Rock GPA: Japan [part 5]

japan - gentlementakepolaroidsUKLPAJapan – Gentlemen Take Polaroids | 1980 – 4

[…continued from yesterday]

Yesterday, we were discussing “Burning Bridges,” a song of such mannered poise that almost nothing happens in it but a gossamer breeze for the first minute and a half. Then its theme manifests with heraldic, cinematic synths, eventually leaving the lyrical sax of Mick Karn to carry the melody forward. When David Sylvian joins the song, almost at its coda, his brief lyric phrases suggest haiku more than anything else.

“My New Career” is the closest this band have ever come to insouciance. The song was driven by CR78 rhythm box embellished with live drums, but as a result, it is the most conventional song here. The interjections of Sylvian speaking the lyrics “why…boy” in the chorus manage to gently accentuate the off beats in a way that is quite subdued for this band on this album. The melodic spotlight, curiously enough, was given here to guest performer Simon House on violin for the middle eight.

Side two of the original album began with the last song that bore the touch of Moroder for this band. That was quite a thread that they followed for a few years with several sequencer driven numbers indebted to the Master, but here the stakes got considerably higher as they were successfully attempting to integrate the Moroder approach into a number that is the furthest thing from 4/4 disco. Crucially, the sequencers that propelled “Methods Of Dance” are decidedly subdued from their earlier prominence, as the balletic rhythm section was given the spotlight on this number.

The polyrhythmic thrust of this track was yet another harbinger of their immediate future, while the integration of sequenced lines was also pointing the way backward. This made”Methods Of Dance” in many way, typical of the approach for “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” which is every inch the transitional album between “Quiet Life” and their finale, “Tin Drum.” The wailing Japanese vocals of Cyo here also foreshadow the reliance on Yuka Fuji on their next album.

The next song was my entrée to the world of Japan and stronger aural flypaper I can’t imagine. “Ain’t That Peculiar” bears the title and lyrics of the Marvin Gaye song, but little else, as the music has been constructed whole cloth as a lurching jazzfunk pulse that was interjected with off-beat rhythmic fillips from Steve Jansen that pulled the song forward in ways that never fail to excite my cerebellum. Mick Karn’s fretless bass was joined here by his multi-tracked recorder playing even as the other songs on the album occasionally sported his oboe playing. The man was truly the band’s secret weapon.

japan 1980

The elegance of the song “Nightporter” is another of this album’s songs that cross the six minute mark. The plaintive piano and the late night intimacy of Sylvian’s vocal carry this dignified waltz as the apotheosis of the band’s interest in Erik Satie. When the oboe joins the song at its subdued peak, it suggests a ballet of the damned who are hitting all of their marks even as they know it will lead to their doom. The song in that respect is most strongly redolent of the ill-starred vibe that hung over “Quiet Life” like a funereal pall.

Finally, the album managed to shake off its malaise for the final track, that saw a return to the optimism that started the album off. “Taking Islands In Africa” was atypical in that that Sylvian brought in a ringer to co-write and perform on the track. Ryuichi Sakamoto had already turned heads in Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, and even as a solo act, but as far as I can tell, this was the first time he was featured in Western pop music of any stripe. The lush arrangement has all of the rhythmic sophistication that the band will pursue to their imminent conclusion, but the song’s grounding in underlying melodicism, is something of a last hurrah before moving forward.

This album marks the point where, for my ears, Japan’s facility with melody, sophistication with rhythm, and David Sylvian’s deathless grasp of the seductive lure of ennui managed to teeter on the brink between despair and elation. Surely the title cut to
“Gentlemen Take Polaroids” represented a peak of happiness never again to be seen in his music. Japan’s music would not be so compelling again to me, even taking into account the further leaps into the unknown that their next album would boldly take. For me the band’s artistic balancing act culminated within this album most adroitly. It represents a breathtaking peak experience of a group whose artistic development was in the middle of a period of startling apogee of the kind rarely seen.

Next: …To play the part of arties

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6 Responses to Rock GPA: Japan [part 5]

  1. Echorich says:

    Gentlemen Take Polaroids fits so well into a musical style which I had a great interest in at the turn of the decade. The poly-rhythmic aspects of the album are what really excites me whenever I listen to it. I tip my hat to Eno and Crimson for emboldening bands like Talking Heads and Japan to take on the genre. The complexities command you attention and the adroit muscianship of Karn and Jansen raises things to a wonderful height.
    The core of this album are three songs for me – Methods of Dance, Ain’t That Peculiar and Nightporter.
    First you have the brilliant poseur dance of Methods of Dance. From the opening sequencer pattern and Karn’s woodwinds, you know this is not going to be a comfortable song. There is a sensual mystery hanging in the air and surrounding Sylvians lyrics. Cyo’s wails lend a Asian-Gothic otherworldliness as well. Bands like Tears For Fears would rely heavily on this style in the coming years.
    Next is the album’s nexus in Ain’t That Peculiar. I don’t think anything else sounds like this song. It is dissonant yet compelling. Having put their imprint on The Miracle’s I Second That Emotion prior to the release of Gentlemen Take Polaroids (even if it wasn’t released for over two more years), there is some precedent set to take on one of Marvin Gaye’s strongest efforts, but what come out of the speakers is exactly what the song’s title describes. It’s complex, filled with polyrhythmic downbeats. Sylvian’s vocals are almost taunting the music to keep time with him rather than vice versa. He sings in such a languid, ennui filled manner that I have to believe upon hearing this, Ferry must have cried or considered giving up the solo artist ghost. Jansen and Karn once again get deep inside the listener with enough strength to change the pattern of your heartbeat.
    Then there is the chilling, but tender, Nightporter. Themes of loss, of wrong love or companionship are underscored by music that can almost bring up the hairs on the back of your neck. Sylvian emotes with sad and tender, yet dark performance. You almost feel like its wrong to listen in to his singing, having interrupted a very personal moment of longing and regret.
    I love Taking Island In Africa because it is really like nothing else on the album. It bubbles and simmers and then bursts into a quite eligiac vision all the while remaining very mannered and confined within its template. I have to say that I never really liked the Steve Nye remix which appeared a year or so later as a b-side. It’s too glossy and somehow dulls the track.
    GTP is the band’s masterpiece in my mind – I love Tin Drum but GTP is just inescapable for me.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – So right re: Ferry. With this album, the acolytes became the masters… except that “Same Old Scene” was released at least five months before “Gentlemen Take Polaroids.” It’s the height of Roxy’s polyrhythmic daring. It is still a flawlessly crystalline construction that takes my breath away. Could it have influenced an album released just five months later? Hmmmm… But still, Ferry may have well stopped doing covers right then and there. “Ain’t That Peculiar” is the most amazing cover ever, in my book. When I heard the original [at least 20 years after the Japan cover] I was slack-jawed at the vast gulf.


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