The prolific reissue label Light in the Attic is famed for gnomic album titles — there’s even an internet form randomly generating a title based on your name. (Any Other Strangers: Southern Californian New Age 1988-1992, anyone?) Somewhere Between positions this collection of “Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism and Shadow Sounds of Japan, 1980-1988” as a triangulation of two of the label’s earlier compilations.
Kankyo Ongaku was all ambient and environmental with the cool minimalism of installation art; Pacific Breeze covered “city pop”, which was essentially a version of yacht rock which emerged in the late 1970s during the economic bubble, a genre for which Japan still retains considerable fondness. A better analogy might be that Somewhere Between is post-punk to Pacific Breeze’s new pop or corporate rock: a homemade, unclubbable, recalcitrant counter-narrative to mainstream music aligned with a consumer boom which carried a looming sense that bills will come due.
In an influential mixtape, DJ Spencer D describes the sort of music collected here as “Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo”, and all three abound on this compilation. Mkwaju Ensemble’s 1981 “Tira-Rin” is a round for marimbas with lines of subtly altering length, shifting and phasing against a light background of keyboard washes: it owes an obvious debt to Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos”, though the liner notes acerbically point out that it comes five years before Reich rearranged his piece as “Six Marimbas” (and long before his “Nagoya Marimbas”).
Much of the sonority of the album depends on airy sampled keyboard sounds: the arpeggios sawing away in Baroque style on Noriko Miyamoto’s English-language “Arrows & Eyes”; the silhouettes of sounds on Mishio Ogawa’s “Hikari No Ito Kin No Ito” as the rhythm stutters and fidgets; the relentless silvery build of Naoki Asai’s “Yakan Hikou” before it resolves into a waltz.
At times the synth-pop is undiluted — Dip in the Pool’s “Hasu No Enishi” would have been perfectly at home in the British charts a year or two before its 1985 release — down to the English phrases “lover’s hands . . . lover’s voice” emerging from the glimmer. Wha Ha Ha’s “Akatere”, by contrast, opens with a strained, crepuscular saxophone solo before abruptly becoming a children’s folk tune with Nintendo bleeps and bells.
The Rough Guide To Avant-Garde Japan (World Music Network) brings the story up to date, with contemporary koto-heavy tracks from Michiyo Yagi, Karin and tsuMGuito, as well as more saxophone from Masanori Oishi.
‘Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan 1980-1988’ is released by Light in the Attic