if only impression of the band by much of the public. Ippu-Do didn’t last long enough to leave another hit nor did they particularly pursue such a route. Those who pined for another chart-eyeing pop dream from the band was welcomed instead by their most oblique—and yet their most fascinating—final album, Night Mirage. It was an enticing dream nonetheless in retrospect to witness a new wave band land on the top 10 with a sound emblematic of its respective scene. The band may sit secondary among the great technopop three of P-MODEL, Hikashu and Plastics, but only Ippu-Do has made Brooke Shields dance.
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