Harry Hosono is a guy who’s probably going to get talked about on this website a lot. Like many of his fans, I first came to know him as the bass player of Yellow Magic Orchestra. But, like his bandmate Ryuichi Sakamoto, his time in YMO is just one part of a rather illustrious career. He was a bit older than the other members, and the first album he played on was a psychedelic album by the mostly-forgotten band The Apryl Fool, which dates all the way back to 1969 (the CD reissue refers to it as “The Apryl Fool featuring Haruomi Hosono”). His next band, Happy End, was not forgotten – in fact Rolling Stone proclaimed their second album, Kaze Machi Roman, to be the greatest Japanese rock album ever made. After that, Hosono had started his own solo career doing a goofy brand of exotica, which would eventually get rolled into Yellow Magic Orchestra.
It’s worth noting that all of this was done before Hosono ever touched a synthesizer. For a man often referred to as a “godfather of techno”, his early albums were about as far removed from techno as you could get. Paraiso is the first album that features them, but unlike the later (and more famous) Cochin Moon, this is not really a synthesizer album. Hosono’s early albums are certainly a lot of fun, but they are not really subversive or affecting in the way his later works could be.
I really have no idea if Paraiso was intended to be as bizarre as it wound up being, but I think the concept of the album alone guaranteed something special was bound to happen. Often the most surreal music (or paintings, or films, etc.) is not made up of totally new elements, but rather the distortion of elements that are familiar (obviously, directors of horror films know this well). Paraiso tackles the idea of “exotica”, which was an American invention, thanks to a man named Martin Denny (whose “Firecracker” would later become adapted into one of YMO’s first hits). Denny’s exotica was a sort of escapist music; you could envision a starry, serene sky overlaying a tranquil beach in some far away location. It was definitely American music, but it was intended to imitate what you may hear in another country. Hosono spins that concept on its ear, taking the idea of Americanized foreign music and making it foreign again. As you may be able to tell from the cover, Hosono’s idea of the “other” covers a lot of ground – on a serene beach scene you see monuments from around the world haphazardly scattered around, people in traditional dress, hulu dancers, a bunch of parrots, and Hosono himself somewhere near the bottom, sort of hiding in the bushes. Many of these things are in circles, perhaps signifying where the music within is coming from (Hosono’s head has one, as do all of the parrots).
What is appealing in most of Hosono’s work (and YMO’s as well) is that it revels in its own ridiculousness. His album before this had a song called “Tokyo Shyness Boy”, a very catchy rumba number that ends on one of the most ill-advised and hilarious scat sections I’ve ever heard. It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder exactly what the hell he was thinking, but also makes you really glad that he left it in; I had to replay it several times in a state of disbelief. I felt the same way hearing his take on “Fujiyama Mama”; the song itself is a 50’s classic and has been covered a million times, but never by someone as Muppet-voiced as Hosono. Whatever kind of singer he is, he’s almost certainly wrong for this type of material, and I mean that in the best way. But he doesn’t hold back – he even switches to falsetto several times on this album, which I don’t think you’d hear on any of Hosono’s albums after this one.
That said, it’s the overall production on this that really makes it stand out. It is not exactly crisp – you can hear a lot buried in the mix, and it’s never quite clear where your focus is supposed to be. The arrangements are dense, but they’re not exactly precise; this is the sort of music that’s supposed to have a loose groove to it, but these songs feel stiff and jerky. Fans of Hosono’s later work know that he has a peculiar sense of rhythm, something that just started to develop here. Sometimes, such as on “Japanese Rhumba”, all the instruments feel slightly out of time with each other; perhaps an effect of the extreme amounts of reverb a lot of this gets. As such, the music on here really doesn’t sound like anything else, even if it’s clearly rooted in very familiar forms. Sometimes there are some pretty wild ideas – “Shambhala Signal” is the real standout in this regard, with skittering electronic beats and frantic percussive playing from what sounds like a gamelan (or tuned agogo bells?). In mixing traditional instruments with something cutting edge, the sound is truly something unique, and I hear a lot of Japanese electronic musicians do similar pieces themselves.
But most of all, the synthesizers seem to dominate this album. I say “seem to” because the instrumentation is so diverse here that you can never be quite sure what you’re actually hearing. Playing synths against steel drums is rather brilliant in itself (“Shimendoka”), but there’s such a variety of tuned percussion on any given song that they really are just left to interact strangely with everything else. It helps that the guy behind the keyboards is often Sakamoto himself, who was experimenting with all sorts of odd noises at this time. “Femme Fatale” is full of all sorts of bizarre ‘jungle’ sounds that are likely something coaxed out of a Moog. “Worry Beads”, a lush take on tropical jazz, is given an otherworldly atmosphere due to what sounds like a ringing, distorted violin in the background. But the best effect is reserved for the end – “Paraiso” is a fine exotic folk song that out of nowhere gets taken over by this overwhelming, mindblowing synthesizer effect. The only similar thing I can think of is Faust’s “It’s a Little Bit of Pain”, a pretty ballad that has a rather out-of-place buzzing noise in the chorus. But the effect on “Paraiso” sounds way more state-of-the-art; even today I struggle to think of anything quite like it. No doubt this was Sakamoto’s doing.
All this reminds me of a phrase I read a while ago (maybe on Wilson and Alroy’s site?): “Not a good album, just a great one”, which resonated with me even if it most likely was a typo. It’s too easy to poke holes in this one – it’s too short (a little over 34 minutes), Hosono’s voice is too much of a distraction, the production is hard to get a grip on, some of the songs take a while to grow on you, and so on. And yet I find myself drawn to it like nothing else; it almost feels like an accidental masterpiece, though I suspect that Hosono knew what he was doing here. It’s the opposite of the sort of self-consciously odd stuff that bands like Suicide or The Residents do – the music here seems familiar and comfortable at first but gets more disorienting the more you hear it. That’s not an easy trick to pull off.
My favorite track on here is an adaptation of the traditional Okinawan folk song, “Asatoya Yunta”. Beyond the laid back rhythm, colorful percussion, and gorgeous strings (which give it a vaguely Indian feel – his follow-up album Cochin Moon, released the same year, was strongly influenced by Bollywood), there is quite an odd vocal track – both Hosono and guest singer Tomoko Kawada adapt this gentle, lilting vocal style that makes it sound as though the vocals were recorded backwards. To me, this is everything that Hosono was aiming for and more; while it’s hard to get more familiar than a traditional folk song, somehow this rendition sounds like it was recorded on another planet (God, I’m starting to sound like a Pitchfork writer). It’s worth mentioning that Sakamoto would cover this song himself 11 years later – his version is also gorgeous, and is probably much better from a technical perspective, but it doesn’t capture the surreal astral vibe that Hosono’s does. And that, to me, is why I’ll always prefer Hosono’s solo work; he’s the rare artist that seems to be at his most unique when he’s really trying to play it straight. Paraiso is not a good album – just a great one.