Ryuichi Sakamoto – Works I-CM (2002)
Since I’ve already done a Hosono and a Takahashi album here, I figure it was only a matter of time before I got a Sakamoto one in. Problem is I haven’t really been listening to much Sakamoto lately, as there have been so many soundtracks and collaborations and other assorted compilations that I don’t really know what is what anymore. Furthermore, I’m a little more picky with him. Works I-CM is the one album of his I’ve been playing a lot lately, and it’s not an album proper, but rather a compilation of music that he did for commercials between 1982 and 1984. If you’re a fan this should make your ears perk up a little, as 82-84 was a particularly fertile period for Sakamoto, and as you may expect this album has several gems on it. In fact it probably warrants its own feature on Critter Jams, but the fact that all the songs (outside of “Expo 85”) have Japanese titles make it difficult to talk about.
Essentially this is 50 minutes, spanning 19 tracks, many of which are quite short. Most of this sounds somewhere between his crystalline Naughty Boys work and Ongaku Zukan. The first track is “About You” from the latter, originally written for a Life Insurance company. The others are generally unavailable elsewhere, though pieces of them sometimes show up on later compositions. Akiko Yano appears on a number of them. None of these pieces are very sophisticated, but they do sound good (many use the same shimmering synth tones that were so apparent on Naughty Boys). I’ve been down on RS’s pop sense in the past; I feel that on some releases he feels he has to dumb himself down too much. But the music here is crisp, effortless, and fun. Many of the pieces just loop the same jingles over and over again; I have no idea why the ten-minute track is so long, but everything is a breezy listen so you don’t much mind the repetition. Sometimes it reminds me of leaving the Nintendo 64 on a menu screen for too long. It sounds like a lot of these tracks intended to eventually get vocals over the top, but the instrumentals are good on their own.
Overall the experience is not unlike Hosono’s excellent Coincidental Music; not as adventurous but it’s brisk and many of the pieces are quite interesting. Apparently there is another collection called Works II – TV and Inst. which I believe is more of the same.
Cake – Live From the Crystal Palace (2014) (vinyl only)
This and the next one sort of go together. Cake are not really a band I listen to anymore, but I loved them so much as a teenager that I figure I owe it to myself to check out their new stuff. I believe we’ve been hearing about this album for like…six years now, so if nothing else it’s kind of cemented some sort of legendary status in my mind. That said, I’ve heard for a long time that Cake weren’t exactly a great live act and this disc proves it. I have always wanted to go to a show, as their songs are wonderfully easy to sing (or shout) along to, but the constant tales of John McCrea’s pissy and depressing demeanor eventually turned me off. Simply put, I dig the guy’s music and I’m sure he’s super intelligent, but I would imagine that spending an evening with the dude would just be a massive bummer. That’s kind of ironic, as Cake’s music is usually a lot of fun.
As for the album – I guess it wasn’t really worth waiting for. The performance itself is nearly a decade old by this point, so you almost wonder why they released it at all. Cake’s studio music always had a spontaneous atmosphere to it and quite frankly they don’t sound a lot different live. Occasionally DiFiore (trumpet) will blast out a new line or something but there’s not a lot of excitement here; they have trouble really getting into a groove, as there are a lot of timing issues between instruments. They certainly don’t sound like a band that’s been together for over a decade. Still, good to revisit some of these tunes and I may just break out those first four albums again, still classics in my mind.
Mike Doughty – Live at Ken’s House (2014)
It’s no secret that I didn’t like Doughty’s collection of re-imagined Soul Coughing tunes; it felt a bit unsavory for one, but more than that it just wasn’t very good, attempting to bury the work of three very talented musicians through an unimaginative array of loud drum machines and garbage samples. Live at Ken’s House is a live (in the studio) take on a bunch of Soul Coughing material, featuring bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Pete Wilhoit, and thankfully he lets them loose and allows them to create the sort of grooves that at least resemble what the originals were all about. It’s so much better than the studio album that it’s downright baffling why this wasn’t the actual release; it retains a lot of the chaotic nature of the originals, throws a number of interesting wrinkles into the mix, and even re-does some songs completely (“Lazybones”, turning into a dreamy chiptune dirge). There are a few missteps – an acoustic version of “Super Bon Bon” is completely pointless, but the remixed version with female hip-hop collective HJA is downright offensive, featuring new lyrics like “got my mind on my money and money on my mind” and throwing in the same bits that worked so poorly on the Super Bon Bon Circles Sleepless album. In fact, the mini-acoustic set is kind of a waste altogether, considering that he already did so many SC songs this way on Water and Washington, and quite frankly I think this new band has a real groove to ’em; both the medleys are a lot of fun, and the snappy takes on “St. Louise is Listening” and “Bus to Beezlebub” are great. In other words they sound like cleaned up, more professional takes on what Soul Coughing did; maybe the soul of it is different (if anything, this whole project highlighted how integral De Gli Antoni and Gabay really were – Steinberg was as well, but Popper isn’t a bad replacement), but they’re 90% of the way there. It’s exactly what I was hoping his “re-imagined” disc would be like.