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Rising stars from the East Music: Japanese pop and soul artists are coming to America, with songs tailored to U.S. taste.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Toshi Kubota was really on a roll when he hit New York this summer. His latest single, a sultry duet with supermodel Naomi Campbell called "La-La-La Love Song," had raced up the charts in May to spend six weeks at No. 1, making the singer hotter than he'd been in years. So what was he doing playing a club as small as S.O.B.'s?

Learning how little the phrase "Big in Japan" means to Americans, that's what.

Kubota is one of a growing number of Japanese pop stars trying to make a splash in America. Like Seiko Matsuda and Akiko Yano, he not only has a deal with an American label, but specifically tailors his material to match American taste. Yet he, like Matsuda and Yano, remains virtually unknown in this country.

Historically, foreign artists have lusted after the American market because it is the biggest and most lucrative in the world. In many countries, you can go gold with sales of 50,000 albums; in America, it takes half a million. Needless to say, success on the American scale appeals to pop stars of every nationality.

But even though the Japanese music market is smaller than ours -- $3.6 billion in sales for the first six months of 1995, compared with $5.1 billion in the United States -- the individual rewards can be staggering. Soundscan, whose computerized data service tracks CD and cassette sales in America, recently expanded its service to Japan, and early results have been startling. One week in July, Soundscan reported sales of 415,000 for Nanase Aikawa's "Red," the top-selling album in Japan -- 146,000 units higher than the figure for "It Was Written" by Nas, the No. 1 album in America that week.

Soundscan also reported that four of the world's 10 best-selling albums were Japanese -- a statistic that's even more impressive when you consider that with an average price of 3,000 yen (nearly $30), CDs in Japan cost twice what they do here.

So why would Kubota be playing a club in Manhattan when he could be more profitably packing 'em in at home? Because in his heart of hearts, Kubota sees himself as an American-style soul singer.

In fact, if you were to see him in the video for "Just the Two of Us," the first single from his current album, "Sunshine, Moonlight" (Columbia 67250), you'd never guess he was Japanese. Shown at the center of a house party in some funky New York apartment, he looks every bit the homeboy as he and his dreadlocked band mates work their way through the Grover Washington oldie.

He sounds the part, too. Not only does Kubota have no discernible accent, but his lithe, smooth tenor has no problem adapting to the demands of soul singing. Instead of the wide, slow vibrato favored by many Japanese singers (think Yoko Ono), Kubota's voice is light and supple, with the same sort of soulful agility Stevie Wonder's mid-'70s work possessed. As a result, he has no trouble holding his own against his duet partner, Soul II Soul veteran Caron Wheeler.

Nor is that track an anomaly. From the aptly titled "Funk It Up" to the sassy, soulful "Nice & EZ," it's clear that Kubota knows the idiom inside out. He knows how to work a groove, can ornament a vocal line with jazzy ease, and has great taste in sidemen ("Sunshine, Moonlight" includes contributions from D'Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Tone!, as well as session vets Nile Rodgers, Tawatha Agee, Omar Hakim and others). He genuinely has the goods.

Why, then, hasn't he had more success in America? Because as good as Kubota is, there are a lot of Americans (and Britons, for that matter) who are even better. Moreover, for all the competence Kubota exhibits, what he brings to the music isn't terribly unusual. And with so many sure-footed soul singers knocking around on the charts these days, it's easy to get lost in the crowd.

All of which makes Kubota's success with "La-La-La Love Song" more than a little ironic. Recorded after "Sunshine, Moonlight" was released, it eschews the ersatz soul of that album for a more Japanese pop approach. Instead of building his vocal around blue notes and gospel-style melisma, Kubota lets the tune's innate perkiness chart his course, so that the melody seems almost to float over the cheerfully chugging rhythm arrangement.

Even the staccato cadence of lyrics like "Iki ga tomaru kurai no" -- despite its title, and unlike the songs on "Sunshine, Moonlight," "La-La-La Love Song" is sung in Japanese -- helps to hammer the chorus hook home. Could it be that Kubota sounds more soulful when he sticks to being Japanese?

