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Japan - Tin Drum  CD (album) cover




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3.22 | 84 ratings

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4 stars A fascinating album by an enigmatic band. By 1981 they sounded like the missing link between early Roxy Music and the heavily Kraftwerk-influenced Yellow Magic Orchestra. I don't actually know if YMO (actually a Japanese band, led by Ryuichi Sakamato) influenced Japan or if Japan influenced YMO. Most likely it was a case of cross-pollination.

The problem with Japan was that they were such poseurs. Their cover art alone must have put off millions of (not-so sensitive) teenagers. Yes, David Sylvian (not his actual name, of course): if you're going to eat rice in front of a picture of chairman Mao, why do you have to bleach your hair, and why can't you even hold your chopsticks properly?

And then there's the slight problem of Mr Sylvian's lead vocals. If Bryan Ferry's languid barytone discourages you, wait until you hear Sylvian trying to emulate Ferry! It took me a while to get used to TIN DRUM. This was a band that tried oh-so hard to sound diffident and ultra-decadent... One of the tracks is entitled "Cantonese Boy". It gives the impression the singer would like nothing better than sex with a dozen Cantonese boys in one day. You must remember China was still very much in the sway of Maoism when this album was made; economic liberalisation of the country had only just started.

What makes TIN DRUM so enjoyable, then? Well, to start with, there's a handful of truly remarkable tunes. For my money, "Ghosts" is one of the best things Japan recorded: a haunting ballad ten times more memorable than anything the so-called New Romantics (or any other early eighties electro-pop bands) committed to vinyl. The sweetly melancholic "Still Life in Mobile Homes" is unforgettable as well: strongly influenced by late-seventies Bowie albums like "Low" and "Lodger" but a little gentler, less harsh. Just like "Talking Drum" it features a fleeting guest vocal by Sylvian's then girlfriend (or soon-to- be girlfriend) Yuka Fujii. One earlier reviewer has called these guest vocals "Arabic", an obvious mistake: anyone who's familiar with traditional Japanese singing will immediately recognise the Japanese "folk" influence.

Strange to find Japanese guest vocals in an album dealing with Chinese themes, full of little melodies (performed on electric European instruments, of course) which might have been borrowed from one of Madame Mao's post-revolutionary operas. Strange, too, to find all this eclectic stuff on an album named after Günter Grass's best-known novel. But then eclecticism has always been Mr Sylvian's forte (or, if you're a non-believer, his downfall). It is bassist Mick Karn, though, who shines on the album's pièce de résistance: the seven-minute, near-minimalist "Sons of Pioneers", strongly influenced by Roxy Music's "For Your Pleasure" but, well, a true pleasure all the same...

After TIN DRUM, Sylvian would go on to write more emotionally mature music, for masterly albums such as RAIN TREE CROW and BRILLIANT TREES. TIN DRUM can't be called a major masterpiece but it has its moments, and it definitely deserves a place in any broad-minded progger's collection.

fuxi | 4/5 |


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