Metro, March 3
Pizzicato Five Is a Joke, Don't Believe the Hype," flashed the screen onstage at the Metro. In front of the screen the Japanese dance group's singer, Maki Nomiya, preened in her third wig of the night, a blond beehive twice the size of her head, while songwriter and arranger Yasuharu Konishi circled her and shook a pair of maracas. The message projected behind the band was one of dozens edited almost subliminally into footage of rocket launches and old Japanese movies.
Its silly lyrics and resurrected riffs notwithstanding, Pizzicato Five must be seen to be appreciated. With a snappy sense of fashion overkill, the band parodies mass infatuation with commercial entertainment as a bright, dizzy cartoon.
The band appeared with a guitarist and usually uses some live instruments, but its music is largely composed and arranged by Konishi from a combination of prerecorded sound effects, sampled music, and electronic drum tracks. Drawing on a vast catalog of American popular music, Konishi samples a variety of artists and genres --early 60s cocktail swank, loungey easy listening, 70s soul, disco, psychedelia, Bootsy Collins bass lines, drippy Burt Bacharach ballads, the Ventures, the Turtles, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. These samples, along with whatever else Konishi throws into the mix, are reassembled and edited into new, original songs. The result blurs unlikely styles and icons, eliciting a freshness from sounds that had their time in the spotlight years, even decades, before. Imagine a bossa nova given new life as a dance club hit or Speed Racer twisting in Hair.
The lyrics--sung either in Japanese or sweet, stilted English (sometimes combining the two)--speak the universal language of bubblegum: happy, sappy puppy love, self-absorbed nihilism, or trippy utopian fantasies. Pizzicato Five's U.S. debut album, last year's Made in USA (Matador), supplies English translations for all the lyrics. Not that American fans are missing any important semantic nuances when Nomiya sings about blue Afros and miniskirts, but the translations enable the listener to hear the irony in her Barbie doll delivery. During the song "Catchy," Nomiya's husky whisper might lead you to think she's talking to a lover until you read that her evident pleasure is for a "new shop that accepts a credit card" and "a brand new hairstyle, a brand new mascara."
Konishi has been the Great Oz behind Pizzicato Five since its first incarnation in the mid-80s. The group has also included sound engineer Keitaro Takanami, who recently left to pursue solo projects, and two other vocalists--one male, one female--before Nomiya joined in 1991.
Nomiya is Pizzicato Five's cover girl. The visual focus of the group's performances, she parades across the stage in an assortment of outlandish outfits. She's a feminine stereotype, who, accompanied by a Parisian squeeze box, refuses to apologize for it: "Yes, I am unreliable, capricious, cheeky, willful, luxurious, affected, lying, dubious, and random. But I am allowed because I am cute." After Nomiya took the stage at Metro in a suit of yellow feathers, the very embodiment of glamorous excess, one audience member remarked, "The only women who can get away with wearing something like that in this country are transvestites."
Pizzicato Five has been called the Japanese Deee-Lite. Both have a decidedly retro fashion sense, but Deee-Lite celebrates the emptiness of modern pop culture, while Pizzicato Five pokes fun at our love of kitsch by showing that it's recyclable, making it appealing all over again. That a Japanese musical group can effectively appropriate bits of American pop culture history suggests that there's really nothing unique about pop culture at all. We're all swallowing the same sugar pill over and over. Last year's song is this year's song.
Listen to the group's "Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond" and you'll realize that it doesn't take much originality to create a contagious pop hit. All you need is a riff. "Twiggy Twiggy" has four infectious riffs, but they're all lifted. In just over four minutes the song features memorable snippets from "Another Night" by Burt Bacharach, "Hawaii Five-O" by the Ventures, and "The Man From Thrush" and "The Oar" by Lalo Schifrin. But somehow it's an altogether new, undeniably catchy composition.