If so, he'd have plenty of company in Seiko Matsuda, who is making her second run at the American market with "Was It the Future" (A&M; 31454 0480).

Matsuda is the most enduring "idol singer" Japan has ever produced. She began recording at 16, and quickly came to epitomize the "kawaii" ("cute") culture then sweeping Japan. Between 1980 and 1988, she had 23 consecutive No. 1 singles, a winning streak beyond even what Elvis or the Beatles managed, and has remained popular in Japan long after other idol singers of her generation were consigned to whatever-happened-to status. In fact, her most recent triumph came in May, when "Anatani Aitakute" shouldered Mr. Children's "Hana -- Memento Mori" aside to claim the top spot on the Japanese charts.

But at 32, Matsuda is no longer interested in playing the childish cutie-pie. She failed abysmally when she tried to sell that side of her in 1990 with her first American album, "Seiko," a crossover attempt typified by an ill-advised duet with Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on the Block. Now, the image she cultivates is serious, sexual and soulful in ways her earlier work would never have imagined.

What's interesting, though, is the difference between the way those goals are manifested in "Was It the Future," and the way they're presented in the Japan-only release "Vanity Fair" (Mercury PHCL-5028). Unlike Kubota, who released the same album on both sides of the Pacific, Matsuda recorded two totally different sets of songs, one entirely in English ("Was It the Future"), the other in Japanese ("Vanity Fair").

Lyrics aren't the only thing that sets these two apart, though. For "Was It the Future," Matsuda is billed simply as Seiko, and is portrayed as chic, with-it and casually sexy in her hot pants and high-heeled boots. Likewise, the sound she presents is slick and upscale, suggesting nothing so much as a softer, safer Janet Jackson -- no heavy funk, but lots of breathy harmonies and whisper-in-your-ear love songs.

"Vanity Fair," by contrast, stresses the girlie side of Matsuda's persona, with its flowered dresses, demure smiles and carefully coiffed hair. Nor does the music stray far from the well-mannered charm of the idol pop aesthetic. Even when she moves toward an R&B-oriented; approach, as on "Shiroi bara o anatani" or the Prince-like "Romantiku ni Kiss shimashou," what she puts across has less to do with soulful intensity than with a perky devotion to the melody.

By rights, the seemingly facile approach taken by those songs ought to make "Vanity Fair" the more lightweight of the two, yet it's actually more resonant than its American cousin. Because as competently as Matsuda handles the R&B; oldie "Your Precious Love" on "Was It the Future," her performance doesn't suggest anything like the emotional investment evident in the slow-burning "Anatani Aitakute" (from "Vanity Fair"). Matsuda may want to be funky, but she's far more convincing when she's playing straight and tuneful.

That's a lesson Akiko Yano seems to have learned long ago. Of course, it helps that she never had the kind of pop ambitions Kubota and Matsuda have built their careers around; instead, her energies have been focused more on rock and jazz-oriented projects, including work with artists as far-flung as guitarist Pat Metheny, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the rootsy Japanese rock band the Boom.

Her range is reflected in "Piano Nightly" (Nonesuch 79416), but in very subtle strokes. Featuring only Yano's voice and piano, it's a masterful exercise in understatement, allowing even the slightest gestures to convey whole worlds of meaning. In this setting, Yano's slight, girlish voice takes on unexpected gravity, rendering "Omoide no Sampo-michi" with heart-rending poignancy and filling "Natsu ga Owaru" with such wistful grace that the song barely needs translation to be understood. And she can turn on the power when required, as her rapturous reading of "How Can I Be Sure" makes plain.

Interestingly, the American version of "Piano Nightly" is somewhat less pop-oriented than its Japanese counterpart (the two albums have only seven songs in common, and the import has more songs in English). But then, she's not going for a pop audience here; her listeners are likely to be the same folks who have found pleasure in the work of Caetano Veloso, Marta Sebastyen and Cesaria Evora. In that sense, her Japanese-ness is less at issue than the general quality of her -- a lesson some of her compatriots would do well to consider.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from these recordings, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6126. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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