Fantastic Plastic Machine

Beautiful (Emperor Norton Records)

Ladytron
604
(Emperor Norton Records)

The Japanese seem to have a better understanding of American culture than Americans do -- or at least a realization that they're better at assimilating and restyling our culture. What else could explain the ultra-American, sensational pop music of Japan's Fantastic Plastic Machine? This act is actually a one-man show, that man being songwriter-producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. In the course of three albums in three years, Tanaka, a club DJ at heart, has established an instantly recognizable sound: kitschy, hyperelectronic pop with a South American flair. In essence FPM albums are highly danceable amalgams of everything from Bacharach to bossa nova. Of course Tanaka has also been known to cover Annie Lennox. Go figure.

Good thing Tanaka is such a skilled producer, because toeing the line between innovative and derivative more often results in the latter. (See below.) FPM's bio boasts that Tanaka is a "true Renaissance man": a former editor of several Japanese fashion magazines, a onetime radio show host, an international DJ, and an art aficionado. Perhaps that's why Tanaka's creations never sound contrived: Shining through the obvious influences is his ability to mix decades of genres and musicians, all the while inserting his own smooth or hyperspeed electronic backbeat. But as FPM's latest album, Beautiful, demonstrates, Tanaka does more than lay influences atop electronics. Beautiful teems with sweeping strings, flute, clarinet, brass -- not unlike Stereolab's lounge exotica, Dots and Loops. Beautiful seems to be the album the High Llamas have been trying to make since the dawn of Sean O'Hagan's career. The archetypal R&B groove of "Black Dada" is the finest and most unexpected moment on the album -- complete with scratching. "On a Chair" is six minutes of harmonious vocals à la the Beach Boys (until the beat-boxing coda, that is), a midtempo, shuffling beat and a host of strings leading the pack. True to the album's title, it is beautiful. Though a cover, "The Whistle Song" is the album's winner for best '60s Brazilian pop song not made in the '60s or in Brazil. Tanaka bristles when the term lounge-core is applied to his music. Maybe it would be best described as happy-core.

Too bad the same can't be said for the U.K.-based Ladytron. Like label mate FPM, Ladytron wears its influences on its sleeve, but unlike FPM the sum of these meager parts is zero. Ladytron's debut, 604, reveals the band to be shallow and derivative. Ladytron wants to be the best pop band the '80s never saw. All the ingredients are here: faux disenchantment; monotone, kittenish vocals; minimalist, buzzing synths; treble levels that render dogs deaf; cool hair; and a closet full of black sweaters. Missing from that list are such niceties as good songwriting and sincerity. The album's opener, "Mu-tron," makes a good first impression with its thick, exaggerated backbeat, futurist effects, and orgy of sparkling synths, but the 15 songs that follow are inconsequential unless one is writing a book titled How to Convince People That the '90s Never Happened. The shtick simply wears thin. Listenable songs such as "Paco!" and "Commodore Rock" would be better had they not some counterpart actually made in the '70s or '80s. (Now, let's see, does this song sound like Human League or just Kraftwerk?) Plenty of like-minded bands have resurrected '80s eccentricity with success. One need look no further than Daft Punk's latest Discovery or Les Rythmes Digitales' debut, Darkdancer, for proof. If FPM is happy-core, Ladytron is wannabe-core.

 
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