German maverick remakes Japanese synth pop in traditional Latin styles. If he were Swiss, he'd be called Yello.
Uwe Schmidt has a schtick, and it's a pretty good one. A German who currently resides in Chile, Schmidt, under his Señor Coconut guise, releases albums of cover versions of pop songs -- re-arranged and performed as Latin-style dance music, or what he calls "electrolatino". He's not limited to a specific type of pop song, either: He's reinterpreted Latin standards, the Doors, and Deep Purple. Perhaps inevitably, he released an album of electrolatino-ized Kraftwerk covers. And now comes the logical next step, Schmidt taking on Kraftwerk-inspired Japanese electro-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra. Only this time, Schmidt is going all out, hiring a full-on Latin big band to complement his banks of samplers.
While both Kraftwerk and YMO were groundbreaking electronic acts that operated in the late 1970s and early '80s, Schmidt acknowledges a couple of crucial differences. While the humor behind Kraftwerk was that they took their electro-utopianism so seriously, YMO embraced the sometimes whimsical, silly nature of what they did with machines. Also, with its more eclectic arrangements, YMO were already taking a step toward cultural integration, something to which Kraftwerk never aspired. Both these differences mean that YMO's work was naturally better suited to Schmidt's aesthetic, and also that Schmidt would have to work harder to create something truly distinct.
Well, he has. At least when you consider that everything's been mambo-fied, bossa nova'd, merengue'd, Coconutized to the point where only the basic melodies carry over from YMO's originals. And that's fine, because you're so caught up in the Latin big band party and good vibes (literally!) to think much about it. Schmidt and YMO share common ground in the form of none other than 1950s artists Martin Denny and Les Baxter, pioneers of the "exotica" sound. Exotica combined laid-back jazz elements with island rhythms, vibes, and sound effects to conjure an instantly nostalgic sense of time and place. YMO rendered this inherently corny, open-air mentality with cold electronics, vocoders, and disco arrangements; now Schmidt brings it full circle with a full range of production techniques, both live and digitized.
In typical Coconut fashion, Yellow Fever is a frenzy of percussion, marimbas, and xylophones, punctuated by boastful horns. The more literally he follows the exotica blueprint, the more successful Schmidt is. The kaleidoscopic percussion and shimmering vibes of "Behind the Mask" create the perfect backdrop for the cool, earnest crooning of Venezuelan vocalist Argenis Brito, who also voiced the Kraftwerk covers. "Simoon" could almost be right off a Denny album, with its gently rolling rhythm and wah-wah trumpet (think Charlie Brown's teacher) playing it cool until the vocals kick in after a couple minutes.
The more tense, dramatic numbers can sound over-arranged. All the chants, incessant horn blasts, and competing snippets of sampled performance threaten to overwhelm on "Pure Jam" and "Music Plans", while "Rydeen" commits the cardinal Coconut sin of inducing boredom. But it all comes together in the closer "Firecracker", a Denny tune that YMO also covered back in the day. The playful, cascading melody and vaguely Eastern overtones are unmistakable in any context.
That Schmidt convinced a gang of talented guests including Towa Tei (Hey! He's still alive!); Mouse on Mars; and original YMO members Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, and Yukihiro Takahashi to come along to the ride just adds to the fun. Most of the guests are featured in good-natured mini-sketches revolving around the theme of "Who is Señor Coconut?".
As good natured, well-intentioned, and ultimately fun and listenable as Schmidt's schtick is, you can't think about how it has to a great extent all been done before. The idea of eccentric Teutonic sound-manipulators toying with Afro-Caribbean styles was floated back in the early '80s when the Swiss act called Yello began releasing songs like "Downtown Samba" and "Pinball Cha Cha Cha". And, though they may not have ever hired a full Latin big band, their work probably transcended Schmidt's Coconut treatment and was no less self-aware. Yellow Fever! may be the sweet, frosted dessert, but Yello were the four-course meal.