Pull out your surfboard, put some sangria on ice, and really enjoy this one. A surprisingly unknown masterpiece, and a rare, rare, rare one at that, of Japanese City Pop, J-AOR, or light mellow, no matter what you call The Milky Way’s Summertime Love Song, one thing you can’t say it is is uninspired. Released in 1979, one can clearly hear all the wonderful influences hovering around the original Japanese City Pop scene and the epic musical spelunking these artists were doing to build up their own style, in this release. I haven’t even brought up the gorgeous album cover designed by Shinpei Asai, so future “whatever” that it merits a tip of the hat itself – it’s the kind of art other future mellow artists would be inspired by.
In the music, though, just hear Makoto Matsushita and Kazuo Nobuta transform cuts you’ve heard by mere summer osmosis – cuts like Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place or Tom Jobim’s “Wave” – into dreamy soul songs that can’t but take you directly somewhere: summertime. In a way, a testing ground for what Makoto as solo artist (and Kazuo as arranger) would treat us to on his masterful debut, First Light, here, they pay homage to their own tastes by treating us to gorgeous reinterpretations of classic summertime favorites, some deeply beautiful, deep cuts, and ending with scene-setting originals. Did I even stop to mention that Yasuaki Shimizu lends his sublime sax playing to the title cut? Great, great stuff.
The initial idea was to do Japanese covers of famous American AOR cuts. This ploy would then allow them to extend their reach far outside what one imagines AOR could be. Natalie Cole’s “La Costa” isn’t exactly the first thing one expects to hear on most AOR compilations, but here they draw out the tropical saudade of such a cut to show it’s exquisite beauty through their tasteful selection and arrangement. A stunner of warm late 70’s studio science meeting turn of the decade jazzy, electro-tropicalia. Makoto’s voice, harmonizing with itself, forming some definitive dream-like summer vibrations. It’s MPB, by way of Tokyo (in my head and heart). “Harbor Lights” by Boz Scaggs similarly gets that sumptuous treatment via another gorgeous, gauzy dreamy reimagining – perfectly drawing out more romantic essence from the original.
Things go even deeper on the B-side. Arguably the track that means the most is it’s opener, Sadao Watanabe’s “White Waves”, a Japanese original written for Yuki & Hide, way back when. The original, a late ‘60s standard of Japanese bossanova, was totemic in that it showed Japan could create something as beautifully original as the land where the inspiration began, in Brazil with Tom Jobim. A fact perfectly cemented by Astrud Gilberto’s own gorgeous cover of it. Now, twenty years later, Makoto furthers that evolution, transforming this cut with even deeper, meditative beauty. The feeling continues with Kazuo’s sublime reimagining of Stephen Bishop’s by way of Nick DeCaro’s bossanova-influenced “Under the Jamaican Moon”. The original was a unheralded masterpiece of American soft-rock, The Milky Way version squeezes out even more space and gossamer romance to make it its own, something special. Soft as all fuck, it’s perfect for being this more of, in the end, a fact not lost to our Japanese friends.
Harmonizing rivaling CSNY, or Friends-era Beach Boys, sunset balladry that touches on those Wilsonian naive heartbreaks, and softly-lapping torch songs – all originals – tap out the end of this wonderful album. A true ode to summer, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t rather be hearing this, at this moment, than anything else? Summertime was made for this.
Heck, it’s late at night, and 60-some odd degrees where I’m writing this, and I feel like I’m in Waikiki staring down some gorgeous sunset, as this album plays in my headphones.