Rock GPA: Japan [part 3]

japan - quietlifeUKLPAJapan – Quiet Life | 1980 – 4

Japan took tremendous creative strides by the time of their third album in 1980. It bore almost no resemblance to the children who had churned out the first two albums, as it is a fully adult album that takes all of its inspiration from the work of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music instead of  The New York Dolls, funk, or any disco …save for the euromotorik of Giorgio Moroder on the amazing title track. If anything, it seems as if they have made the move from being a third rate Dolls to being a first rate Roxy. The transformation must have been jaw-dropping as it happened in realtime.

I came to the game late, in 1980 after the release of their fourth album, and then worked my way back to this in 1982, but even then, one could tell that this was a sombre, cohesive work of art that if derivative of Roxy Music, at least it can be said that they should be considered peers of that seminal band. Not that they didn’t have help from some key players in the Roxy camp. The production by John Punter  [prod. – “Country Life,” “These Foolish Things”] and the glorious string arrangements by Ann O’Dell [strings – “Another Time, Another Place,” “Let’s Stick Together,” “In Your Mind”] show that they knew exactly what they were aiming for.

It’s all well and good to poach Roxy’s support crew, but without the songs, you would be wasting one’s time and money. The caliber of songwriting on display here suggests unparalleled artistic breakthroughs. Every song is superb. The album lead off with the audacious more Moroder-than-Mororder title track that puts the single they had recorded the year earlier actually with Moroder [“Life In Tokyo”] very much in the shade. The taut, clipped, and highly compressed rhythm section recalls the single version of Roxy’s “Angel Eyes” shot through with Moroder’s sequencers, over which Barbieri’s spectral lead synths carry the exquisite chord sequence.

All of this might have fallen on its face had not frontman David Sylvian not undergone a radical metamorphosis and shed his glam-punk skin for a perfection of the studied languor that Ferry had always aimed for. His equally affected, yet much more attractive vocal delivery was matched by a huge uptick in the quality of his lyric output as well. A few pointers remain to the old boy  [“A summerhouse in Texas, Searching for Siberia, Pioneering underground.”] even as the new man has replaced the callow poseur. By this point, Sylvian was a master poseur. He had made the transition from student to master and was in the process of influencing a new generation of acolytes himself [see: Nick Rhodes].

The album, apart from the uptempo title track or “Fall In Love With Me,” is a studied example of perfect, sombre, late night [almost jazzy] listening as typified by the smoky sax of Mick Karn wafting over the rhythm boxes and Satie-esque piano of the French language “Despair.” The poise, elegance, and accomplishment is dramatic when one considers exactly where the band were 18 months earlier.

Mick Karn’s fretless bass is no longer waiting for the rest of the band to catch up to his level of sophistication, as it was for much of “Obscure Alternatives.” The entire album seems to have been spun whole cloth from the DNA contained in the previous album’s track “The Tenant.” The cover of The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” was, until Icehouse made it theirs in 1995, the definitive cover version, besting the Bryan Ferry attempt on his “Taxi” album by a fair margin, in my book.

The magnificent Ann O’Dell string arrangements give the closing track, “The Other Side Of Love” every inch of its gravitas as being fully earned. It’s flabbergasting to think that this was the same band as on albums one and two. The poise and bearing of “Quiet Life” marks it as a prime harbinger of the nascent New Romantic movement, which, in all candor, amounted to a largely insubstantial emulation of the subdued, world-weary angst that this album carried on its shoulders in spades. Japan achieved this with musicianship that had become world-class seemingly overnight, unlike most of the bands who had followed in their footsteps… such as Duran Duran.

