In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about great songs not sung in English.
Pizzicato Five was the most prominent band to emerge from Japan’s Shibuya-kei scene, but that’s as minor a distinction as calling 2 Skinnee J’s the most successful nerdcore rappers. Some subgenres are so narrow and specific, even the biggest fish in the pond is only slightly bigger than the others. That perspective isn’t easily gained given that music journalists are notoriously prone to neophilia and ever eager to lend their imprimatur to the potential next big thing.
Shibuya-kei is a prime example of the hysteria born of music journalists’ gold-fever approach to discovering emerging movements. Shibuya-kei bands like P5 filtered mainstream J-pop through retro jazz, soul, and lounge influences, and the subgenre took its name from the Shibuya District, the epicenter of Tokyo fashion, nightlife, and youth culture. Everything about Shibuya-kei is esoteric, and with lyrics sung almost exclusively in Japanese, it’s an incredibly tough sell to American audiences. And yet, P5 managed to land a deal with Matador Records and did respectable sales numbers with its full-length Stateside debut, 1994’s cheekily titled Made In USA. (The band even turned its single “Twiggy Twiggy” into a micro-hit after it appeared in the Robert Altman film Ready To Wear.)
Made In USA marked P5’s commercial peak, but unlike surprise successes that called it quits as abruptly as they appeared, P5 kept releasing music at the impressive pace of an album per year. It helped that the band had worked so far ahead. By the time P5—singer Maki Nomiya and producer Yasuharu Konishi—signed with Matador, it had already spent seven years releasing music in Japan. During that period, the quintet Konishi started with some art school friends slimmed down to a duo with a confusing name, but kept the same sound and continued cranking out music. By the time P5 released its 1998 album Playboy & Playgirl, the tastemakers had stopped paying attention, which is too bad since the duo’s output got more experimental and irreverent as they went along.
Playboy’s “Such A Beautiful Girl Like You” exemplifies P5’s propensity to tweak its formula. They experimented with classic disco homage as early as Made In USA, but “Beautiful Girl” is set apart by its bare-bones arrangement. The assertive bass line does most of the work, accompanied only by a pair of horns, an organ and some austere percussion. The treatment is wildly different than what P5 would have done with the song in its early years, but the band’s evolution was lost on the chunk of the audience that deboarded the bullet train a bit too soon.