ALBUM REVIEW: Japan Soul – Plastic Utopia (2014)

Japan_Soul_Plastic_Utopia_LP_CoverBy Ryan Smith

 I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, rock ‘n’ roll is a dead scene… at least for intelligent people. What remains of a once glorious and expressive institution is a wasteland of dudes singing about their junk and/or getting wasted, or ladies posturing about being ‘one of the guys.’ It’s no surprise, then, that many forward-thinkers, such as myself, are looking to a more sophisticated musical style to carry us into the future. Here to slay the over-inflated monster rock has become is its old enemy, disco.

I mean, if I’m going to have to listen to music geared toward partying, then why in the hell would I choose to listen to rock when disco always did it better anyway? You can say what you want about some of the lyrical content and the culture, but disco often featured bold, catchy, and very intelligent arrangements. With blazing horn sections and rolling basslines, a lot of what disco had to offer beats standard rock any day of the week. I honestly don’t even know why there is bass guitar in rock, as they tend to be slaved to the drums and rhythm guitar and, as a result, are only really capable of delivering simple, uninspired drones. And the boring ‘riff-riff, riff-riff’ is getting very, very old.

With post-disco, disco, and art-pop on the rise again, it seems many forward-thinkers are taking up the old tenets of disco and are pairing it with modern thinking and deep, intelligent lyrics and themes to produce a very exciting new sound infused with fresh energy and the passion of forward-thinking soul… see Capital Cities for instance. I was exhausted and scanning lazily through some press kits that had landed in my inbox when I happened upon the words ‘dystopian disco.’  You can probably imagine how excited I was to check out the rest of that kit, which was for an album by a band called Japan Soul.

Formed early in 2013 in Brooklyn, New York (not the first time you’ve heard me on about a band from there… there’s a lot of good stuff going on in NYC right now!), Japan Soul features the talents of Jason Paul (any anagram fans out there?), DaVe Lipp, Matt McMurry, and Tyler Graham. Released earlier this year, the band’s debut album Plastic Utopia is one damn fine step in the right direction.

Japan Soul, L-to-R: Tyler Graham, DaVe Lipp, Jason Paul, Matt McMurry.

Japan Soul, L-to-R: Tyler Graham, DaVe Lipp, Jason Paul, Matt McMurry.

Although I’ll admit the record is a bit of a slowburn (its best material is toward its end), it opens with the decently catchy “War.” The track features a steadily infectious chorus, a great little bridge, and some sweet sax work, as well as many more subtle tidbits. I’d have preferred it if the entire album had been produced with a sound that was perhaps a little warmer. When turned up loud, some of the sounds are quite sharp and a tad uncomfortable, but there is spirit in the music and, in the end, that’s what really counts. “War” is very good at reproducing the post-disco art-pop of the late seventies/early eighties.

Next up is the title track, which is quite mellow but groovy as hell. The oddly deep lyrics, at first, don’t seem to jive with a musical style that is frequently associated with ‘shake-shake-shake, shake your bootie,’ but this quickly becomes one of the album’s more brilliant features. The upbeat and soulful third track, “Something’s Going On,” shows off the contrast between upbeat musical vibes and heavy lyrical themes very nicely. It’s also at this point in the record where I started taking note of the interesting subtleties, like the distortion chiming in just after the one minute mark, and the reverb-drenched sax near the three and a half minute mark.

The sheer amount of art-pop awesome that oozes from “Lalalaland” is pretty ridiculous. Replete with infectious, Buggles-like hooks, and sheets upon sheets of subtle musical highlights, this tune is a stunner to say the least. Vocalist Jason Paul possesses a style that is very different from the modern norm, but is nonetheless an insanely interesting mix of old school soul and Depeche Mode-like dark wave. “Transparent” captures a bit of the nineties dance revival, with a strong latin feel.

Another standout for me is the new single “Fight With Love.” Lyrically, the song appeals to me as a damn hippie. Some really great stuff here. Musically, it is the most disco-tastic thing on the record. It features the kind of strong bassline characteristic of the genre and the soaring guitar work compliments everything quite nicely. Also of note is the way a few jazzy-sounding guitar bits during the verses adds some really great flavour.

Japan Soul.

Japan Soul.

My second favourite tune on Plastic Utopia is “Hey Yah Hey.” The music is spectacularly atmospheric and brilliantly arranged to pull an audience right in. I absolutely love the melodies and… the hooks! The subtle hooks! The fantastically produced group vocal in the chorus is powerful, easy to sing along to, and is somehow inspiring even though it’s just “Hey Yah Hey.” The piano and sax work overtime here to pull everything together amazingly. In stark contrast, I don’t really care for “Shanghai” at all.

We’ve finally arrived at my number one fave, “One More Night.” With its dark, mesmerising tone and glossy, voice mod-laced verses (gorgeous harmonies layered to perfection), soulfully charged, wonderfully catchy chorus, and unique approach to a solo, this tune is something quite special. The album ends with one more brilliantly artistic piece. A perfect closer the record, “Nosara” includes another mighty bassline, wistful guitar work, thrillingly catchy, modern keyboard hooks, and gripping vocals beginning to end. Only a few words in this chorus, but I’m very impressed with what this dude can do with his voice. Re-enforcing this, we end up in slow jam territory during the bridge. Some lovely horn work leads us back into the very simple chorus and we end on a minor note, accentuating the somewhat pre-apocalyptic theme of the record.

While perhaps not the most immediate of the new disco records I have heard in recent weeks, Plastic Utopia is oh so powerful if you let yourself go amidst all of its wonderful layers. I initially found the record to require just the tiniest bit of patience to get into (it’s just my opinion that perhaps the tracklist should have been arranged differently), the pay-off was well worth the mild effort. There are some really great tunes on this one that shall be with me for a good long time, I think. Can’t wait for the next one!

RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.



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