Say you’re having a party and all types are coming—boys and girls, fabulous pill-poppers who dance ‘til dawn, quiet shoegazers in academic cardigans, sleek mod-stylers with flip hairdos and ice-colored lips, straight arrows who always show up on time—you’ll be in the pink with all of them if you put on this Fantastic Plastic Machine CD. It’s just plain good party music.
In fact, this is dance music for everyone—especially people who don’t like dance music. While many of the songs have club beats, they’re not the zillion-beats-per-minute kind, and each song is threaded through with genuine melody without being chopped into manic sample hell.
These are songs that can actually be called songs, with beginnings, middles and ends. There are vocals and lyrics. There are choruses and bridges. Fantastic Plastic Machine is the uncommon kind of DJ, one who wants to compose pop songs.
Fantastic Plastic Machine is Tomoyuki Tanaka, a Japanese club DJ, former radio host and fashion magazine editor. He’s found a few musical eddies and he returns to them, building elaborate compositions on his favorite styles. One is ‘60s lounge, sweet and upbeat, here focusing on the Latin-ish rhythms.
Another obsession surfaces like a sleek, black bald head as a silky Isaac Hayes-like voice on “Love Is Psychedelic”. They call this Philly soul, an early ‘70s sound filled with strings and horns, which makes a few smooth appearances on the CD. “Love Is Psychedelic” is a long ramble that starts out coherent and becomes sweetly ludicrous and unhinged—a modern day “Spill the Wine” (Eric Burdon & War).
Then there’s—no, really—the ‘80s, with a cover of “Whistle Song”, a house music classic by Frankie Knuckles. (This being my first review for PopMatters, I feel compelled to go into full-disclosure mode: I have borrowed the phrase “house music classic by Frankie Knuckles” from two other sources; I wouldn’t know a house music classic if I tripped over it, and Frankie Knuckles sounds like a character on the Sopranos to me.) Here, the song has a lovely shag carpet feel.
Notable is the vocalist on “I’m Still a Simple Man”, Bob Dorough, a reedy-voiced jazz singer who might have been forgotten had he not been hired by ABC-TV to create “Schoolhouse Rock” in the 1970s. If you can hear “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill” in your head, you’re hearing Bob Dorough’s voice. Now pushing 80, Dorough is an odd choice to lead and dance track, and I’m still not convinced the song works. But Tanaka gets kudos for the idea.
Unfortunately, Tanaka is not always anchored in the past, and there are modern throbbing rhythms with repetitive melody loops to prove it. When he takes his old favorites and modernizes them, his unique, deconstructed Bacharach style is incomparable. When he’s trying too hard to be of-the-moment, Fantastic Plastic Machine’s uniqueness slips away, and the songs dissolve away like a Sweet Tart.
For those who found Tanaka’s sophomore release Luxury a disappointment, Beautiful is a return to the original Fantastic Plastic Machine form. It does not have the crispness of the debut (self-titled) CD, released in 1998, but it is a good—if not great—party soundtrack.
// Notes from the Road
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