January 19, 2007

YMO - Solid State Survivor

YMO (aka Yellow Magic Orchestra) have always been blocked into history as the Duplo to Kraftwerk’s Technics—the Technicolor “toy” version of the Kling Klang’s more “adult,” high-minded man-machine constructions. A glancing listen to Solid State Survivor might do little to remedy that impression, with the first two tracks sounding for all the world like the theme tune for a second-rate 70s anime. But listen closer, listen again—the whimsical surface belies undeniable pop smarts and a keen ear for song craft that beavers away at your humorless notion and leaves you realizing that, far from being some second-rate kitsch mensch-maschine thieves, you’re actually hearing the “coming out” of one of the most innovative, playful groups in techno’s history.

Yes, techno, that’s right. Although it might be a mistake to say that any individual invented techno (I’d give the title to the quiet hands of Roland Corp. or Leo Theremin), but if you do subscribe to a musician inventor theory, you’d have to say that YMO may well deserve the title—1983 might have been the year of Kraftwerk’s unreleased Techno Pop album and YMO’s Technodelic, but the word finds an earlier home as “Technopolis,” the fourth track on Solid State Survivor, a track that is itself already fully fledged techno, albeit in pop form.

Not only does Solid State Survivor constitute a landmark in the emergence of techno, but the album itself is a joyously, sweetly disrespectful romp through its various frames of reference. In a recent interview, Uwe Schmidt, whose most recent Señor Coconut album Yellow Fever re-worked the trio’s classic materials into his vision of electro latino, explained that for him, YMO were far more important than Kraftwerk, simply because of their willingness to leap whole genres in a single bound and gather the ecstatic treasure in trash with as much reverence as you’d give to Bach. Solid State is bursting with enthusiastic genre-bending and stylistic pastiches that borrow as heavily from advertising jingles as enka.

“Technopolis” sounds like the promotional music from “Expo 1980” or any number of incidental tunes still doing the rounds on NHK. “Absolute Ego Dancer” is a fully-fledged bubblegum techno rocket and the high point of the sugar rush. But it’s the moodier numbers such as the pop ambient “Castalia” (emphatically Sakamoto’s song, judging by the mood) and the mixed weather of “Behind the Mask” (later covered by Eric Clapton) as well as a hilarious, bent cover of the Beatles “Day Tripper” which really amaze. In the space of less than 35 minutes and only eight tracks, YMO nailed out a hyperactive manifesto whose garish reverberations can be heard across the poptronic spectrum, from Devo, through Daft Punk, Mouse on Mars, and right up to the more boisterous moments of microhouse.

[Peter Chambers]

July 14, 2006

Señor Coconut & His Orchestra - Behind the Mask Mixes

Chile’s Señor Coconut (aka Uwe Schmidt/Atom Heart) took Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1980 techno-pop zinger, “Behind the Mask” and mutated it into a Latin-jazz jaunt that sounds 50 years old, and possibly had countless senior citizens learn to tango to it in community centers from Boise to Des Moines. Al Usher’s remix is faithful to the YMO original: he indulges in nifty, twerp-techno on a rusty Casio and roboticized vocals that are slightly sexier than airport announcements. Ricardo Villalobos’ remix first strips the orchestra down to a few brass blurts and a fine, punchy Latin-electro rhythm that may be too ethnic for the Red State cha-cha circuit. But Villalobos curiously “leaves for the bar” halfway into the track, and once Señor’s orchestra comes back in, it doesn’t sound that different from the original. A letdown, but I’ll forgive him if he gets a hangover tomorrow morning.

Essay / AY 07
[Cameron Macdonald]