Pizzicato Five


September 13

By Frank Youngwerth

Advance publicity for Pizzicato Five’s summer tour promised that the animated Japanese popsters would be backed by a live band, the largest group they’d performed with outside of their home country. Up to now they’ve toured in a scaled-down version due to financial constraints.

Though the “Great Pizzicato Five Picnic ’97 Tour” featured a front line of vocalist Maki Nomiya, bassist Yasuharu Konishi, and guitarist Bravo Komatsu, most of the sound originated from a backstage DVD unit. A rapid-fire barrage of film images (including clips of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Busby Berkeley musicals) synchronized to the prerecorded music tracks, was projected onto a large screen behind the performers throughout the set. This all made for an occasionally overwhelming spectacle, but it didn’t end up serving Pizzicato Five’s music very well.

At once obsessed with pop’s past and future, Konishi, who writes and produces most of the group’s music, sets Bacharach-cum-Brasil ’66-esque hooks amid drum ‘n’ bass mayhem. But his heady concoctions could be heard to better advantage downstairs on the dance floor at Smart Bar, where he DJed a brief set immediately after the show.

Friends of mine who saw the band in San Francisco put it more succinctly–the show was too loud. So loud you had to cover your ears to make out the songs. Telling Komatsu to turn it down wouldn’t have helped–the guitarist specializes in feedback and other pedal-driven effects; he probably needed to have his amp cranked to the max just to get those sounds. And in spite of Nomiya’s dazzling array of power-fashion outfits, her light, clear, Julie Andrews chirp proved no match for Komatsu’s pyrotechnics.

Konishi told me that Komatsu is only a touring member of the band and appears on just two songs out of the dozens Pizzicato Five have recorded and released in Japan. Konishi himself plays little on their latest album Happy End of the World (Matador). “But I wrote the scores,” he said, referring to the cheery, often elaborate arrangements that provide much of the music’s characteristic vibrancy.

Pizzicato Five began over a decade ago when Konishi teamed up with two friends and a different female singer. The group’s ever-changing lineup has never at one time equaled five–the name was inspired by Louis Jordan’s novelty-blues combo of the 30s and 40s, the Tympany Five. But their 1987 debut album Couples (unreleased here) emulates the orchestral pop of the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds, a style that’s been revived again more recently by artists like Eric Matthews and the High Llamas. Eventually establishing himself as an influential figure on the Japanese music scene, Konishi spearheaded a national soft-rock trend, paying particular reverence to forgotten American tunesmith Roger Nichols, the cowriter of such Carpenters hits as “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.”

Since then, Konishi has gravitated toward dance music. When Nomiya joined the band in 1990, she brought along a catchy, kitschy club song called “Twiggy Twiggy.” Reworked and included on Pizzicato Five’s first American album, Made in USA, it’s the number that’s earned the band the most attention here so far. At Saturday’s show it was their first encore.

We can only imagine how the uptempo Metro set would have played using a full-fledged group. Nomiya and Konishi’s loosely choreographed movements sometimes charmed the audience, but more often the canned beats dragged on and on while nothing much of musical interest happened onstage. With a well-rehearsed, organic rhythm section in place to anchor the proceedings, perhaps the show would have been more satisfyingly consistent–maybe even memorable.

I didn’t walk out, like my friends in San Francisco had done, but I did rove around the club trying to find a spot where the guitar wasn’t drowning out everything else. Standing in front of the bar got me out of Komatsu’s line of fire, but the sound was still poor, as if it were emanating from an overamplified transistor radio with occasional bursts of static. That comparison would probably delight Konishi, whose titles on the new album sometimes recall 60s pop culture: “My Baby Portable Player Sound,” “The World’s Spinning at 45 R.P.M.” The odds that Pizzicato Five can nab serious radio airplay here, especially with Nomiya still singing mostly in her native tongue, are at best a long shot.

But I’m rooting for them. A wave of mainstream popularity could probably pay for the big-budget production Pizzicato Five need to get their high-flying pop concept off the ground.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.