I’ve always loved this album cover. Maybe it’s not “lifting an inflatable dolphin” great, but it’s great nevertheless. More than that, I think it represents what her music is all about. I first heard of Akiko Yano through her involvement in YMO; as you may know she was married to Ryuichi Sakamoto for a long time, so she was always in that orbit. I don’t think she appeared on any of the albums but she was part of their live show for a few years. If you’ve ever seen one of those performances then surely you will have noticed her; while the other members were mostly stoic and businesslike (must be the Kraftwerk thing), Yano was always bopping along and having a great time. You ever hear that phrase, “dance like no one’s watching?” Well, that’s her.
As it turns out, Akiko Yano is a great performer and songwriter in her own right, and her (quite massive) catalogue is well worth exploring. If you’re coming to her through the YMO connection (as I assume most non-Japanese speakers would) then Gohan Ga Dekita Yo is going to be the logical jumping in point, for several reasons. Not only does it contain “Zaikungtong Shonen” (which YMO performed often) and a cover of “Tong Poo”, but it also effectively features the entire group as her backing band, which astute listeners could probably pick up on (Hosono’s bass playing is particularly recognizable). Sakamoto also has a hand in the songwriting and arrangements in certain spots – the instrumental track on “Dogs Awaiting” sounds like something from B-2 Unit, and his rather distinct synth playing is all over the place. But more than any of that, it’s just a fantastic album, pretty much on par with anything YMO did, and if you know me that’s a high bar.
A bit of background here. At the start of her career Akiko was a young prodigy, composing her first two albums at the age of 21 and 19, respectively (you read that right) and playing with a number of accomplished musicians, including all of Little Feat and experienced jazz guys like Kazumi Wantanabe. She was also an unofficial member of YMO at the time, supposedly the first Japanese musician to ever use a sequencer. Her first three albums are all quite good and worth grabbing (Japanese Girl for its far-East vibe and contributions by Little Feat, Tokimeki for its general sweetness and wicked title track, Iroha ni Konpeitou for its amazing cover art), but here is where she really starts stretching out and adding new layers to her sound. For one this is a double LP, with 74 minutes of music over 14 tracks, which is notable since her first three albums were all quite short. Secondly, you can hear her start to fuse together her jazz sensibility with both her traditional Eastern influences and this new technopop sound, with synths often playing against the piano parts. Thirdly, the songs here are more complex and ambitious, blurring the lines between the verse and chorus (“Les Petit Bon Bon”) or just foregoing traditional song structures altogether (“Dogs Awaiting”). Not only does this justify the longer track times but it also gives the album a lot of replay value.
All this makes for quite a diverse listen – you’ve got some shimmering ballads (“Hitotsudake”, “High Time”, “You’re the One”), synth-heavy techno workouts (“Dogs Awaiting”, “Tong Poo”), goofball powerpop (“Zaikungtong Shonen”), and then some real left-field stuff. That last category generally winds up being the best; the plinky-plonky samba of “Gokigen Wanisan” was my favorite track for a while, mainly because it has that YMO-style half-serious atmosphere to it that often results in something very interesting – here it’s the way the piano plays off that bizarre inverted rhythm. There’s something not quite right about it. But now my pick of the litter is “Gekotsuyama No Ongirisama”, which in retrospect is sort of obvious, as it’s the album’s centerpiece and the wildest thing on here. At its core I believe this is a medley between two fairly well-known children’s tunes, but ultimately it winds up a showcase of nearly everything Yano is capable of doing that’s outside of her normal wheelhouse. Structured somewhat like a showtune, it careens from one section to the next, featuring a children’s choir, a few piano passages, and a crazy electronic drum freakout (by the way – most great albums have one truly awesome section – 4:50 on this track is it). It’s progressive but also supremely catchy, making it the rare 8+ minute track worth looping over and over again.
I’d keep listing highlights, but there’s not much of a point – every track here is good, even the cornier (“You’re the One”) or more fillerish (“Mata Aone”) among them. A lot of that is down to the charm of Ms. Yano herself – she’s got the sort of voice that’s full of character yet can still hit all the notes. A bit polarizing perhaps, but it’s difficult to resist her charm. It’s all there on the cover.