Last year's Made in USA is a compilation of recent releases from the group's immense Japanese discography. Beginning in 1985 with the 12-inch single "Audrey Hepburn Complex," Pizzicato Five has released 15 full-length albums, plus EPs, remixes, and outtakes. A couple of videos and Japanese TV appearances have earned Konishi and company some mainstream success in their native country. (To dispel any doubts, the Metro screen screamed, "Pizzicato Five: Very Famous in Japan.") But you only have to remember the mainstream success of Devo in the early 80s to understand the phenomenon. Devo's mechanical mannerisms, goofy lyrics, and flower-pot hats were often regarded as wonderfully outre while the band enjoyed a huge gag on their audience's gullibility.
Konishi's samples are seamlessly arranged into compositions that sound alien at first but grow increasingly and naggingly familiar. Songs like "Sweet Soul Revue," "Baby Love Child," and "Magic Carpet Ride" (no connection to Steppenwolf) deliberately steal material then redefine it in the fresh context of a modern dance beat. Imagine an old obscure gem like the Turtles' "I'm Chief Kamanawanlea (We're the Royal Macadamia Nuts)" smoothly insinuated between a shuffling rhythm and obese bass line. It's like the sound track for a combination of Name That Tune and This Is Your Life.
If these rearrangements sound hard to take at first, it's because Pizzicato Five's music is tied to the visual elements that go along with it. Konishi and Nomiya are not just musicians, but multimedia artists. "I would never buy a record without a cover," Konishi has said, underscoring the idea that style is as important as the music itself. One Japanese writer has referred to Pizzicato Five not as a group of musicians but as a series of consumable products--like compact discs and videos--an offensive idea if you think musicians are exploited by an industry that just sells image and dumbs the music down for the lowest common denominator. Pizzicato Five, however, is all image, even employing an art director to oversee their packaging.
Just like Shonen Knife, often discredited as vacuous punk-rock syrup, Pizzicato Five runs the risk of appearing to be unapologetically consumerist. At first almost every song on Made in USA seems either narcissistic, materialistic, or just too bizarre to comprehend.
Ironically, the band's first single to receive airplay on American radio--"Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond"--is the most lyrically obtuse on the record. But its popularity is a great leap forward for American music fans, who are largely monolingual. Though Nomiya sings it entirely in Japanese, the appealing sound of the lyrics may be more meaningful than the English translations provided on the CD jacket: "I was waiting as long as three hours / I was with a cat / At that time the telephone rang / I chattered like my cat. ...Wear Twiggy's mini skirt / Pose as Twiggy / Wear Twiggy's mini skirt / Skinny me, look like Twiggy."
When Nomiya surfs such poetry in her own language over the timpani rolls of "Hawaii Five-O" and plundered bits of Bacharach, meaning hardly matters.
"This Year's Girl #2," from Made in USA, is a five-minute "interview" with Nomiya playing the coy, self-absorbed pinup idol. Rather than some kind of self-promotion, it's an extended dig at fleeting fame revealed through a series of idiotic questions and answers. By wanting to know every insignificant detail about the lives of celebrities and artists, we ignore the art itself. It presents Nomiya either as a role model for impressionable preadolescents or as laughingstock for impressionable critics: "What type of men do you like? / Happy Japanese or shy foreigner....What's your favorite fashion? / Fashion that's cute, gorgeous, and in bad taste."
Five minutes of this is enough to stop the otherwise hyperactive album in its tracks. While it may not be the most strategic time or place for such a gooey pie in the face of the popular entertainment complex, anyone nauseated by its sweetness is not paying attention.
Except for Nomiya's vocals, Konishi's occasional bass, and the near-constant bombastics of the band's overglammed guitarist, all of the music at the Metro show was prerecorded. When Nomiya greeted the audience with her arms outstretched, saying, "Welcome to the circus," familiar messages appeared on the screen behind her: "F.B.I. Warning: Unauthorized Duplication Is a Federal Offense" and "Warning: This Video Contains Illegal Samplings."
The idea that anyone can protect image, sound, and style from duplication is the ultimate joke to Pizzicato Five. After all, the band's image is constructed with bones from bygone days, as if popular culture has run out of ideas and the only thing its creators can do is pick at the corpses that have fallen alongside the runway. With her endless changes of wardrobe and wigwear, Nomiya aims to be every year's girl. She is fashion itself--past, present, and future--and spokesmodel for Konishi's musical museum consolidating decades of pop trends into one multimedia circus.