J-Pop Will Eat Itself
A-Min and Zhang Jia-Bei



in this series, clicks’n’cuts dilettante Francis Henville describes his descent into the netherworld of Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean commercial pop. Track by track, he navigates deeper into the genre, searching for ever-more-toothsome morsels with which to satiate his jaded appetite…

A-Min and Zhang Jia-Bei
Big Rivers, Small Love (Nusadora Beach Mix)

Suntory CM Song Collection – Oolongcha (Summer)


CM is the Japanese contraction that substitutes for the English word “commercial”—specifically the TV commercial. And Suntory is the huge drink manufacturer whose products Bill Murray is contracted to tout in that horrible collection of generalizations known as Lost In Translation.

So what I’m reviewing here is a CD-compilation of the theme music from popular Japanese TV commercials. Remember how Sandra Bullock sang along to a radio station that played only music from commercials in Demolition Man? It’s a reality in Japan. Advertising and entertainment draw ever closer to one another.

And as far as compilations go, this is a pretty bizarre one. Although released in Japan, the songs are all sung in Mandarin Chinese, although their track listings are in Japanese, and the commercials were only shown in Japan. The tracks are arranged in a bizarre “summery” conglomeration of styles—slide guitars, steel-string guitars, digiridoos, ukeleles, latin percussion, and Star-Trek- themed “ooh” vocals compete for space. One of the tracks is a “Sufi Samba” mix (WTF is a sufi samba?) of the theme from Tetsuwan Atomu, aka Astro Boy in the US. Another track is a “Caribbean Bloom” mix of Madonna’s Like a Virgin (although it sounds more like ska to me). I can quite confidently say that I’ve never come across anything like this.

As for the track I have chosen to review, I’ve had to use Babel Fish to translate the title. But if you’re trying to locate this comp, google the title, and you’ll find you can order it from the Japanese version of Amazon (if you can navigate the site).

“Big Rivers, Small Love” comes in two versions here. I can’t tell which of the two vocalists sing which track, as they are both young women with angelic, soaring, hallucinatory voices. This last track—the Nusadora Beach mix—is the most powerful, at least to my ears. A cymbal roll leads us into the first vamp, and the background chords are established by cloudy synth pads, pianos, electric bass and wooden xylophones that play a figure that suggests a Balinese Gamelan Orchestra. These are joined by the heavenly unison vocal line, slathered liberally in reverb and an odd digital drum machine, playing a dancehall-style rhythm.

What’s particularly odd about this track—yes, another odd thing—is that the vocals are mixed in the background, rather than dominating the track, as in most J-pop. The gamelan-pattern is the foundation of the piece—even the drum machine is rather subdued. Later, the track changes keys, and the vocals are dropped even lower. The mood is both established and concluded by the xylophones, and they never take a break during the track. It’s the kind of thing a minimal house producer would do!

Overall, I have to recommend both this track and the whole compilation extremely highly. If I were reviewing it as an album, I’d give it a 10—although at less than 25 minutes, it’s more of an EP. In fact, if this comp wasn’t so limited in its target audience, I’d say this is the kind of release that can spawn a new genre. It’s twee in a way that hasn’t been heard yet. The producers have borrowed instruments and arrangements from a variety of cultures and time periods and come up with something unclassifiable. The overall message of this disc seems to be, “relax!” Yet rather than relying on cliché’s, that has been done by forging a whole new structure. No track better describes this than “Big Rivers, Small Love.”



By: Francis Henville
Published on: 2004-08-12
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