Happy Days Are Here For J-Pop Fans

Playboy & Playgirl is novel release from a duo who aren't just a novelty act.

With their clever 1994 semi-hit, the kitschy yet endearing medley

"Twiggy Twiggy"/ "Twiggy vs. James Bond," the Pizzicato Five became the

first Japanese-pop band of the '90s to successfully invade U.S. airwaves.

Unfortunately the track screamed of novelty and now -- five years and

three albums later -- the P5 are a household name only to hipsters,

college students, and J-pop fanatics.

The Pizzicato Five are a sound kaleidoscope: a playful fusion of disco,

rock, hip-hop, electronica, lounge core, exotica, cartoon theme songs,

'60s-era soul, go-go beats and whatever else they can think of to throw

into the pop-culture blender. And although the band may already have

reached its popularity peak in the U.S., the Tokyo duo -- which consists

of renowned DJ Yasuharu Konishi and frontwoman/fashion diva Maki Nomiya

-- have been superstars in their homeland since the mid-'80s.

The Pizzicato Five formed in 1985 when sound engineers Konishi and

K-taro Takanami released a 12-inch single playfully titled "Audrey

Hepburn Complex." By the time they released their first LP early the

following year, Pizzicato Five in Action, the P5 phenomenon had

built momentum. The next five years saw a variety of personnel changes

capped by the departure of Takanami. Konishi, however, pushed onward and

in mid-1990 welcomed Maki Nomiya.

The P5's newest album, International Playboy & Playgirl, is only

the band's second full-length LP of all-new material to be released in

the U.S. (the earliest offerings were greatest-hits collections culled

from the P5's vast catalog). The first was 1997's Happy End of the

World, which was rooted in drum & bass and had a darker hue than

what fans had come to expect from the twosome. It was a good, but not a

great, record.

International Playboy & Playgirl is considerably stronger. The

sound is bigger, more lush. The use of strings, harpsichords, and multipart

harmonies give it a decidedly Burt Bacharach sheen. The LP boasts far

more highs than lows as it -- in the spirit of all P5 releases -- genre

jumps from one track to another. The recurring thread remains the sprightly

colored delivery and bouncy, danceable grooves.

The duo wander into previously uncharted territory, including mambo on

"Week-End"

(RealAudio excerpt) and smooth jazz on "Drinking Wine"

(RealAudio excerpt). The album's upbeat sing-along opener (a sing-along if you are proficient in Japanese, of

course), "La Depression," the loungy "I Hear a Symphony," the

horn-propelled "A New Song" and the delicate "Concerto"

(RealAudio excerpt) rank as highlights.

Overall, this is P5's second-best domestic release. 1994's Made in

USA (y'know -- the one with "Twiggy Twiggy") remains the album to

beat.

But when comparing International Playboy & Playgirl to Happy

End of the World, Pizzicato Five fans should rejoice -- happy days

are here again.