Pizzicato Five – Couples (1987)

Of all the people to write something about a Pizzicato Five album, I am the least qualified. I am neither a music person, nor am I cool enough. However, I’m a sucker for the music enough to write something about it, so I figure I’ll try my hand at a CD review, despite knowing nothing of music, music history or the music industry. This will not turn out well.

Being a poor student living on the wrong side of the Pacific, the only Pizzicato Five albums I could really get my hands on were those put up on the internet by awful pirates like meĀ  for awful pirates like me. These albums were–of course–the more well known records put out by the group (at that point a duo consisting only of Konishi Yasuharu and Nomiya Maki) and were rife with their cleaner, snappier, more streamlined sound.

I quickly grew to like P5’s music, as it owed a lot to old jazz, soul, funk and whatever else P5 found cool enough to latch on to. This mix of sounds and influences resonated in me particularly because I grew up around a lot of jazz (particularly Bossa Nova) soul and funk music growing up, and all of these mixed together, presented in a uniquely Japanese package, was in some ways the ultimate fusion of childhood nostalgia and my modern day tastes. My love for P5 transformed into a general interest in cool-guy Shibuya-kei music, but I haven’t had much opportunity to explore the genre outside of a few acts, most of which aren’t even “real” Shibuya-kei. But I digress.

Even though I really liked P5’s music, there was something missing. What was lacking was a good number of full on jazzy tracks. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of P5’s stuff is pretty groovy, but of the albums I “had” there were few straight up jazz-inspired compositions. Which is just fine by me, but with the few short flings P5 had with the pure jazzy songs in these albums, I yearned for more. I then caught wind of one of their older albums–Couples–and managed to pick it up at my local BookOff during my time in Japan. Between listening to that album a lot over there, and having just come back into contact with it here in the US, I have to say that Couples is the jazzy slice of heaven I was looking for.

Inspired primarily by Burt Bacharach’s sound (According to the CD insert, anyway. “A collection of some Bacharach-ish syncopations and AABA’s…”, it reads.) Couples is defined by its slow horns and seductive strings as they work together to produce some of the most chill chill-out music I’ve ever heard. The tracks aren’t all slow, though. Far from it. The album dances between laid back tracks like its opening cover of Magical Connection and more upbeat numbers like What Now Our Love.

While I enjoy all the tracks on this album, I find myself gravitating towards the slower ones. Cuts like Magical Connection, Serial Stories, The Apartment and Two Sleepy People are perfect to listen to while sitting down with a glass full of something expensive, perhaps while puffing on a pipe. A lot of the tracks that fall somewhere between slow and upbeat such as Summertime, Summertime, They All Laughed, Seven O’ Clock News, The Odd Couple And The Others, and My Blue Heaven are also quite cheerful to listen to, breaking into smooth extended instrumental sections more often than not. My least favourites are actually the most upbeat tracks like What Now Our Love and Every Time We Say Goodbye. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, but I feel the energy present in them is better suited for P5’s later style. There’s a singular instrumental track on the album–Party Joke–which is a playful interlude that comes in near the end of the album’s 12-track run.

All of the tracks do great to fantastic jobs of interweaving the horns, strings and percussion into both simple and complex compositions that shift in tone from relaxing, to seductive, to just plain fun. An ever-present reverb in the background makes the album feel as if it was recorded in the 1960s as opposed to the late 1980s, and suggests a dream-like atmosphere across the disc. This would probably sound great on vinyl.

The vocals are primary reserved and laid back. Female vocalist Sasaki Mamiko’s voice is certainly more fitting than Nomiya’s in this CD–while Nomiya’s vocals in later P5 albums are more deliberate and full bodied, Sasaki’s are airy and natural, fitting the tone of the instrumentals. They seem effortless in a good way–as if singing well is just easy for her. Kamomiya Ryo provides the album with a masculine voice which works well alongside Sasaki, but on his own his vocals aren’t as enchanting.

Couples is a nice blast from the past, especially if you’re interested in what one of the most prolific Shibuya-kei acts sounded like before they hit it big. Free of a lot of the precise production of later P5 albums, Couples is a more natural sounding record that’s better suited for a quiet time than a party. I highly recommend picking it up. Not like my musical taste is worth anything, though.

(To learn more about Shibuya-kei, I recommend reading Marxy’s old articles on the subject.)