Sometimes it’s wise not to outpace the group. An album, or at least a collection of tracks, I love to recommend (whenever I can) is the debut from Mari Iijima, Mari Iijima’s Rose. There is a problem inherent in this recommendation. The problem lies in me forgetting that what I know, or have access to, isn’t common knowledge (or easily available). It’s stuff that requires me to step back and draft a little; you know, just do my part to help everyone get there. Who was Mari Iijima?
Mari is widely known as one of the iconic voices in anime — at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me. Lending her voice to the titular character from The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Lynn Minmay is what some otaku would rightfully put me in my place as typifying what she’ll forever be known for. This shows how much I know about anime and its popularity. After Robotech and some Gundam, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what differentiates one robot-suited cartoon set in space from another. Do I care that Macross is Robotech? This was something I just discovered writing this post. So, I guess — yes — somewhat. But that’s not what I’m here for. What I can’t shake is her music.
What I do know –in a just world– her own, largely unheralded, Japanese pop music would be what would have her selling out Madison Square Garden, reissuing bonus track-laden albums at Target, and snapping at the neck of hipster-Hitler-hairdo-doofus Adam Levine in this week’s episode of The Voice. For now, I’d hope, she’s living handsomely off residuals from Macross, a series you can easily find/buy through Amazon.
Unfortunately, we don’t leave in that world. As much as our American culture places value in the “vocal” opinions of the modern-day reanimated, singing corpse of Brand New Day-era Sting, it places that much less value into actually seeking out actual voices that don’t all bow down to genuflected “great voices of the past”. In search for the winner of the “best” voice, somehow, we’ve yet to reach peak melisma, and overground pop music is growing increasingly dire. What’s lost is this: how much we’re getting lapped by those who focus on something else – the perfect pop song.
I know, I’m slamming the heck of out of the sentient American Crew Pomade humanoid, but there’s a reason for this. The similarities between Mari and Adam are striking at first. Both were just 20 years old when they “debuted” their known musical careers. Both had a love of for classic Funk, Jazz, Pop, soul, and reggae. Both assembled a crew to get whatever their vision of Pop music out there. The differences end there. We all know, and have heard, the epic milquetoast music Maroon 5 helped usher into our lives. It’s the perfect vision of Pop music that serves one purpose: give you just enough to skate the line of tolerable. What we don’t know is this other vision Mari had a huge part in ushering in.
Just a year, or so, removed from her popular role as the voice of Lynn Minmay, Mari had started to pen a demo tape of Pop songs. Mari’s first love was the piano and music came naturally for her to compose. JVC Victor, hoping to build off the success of her role in Macross, green-lit her debut and provided her an opportunity to flesh out these same songs. This opening she took with large aplomb. Rather than get whatever run of the mill J-Pop producer to do so, she entrusted these reigns to Ryuichi Sakamoto of YMO.
Years before Ryuichi even worked with a single Pop artist, it was his work in 1983 with Mari that would dedicate itself to combining whatever their Techno Kayo was with Mari’s more urban and sophisticated, funky jazz-lilting melodies – and they had to do it in a way that made it palatable to the masses. Forget Chiemi Manabe or Akiko Yano, they were unknown quantities that could afford to fail. Mari had to succeed in a way they couldn’t. This album had to stand completely for something new and do it running. It’s obvious, but with these two brainiacs on the mixing desk they were bound to succeed. It’s this success you hear in Rose.
MARI IIJIMA SING’S “BLUEBERRY JAM”.
Kicking off the album, “Blueberry Jam” eases you into that musical state of mind. Open-hearted electro-pop, of the sweetest kind, takes a stroll along some light-funky post-disco, and then this wonderful uplifting City-Pop bridge comes in to encapsulate this whole new thing: modern J-Pop. In one song, you hear brilliant, modular pop music that can easily segue through all sorts of styles and compositional “seriousness” without losing its core innocence. You could turn off your brain for a bit, enjoy the spirited nonsense-of-a-jam about blueberry jam, and appreciate all these other layers of brilliance not-so-hidden beneath it. YMO had to be at vanguard of something larger than them, but Ryuichi with Mari had this perfect place to be at the vanguard of something more daring and new.
There’s no oversinging here, there are just songs of a young woman owning her likes and dislikes in this stage of her life. As fully realized as Kate Bush’s debut, Mari’s love of cute things, her naivete, goofiness, wandering tastes and influences, rather than runned away from, are accepted wholesale and cemented solidly in the like-minded, bold music. You don’t have to know a lick of Japanese to see how “まりン” encapsulates the ethos of this album and her vision. When you can’t stop yourself from tapping to the pogoing, skip-a-long electro-pop chorus, it’s best to give in to what this all is: glorious Pop music for the silly, still-learning young girl in all of us (men included).
This makes it better to understand that when it gets serious — like it will on tracks like “Shine Love”, “ひまわり” or my favorite track “おでこのkiss” — there’s an important structure to this brilliant album. Beyond its rosy exterior there’s all these other gradients that you’ll be surprised to feel, or discover, while hearing it, or coming back to it. When you don’t expect all these other things, from this type of music, it tends to hit you harder than you think. I think Neil Young said it better than I in “Sugar Mountain”.
If you’ve ever watched The Voice you’ll quickly discover what’s the worst. It’s those who aim for technical perfection. You don’t need a glorified, singing rasta-bro Aspen barista to tell you that. You have two ears and a large primate brain to tell you that. If you need any more advice, on singing, performing, or Japanese, I’d gladly welcome you to take up Mari’s offer to Skype with her and work on any piece you wish to. //SKYPE WITH MARI// However, to begin with, I’d suggest Rosé as a great primer on what Pop music should be…