Graded on a Curve: Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop,
AOR and Boogie
1972–1986

Light in the Attic’s first archival volume of Japanese City Pop, released last year, proved such a success that they’ve dawdled not at all in assembling a sequel. Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1972-1986 is the result, grooved into four sides of vinyl and loaded on a single compact disc, with assorted accoutrements available, including short and long-sleeve t-shirts, a beach towel, a poster, and even a free koozie with vinyl orders while supplies last. The standard 2LP and CD are available May 15, while the color vinyl, the cassette, and the “color set” (that’s “LA Twilight” vinyl, towel and poster) are shipping June 26. Appropriately, it comes with ample background info on all the participants.

Although I described this set as a sequel directly above, that’s not really accurate, as no knowledge of Light in the Attic’s first dive into Japanese city pop is required to engage with this one; Pacific Breeze 2 is instead a standalone banquet of this stuff made possible by the success of the first. All that’s required to enjoy is a receptiveness to the sounds of unabashedly commercial late 20th century pop, with a curiosity into the poppish productivity of other cultures helping to seal the deal.

With that said, I’ll confess that this sorta thing lands pretty far from my listening norms. Indeed, while I was clued-in to the first Pacific Breeze set’s imminent release last year, I wasn’t provided with the music for review, and subsequently, I never checked it out. The contents of this installment did land in my inbox however, with my interest piqued enough that I chose to scope out its contents.

Unsurprisingly, as this compilation features a grab bag of contributing artists, the results are mixed in terms of quality, though there is a level of stylistic cohesiveness that’s unusually high, if alternating between synth-oriented ’80s atmospheres and ’70s flavors, such as the vocally extroverted funk-bounce groove-pop of Bread & Butter’s opening track “Pink Shadow,” culled from their ’74 LP Barbeque.

The second cut here, “Yubikiri” by Eiichi Ohraki, is the oldest, dating from 1972. Ohraki is noted as a member of the band Happy End with Haruomi Hosono and Takashi Matsumoto, both of whom play (bass and drums respectively) on this cut from their bandmate’s self-titled solo debut, recorded while Happy End was still extant. Spiked with flute, the cut is just as grooving as the opener, though its pop is a bit more refined, as it blends funky R&B with Todd Rundgren moves circa Runt.

Kimiko Kasai’s “Vibration (Love Celebration)” is pop served with a splash of disco bump and a sophisto sax solo, fitting as it dates from ’77. Written by Tatsuro Yamashita, who’s considered a pioneer of city pop, it trucks along pleasantly enough and gives way to The Mystery Kindaichi Band’s equally disco-strutting “Kindaichi Kosuke No Theme,” a song inspired by author Seichi Yokomizo’s Detective Kindaichi Kosuke book series, specifically the “flute-playing devil character” from the novels. “Kindaichi Kosuke Nishi E Iku” by Yu Imai from later in the comp is also derived from this character.

Jumping ahead nearly a decade to the end of this set’s timeframe, Tetsuji Hayashi’s “Hidari Mune No Seiza” is a hefty serving of pop-R&B with wiggly rhythms and synth-keyboard sheen, apparently an outlier in his catalog and frankly not one of my favorites here. I wouldn’t count Anri’s “Last Summer Whisper” amongst my personal faves either, though the song, cut in 1982 in L.A. (which became Anri’s home), has an appealingly large bass and drum foundation, plus a synthetic harmonica solo that just screams that it comes from the 1980s.

Anri, who cut 25 albums, is a strong singer, and that she ended up collaborating with Peabo Bryson, Johnny Gill, and Phillip Bailey is no surprise. Next is Momoko Kikuchi’s “Blind Curve,” a hunk of straightforward gal pop cut in ’84 from the singing-actress-teen idol’s debut album. In ’88, after five records with writer-producer Tetsuji Hayashi, she attempted to ditch her prior image by co-founding the rock fusion band RA MU, an intriguing (and the notes indicate, critically well received) move that falls outside the parameters of this comp.

The instrumentally rich pop-R&B of Tomoko Aran’s “I’m in Love” is striking from inside the confines of Pacific Breeze 2, mainly because it was released in ’83 but, with its Steely Dan-ish opening, sounds like it could’ve derived from a few years earlier, at least until the gated drum fills arrive. Aran’s singing is strong, and her track ends interestingly, like it’s reverberating from inside a traffic tunnel.

Next comes the comp’s strongest, Sadistic Mika Band-related stretch. Yu Imai’s “Kindaichi Kosuke Nishi E Iku” is from the soundtrack to a 1978 Detective Kindaichi Kosuke-inspired film. It unwinds like a stranger, more spacious, but still disco-related instrumental cousin to The Mystery Kindaichi Band’s cut detailed above. After the breakup of the Sadistic Mika Band, Imai and the other three instrumentalists continued on as The Sadistics, and their cut “Tokyo Taste” is boldly funky art-pop, quite eccentric without undermining its infectious drive.

For me, it’s the record’s standout, though to reiterate, I’m not really in the target audience for city pop anthologies. I do find that Piper’s “Hot Sand,” a very mid-’80s “summery” beach-vibes specimen, holds my attention while it plays, specifically for how it weaves synthetic hand drums, pop keyboards, big R&R guitar flourishes and the breathy chanting of the song’s title.

It’s an utter immersion into the pop techniques of 1984, but unlike nearly all the retro attempts at capturing this sound that I’ve heard, it doesn’t overload on any one aspect in the recipe, meaning it’s refreshingly devoid of irony. Again, not something I’m going to seek out with frequency, but hey, while it’s on, it’s interesting. I also like the non-chronological approach taken with Pacific Breeze 2, as Junko Ohashi & Minoya Central Station’s “Rainy Saturday & Coffee Break” jumps back to ’77 with a highly yachty femme-voxed mid-tempo groove, altogether a very unbuttoned-butterfly collar experience.

Described in the notes as a dancefloor favorite, Eri Ohno’s “Skyfire” unfurls as exactly that. Featuring some funky bass largeness from Yoshifumi Okajima, its main thrust is pop R&B, with Ohno’s singing providing a sophisto current, as she flaunts a jazz background. The cut expands the range of the women artists gathered here, breadth already considerable and further expanded by the Prince-like guitar-infused funk-pop of Yumi Murata’s “Kanpoo” and the stripped-back, tougher, comparatively non-glossy grooving, artful pop of Kyoko Furuya’s “Harumifutou,” another of the set’s highlights.

Furuya’s selection subtly connects as something of an outlier here, but Yuji Toriyama’s “Bay/Sky Provincetown 1977” offers laid back tropical gliding that’s a perfect fit with Hiroshi Nagai’s cover art. It hits me like an instrumentally deeper cousin to Piper’s “Hot Sand” as it delivers the finale to Pacific Breeze 2. Upon reflection, the strongest attribute of this enlightening collection is how it’s sequenced so this genre agnostic never got fidgety or bored. Thanks for that.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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