Paris in the winter must be a whole lot different than any other time of the year. Yes, the feeling of romance and culture is still there, but the atmosphere to take it all in must impress all sorts of different stimulations. Romance, city and lights, filtered through multiple environmental layers, meet a more distinct cessation of time, where more curated choices have to be made. dip in the pool’s Retinae shares this feeling. An album that perfectly evokes that sensation of winter falling into spring, moves through new motifs, presenting a new evolution for this band.
dip in the pool consisted of the duo Miyako Koda and Tatsuji Kimura. A fashionable group, dip in the pool were the rare Japanese band signed by a western label before a Japanese label. Signed by UK’s iconic Rough Trade label, dip in the pool’s aesthetic seemed more appropriate for the European continent than their own shores, it seemed. Evocations of China Crisis, Cocteau Twins, OMD and other like-minded elegantly-appointed sophisti-pop bands would be easy to appropriate but the sound was another story. Miyako Koda, lead vocalist, was the perfect canvas for this group. Bestowed with uncanny fashion sense and god-given model-level good looks, the combination of her breathy vocals (wavering between Japanese and English, affecting French affections, when not singing in French) and well-dressed visage floating above the minimalist music that Tatsuji Kimura preferred to play, unsurprisingly made them a success back home. Elegant, delicate, and gorgeous, dip in the pool was a group tailored to attract legions of fans. A startling combo evoking Japanese minimalism and European impressionism isn’t something you normally find.
dip in the pool’s debut, Silence, hit exactly the tone they wanted to present. Produced by Seigén Ono, with arrangements by Masahide Sakuma, and released in 1986, Silence featured songs like “Rabo Del Sol” and “Sur Le Pois” that struck that ideal line between sparse and spacious. Graced with a haunting album cover by Deborah Turbeville, dip in the pool, in sight and sound, were placed at the vanguard of Japanese new age music. A new Japanese new age music that Seigén Ono championed through them and his own releases wasn’t made to tune out the world but to strike a different attachment to it.
dip in the pool followed up Silence with 10 Palettes two years later. 10 Palettes steered the duo’s ship in a new direction. Released only in Japan, and retaining only Masahide Sakuma from their debut, 10 Palettes found them in a more upbeat kick. More directly tied to the YMO-indebted techno-pop of the time, songs like “Placebo Reactor”, “Too Two White Cuckoos”, and the Christmas-hit “Miracle Play (on Christmas)” found them both spreading themselves far beyond their reach. An album trying to do too much, in it Miyako and Tatsuji lost some sense of what made them special. Retinae made sure to tighten up all these frayed edges.
Like a watercolor you can only appreciate better from a distance, only to reveal its construction with closer inspection, so was Retinae. Far warmer and cosier than before, Retinae is the sound of dip in the pool accepting their difference. Refining their elegant motives, deconstructing their image a bit, it was an album full of beauty without much mannerism of the past.
Aided by the wonderful playing of other musicians like Yasuaki Shimizu and Morgan Fisher (who I’ll get back to soon), Tatsuji’s minimal instrumentation gets a more lived-in ornamentation. “On Retinae (West Version)”, that masterwork of a track, gives you a snapshot of the change. Led almost entirely by Morgan Fisher’s spry acoustic piano, Masuhide Sakuma takes great care in letting the gorgeous Shimizu-played clarinet ease itself into the bed of wonderful delicate electronics laid by Tatsuji gracing the edges of Miyako’s fragile vocalese. When bits and bobbles of the minimal electro-pop they used to traffic in just years earlier trickles in, Retinae fully exposes the power of this new direction. An album full of delicate detail, Retinae is full of tiny things that invite you to zero in, even further, upon future listens.
How about those faint romantic guitar and clarinet lines in “マルイ月トゥスヰート” that appear at the end of all of those percussive electro-pop fly-byes? Miyako’s faded acapella take on “Over the Rainbow” is another. Ending the A-side with a barely there, but really here (*pointing at ❤︎*), ambient ballad like “Land” that swirls faintly into fruition then proceeds to curl itself back to its beginning, is fascinating as well.
When the B-side actually begins with some sincere rockin’ out it unsurprisingly finds a way to work with the grander vision. “Enjoy yourself, and you’ll be safe” intones Miyako on “A Quasi Quadrate” and these asides fall into their proper place. Very light reggae finds its way back to their elegant sophistication, dip in the pool balancing all the disparate parts into one engaging self. The first instrumental on the album, “Kesalan”, pushes the envelope even further. Luxuriating through faint oscillations of ambient, neoclassical, minimalism, and Japanese folk music, dip in the pool joins tiny bits of each into a more powerful movement. “Six – Lovesixy” adds one more surprising layer to the ideas began on “A Quasi Quadrate”. A mix of Shimizu-led skronk with very proggy art-pop, transform further and further when overt tropical influences sneak in, building up another surprisingly heavy song.
As the album nears the end with “Gladiolus”, dip in the pool round back to the beginning, treating us with one final delicate, floating slice of romance. Although it might seem superfluous to end an album by retreading back to the beginning but “On Retinae (East Version)” is not the track to hang your hat on. This version sung entirely in Japanese allows us a more intimate peek into the makings of dip in the pool. Allowing us to see the beautiful stresses their own language applies on the rhythm of their music, this final song ends the album on a personal note we’d hardpressed to miss. Before the weather shifts so much you won’t have time to appreciate its full design, there’s still time to discover the high bits of wonder on Retinae.