Kahimi Karie, Fantastic Plastic Machine and Zoobombs

Kahimi Karie

Kahimi Karie
Kahimi Karie
Minty Fresh

Fantastic Plastic Machine
The Fantastic Plastic Machine
Emperor Norton

Welcome Back Zoobombs!
Emperor Norton

THOUGH WE CONTINUE to go through the motions, the sad truth is that the American public long ago lost its taste for pop and rock at their purest. Preferring its stars earnest, cool, ironic, or just pissed-off, the mainstream rarely indulges in the simple pop joys of the cute, fabulous, or artificial. Even less often do we celebrate rock's promise of freedom by going absolutely nuts for its own silly sake.

The Japanese, however, have no qualms about embracing American music's guilty pleasures. Uninhibited enthusiasm gives the best Japanese pop and rock a vitality that makes even the most clichéd and imitative offerings sound refreshing. But while teen spirit will get you far in pop music, it doesn't preclude the need for genuine emotion. The latest batch of Tokyo imports on domestic labels arrives with style to spare, and a shortfall of substance.

Along with already-rising U.S. indie-star Cornelius, singer Kahimi Karie rules over Tokyo's ultra-trendy Shibuya district. Her self-titled American debut, a compilation of Japanese hits, features Cornelius as well as Westerners such as Momus and Beck. Karie relies on material from the hippest international swinger-songwriters (Jorge Ben, Serge Gainsbourg) for an assortment of pop flavors, from Motown to bossa nova. But Karie's voice, which is airy and weak to the point that it nearly floats away, cannot carry the music. While her charm and good taste nearly compensate, ultimately Kahimi Karie sounds like a lightweight version of other, already breezy imports such as Sweden's Cardigans and Japan's Pizzicato Five.

Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka goes a step further than Karie. A self-proclaimed "recycled adventure," the American debut of his studio project Fantastic Plastic Machine splices together mod soundtracks, video-game symphonies, and bachelor-pad melodies to create a pastiche virtually indistinguishable from his better-known countrymen Pizzicato Five (FPM's standout track "Dear Mr. Salesman" even borrows P-5's vocalist). A larger reliance on club beats and instrumentals saves The Fantastic Plastic Machine from becoming complete rehash, though even great songs like "Fantastic Plastic World" and "Allen Ginsberg" only make for brightly colored aural wallpaper.

The Zoobombs, a manic, retro garage band most closely resembling the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, needn't worry about blending into the background. Welcome Back, Zoobombs!, a stateside debut culled mainly from two previous Japanese releases, features Who-style maximum R&B, bluesy freak-outs, hard electrofunk, organ-riff rocking, and bleary-eyed psychedelia. Hip-hop elements keep the band grounded in the present, but mostly the Zoobombs make good, old-fashioned rock 'n' roll. Though short on originality, Welcome Back occasionally transcends mere homage and enters the realm of inspiration. And that makes sense in any language.

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