Next: …Perfection amplified

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7 Responses to Rock GPA: Japan [part 3]

  1. Echorich says:

    Monk, you hit the nail on the head here. I have always wanted to know what it was that spurred the leaps and bounds Japan took from Obscure Alternatives to Quiet Life. Moving away from the punk-glam sneer of the first two albums to the genre founding sound of Quiet Life is a great leap of both personal and musical faith on the part of the band. I have to believe that working with the MASTER Giorgio Moroder, in the process, had to have had some lasting if not revelatory effect on the band. I can just imagine Sylvan and Karn taking every little lesson they could from the great man and applying them to what must have seemed like a last chance to really get it right. The influence of Roxy Music seems perfectly in line with the European ennui which their new sound was grounded in. Sylvian’s growth as a singer and writer is quite remarkable. He bears a confidence and pride in his vocals which is a wonderful replacement for the nasal sneer of the first two albums. The rest of the band did well in catching up with the level of playing Karn had already reached.
    Quiet Life is one of two very important albums in founding a genre , which for better or worse, with varying degrees of success never lived up to it’s real potential – that other album being Ultravox’s Systems Of Romance.

    The title track lays down the gauntlet, putting everything out there for the listener to learn about Japan’s new direction. It’s confident, arresting and filled with a knowing, hedonistic bravado.

    Fall In Love with me is a stiletto (l’ll let the listener decide if its a knife or a high heel) straight to the heart of Roxy Music. Rob Dean’s guitar and guitar treatments are gorgeous. Karn’s bass is intricate and Jansen plays subtly in and out of Barbieri’s electonics and keys.

    Despair is just simply the template for every slowed down New Romantic pop song to come. Duran Duran owes lots of intellectual property royalties here.

    Steve Norman’s sax sound on Spandau Ballet’s True and Steven Singleton’s on the first two ABC albums owe some respect to Karn on Halloween as well. Sure you could hark back to Andy Mackay’s Roxy sax, but I’m not sure the lineage goes back that far with these other bands.

    All Tomorrow’s Parties is just perfection. I don’t think I listened to the original for the better part of 20 years after I first heard Japan’s transformation of the song.

    The closing track is probably the most accomplished, nuanced track on the album. It’s orchestral and filmic, filled with pathos which work to grab the listener in and never let them go.

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  2. zoo says:

    Someone asked me years ago when I was extolling the virtues of Japan how I would describe their sound (knowing that the term “New Romantic” would mean nothing to this person). My answer was “new wave prog” which may not be the best description ever, but I think it is accurate to some degree, as it speaks to the level of musicianship and ambition of the songs. Quiet Life is definitely the beginning of this sound, and one of the biggest leaps that any band has ever taken from one album to the next (Simple Minds also come to mind–the leap from LIAD to RTRC was extraordinary).

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – You are so right with the Prog. The Prog web is rife with thousands of words on Japan/solo careers. That Sylvian came into the orbit of Fripp and Nelson makes all of the sense in the world. Barbieri is now in a Prog band. The musicianship on offer is certainly Prog level of a high caliber. Japan were on a shelf with King Crimson; not watered down Yes or Genesis chops! Of course, you have my complete and utter agreement with the comparison to Simple Minds from album one to two in terms of dramatic artistic progression. Japan and Simple Minds certainly did this… and I’d include the first band to accomplish this in this select club – Ultravox with their third album, “Systems Of Romance.” And the elephant in the room, Mr. Bowie with his fourth album.

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    • Echorich says:

      As much as I HATE the connotation of “prog,” as almost all of that genre sets my teeth on edge, I understand where you come from Zoo. I guess I feel more comfortable describing their sound as Art Rock or Art Pop because I just think about the endless noodling and sterility of most of late 60’s and 70’s prog – something that has begun to creep into the current crop of “prog” bands as well. Big up for the SM comparison – it works a treat and there is a real early Roxy influence on RTRC that Japan obviously had an appreciation for as well.
      Monk, as you know from above I completely agree with your assessment of Systems Of Romance which is Quiet Life’s “brother in arms” as far as charting new territory.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich – Here’s a helpful stab at a Venn Diagram that has obsessed me for 20+ years…
        Venn Diagram of All Music [subset]

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        • Echorich says:

          LOVE IT MONK!! I know exactly where my tastes fall and can now use this to full effect when debating music with my more prog obsessed friends…I am definitely shades of purple, green and pink and definitely NOT BLUE! Thank you for not over cluttering yellow, but where is Crimson, or do they get their own color?

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