Power can manifest itself in many ways. Power isn’t always in the density of something but in the lightness of it. Kenji Omura’s spirited take on funk, sophisticated pop, and so many other smooth genres comes together into one powerful album: Gaijin Heaven. The late, great Kenji Omura, one time or some time YMO guitarist, draws from his background in jazz to create a delectable mix of styles cropping up in Japan in the early ’80s influenced by the sophisticated American urban music being created at that time. What you’ll hear in Gaijin Heaven are ultra-funky groovers slotting alongside ingenious soul covers. What you also get are his own chrome-plated sophisti-pop wonders that help it rise among nameless West Coast-influenced Japanese artists. Huge tinges of Roxy Music’s work in Avalon make Gaijin Heaven a not so distant cousin of it, with its different sort of sublimity in its own expertly polished luster. Perfect for the summer, Gaijin Heaven seems to have been made to soundtrack a gorgeous day outside your friendly confines.
Shades of City Pop, post-disco, and YMO-tinged techno-pop make it so that Gaijin Heaven, much like the work of others helping him out in this journey (Pecker, Minako Yoshida, EPO, Taeko Ohnuki, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hideki Matsuke aka Logic System) starts to transcend any seriousness behind this multi-scoped vision and simply provide him the musical support to just go for it, in his laid-back style. Grown folks-sounding, and classy as all hell, on songs like “Sleep Song” or wicked reggae reimaginings of Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose Your Number” you get to hear Kenji affect a similar haute vibe that Bryan Ferry could exude in his best days. Where Kenji goes beyond the obvious influences is truly when his own talent shines.
Tracks like “Dance Your Way to God” and “Ti Voglio Bene” allow Kenji to show his mastery of funk rhythms and create tracks which mix Mediterranean vibes with American R&B, landing squarely on a nice Balearic vibe. Ferocious guitar work outs coupled with really tastefully constructed tropical rhythms hold the foundation for some of the best tracks on the album. “Gaijin Heaven”, a monster yellow soul mutant funk groove that is as biting in social commentary as it is in its song structure, allows Kenji to shift styles on a whim and remain faithful to the spirit of moving both booty and mind. The beatific cover of Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” shows Kenji, much like Robert Wyatt, openly sharing the graceful gospel of such an underappreciated song through his own fascinating vision.
The album ends on songs like “Crazy Love” that could have easily slotted in Avalon which is no faint praise. “Crazy Love” features Kenji’s quavering vocals surrounding a pristinely constructed groove that just sizzles with tasteful bits of expanding and contracting sonic builds begging to whisk you away somewhere far. Deeply romantic, it’s the kind of thing Kenji nails so effortlessly on Gaijin Heaven. Even the more fusion-y bits like “The Man in White” can be forgiven because they show Kenji trying to marry the City Pop aesthetic with the mathy, proggy parts that are part of his jazz DNA. I mean, it’s all worth it to hear that DNA work itself out on the final track a very ruminative, Balearic bit (“The Ring”) ready to soundtrack your next romantic sunset. It takes chops, taste, and actual intellect to place all those notes.
So, here’s to Kenji for allowing us spiritual gaijins to hear a bit of that heavenly lightness we’re stumbling around for.