Playboy & Playgirl (Matador ole 333)
Yasuharu Konishi, the man behind the music in the Japanese pop group Pizzicato Five, likes to have it both ways.
On the one hand, he's a well-trained composer and instrumentalist, a connoisseur of classic pop who can cook up anything from a brassy, soul-band arrangement to a full-orchestral score. At the same time, he's endlessly fascinated by the cut-and-paste construction of DJ music, and filled much of Pizzicato Five's last album, "Happy End of the World," with arrangements built around drum machine patterns and looped samples.
"Playboy & Playgirl," the group's new album, finds him indulging both interests, often simultaneously. At times, the arrangements are dizzyingly dense, threatening to drown the listener in sound. But because Konishi keeps his focus squarely on the melody, his sonic seasoning never overpowers the essential flavor of his songs.
"Weekend" is a case in point. Although the song starts off with a swirl of samples -- jabbing trumpets arrayed against braying trombones and trilling strings -- there's also a layer of live instruments (acoustic guitar, bass and piano) reinforcing the hyped-up samba pulse.
On a technical level, the backing track's ingenuity is astonishing, conveying a fairly complex harmonic structure while maintaining the melodic monotony of the samples. But the arrangement's principal goal is to create a dense, frenzied pulse in contrast to the measured cool of the vocals.
It helps that singer Maki Nomiya -- Konishi's partner in Pizzicato Five -- has one of the most luxuriously relaxed voices in pop music. Blessed with a tone as sweet and smooth as sherbet, she's the epitome of vocal cool, and that perfectly suits Konishi's design, conveying an almost effortless blend of class, poise and hip.
"Playboy & Playgirl" is, after all, a concept album, with Konishi and Nomiya cast in the title roles. Indeed, the original Japanese version of the album included a track called "The International Pizzicato Five Mansion," which purported to show the P-5 Empire at work. Unfortunately, since it was mostly Japanese language narration, it is not included on the American album.
Taken in terms of the concept, the songs themselves represent a form of musical dress-ups, as Konishi and Nomiya assume the proper musical style for each set-piece. So "Concerto" is given a crinkly pop-baroque treatment; "Such a Beautiful Girl Like You" comes on with a low-key soul swagger; "Rolls Royce" wraps its mystery in a moody, jazz-flavored arrangement; and "I Hear a Symphony" is presented as quiet, guitar-flavored bossa nova. Listening to them is like wandering through a department store with a couple intent on trying every outfit in the place.
Luckily, these two look good in almost everything, so "Playboy & Playgirl" balances its eclecticism with some of the catchiest pop around. If Pizzicato Five sang in English, itd would be a hit on both sides of the Pacific.
Good Dog Happy Man (Nonesuch 79536)
Who says jazz has to be soporific to be soothing? Other instrumentalists might assume that "mellow music" is some sort of industry code for the words "adult lullabies," but guitarist Bill Frisell understands that there's a difference between "low key" and "low energy." So even though most of the selections on "Good Dog Happy Man" are set in a laid-back groove, what he and his playmates get up to hardly qualifies as easy-listening. Instead, Frisell and company focus on the subtleties inherent in groove music, like the way textural variation can push a slow-moving melodic line to another level without having to wait for the chords to change. Granted, that's not likely to enthrall the be-boppers, but anyone at home in the post-fusion world will find his laconic lyricism downright charming.
Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz (Hollywood 62214)
Anyone who chafed at Jesse Camp's stoner shtick during his sojourn as an MTV VJ has no doubt looked forward to the release of his solo album, believing that there could be no better revenge than being able to laugh at his rock star pretensions. It's such a shame, then, to report that "Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz" is nowhere near as bad as we might have hoped. True, Camp and company push their New York Dolls adulation almost to the point of parody. But apart from some laughably earnest lyrics -- "Sloppy Kishish" reads like a valentine even Beavis & Butt-head would be too bright to write -- Camp generally gets the formula right, mixing guitar rock and vocal roll like a well-schooled student of glam rock excess.
A Place In the Sun (Curb 77942)
Country music has always had a soft spot for sentimentality, but few singers play upon the heartstrings as expertly as Tim McGraw does in "A Place In the Sun." With most of the album devoted to old love and lost youth, McGraw's high, dry tenor has no trouble evoking barely swallowed pain. What keeps the disc from turning into a 20-tissue salute is his belief that hope springs eternal even in the worst romances. So no matter how often his protagonists try to drown their sorrows (see "Senorita Margarita"), they take a sober look at ever getting over that one big love ("The Trouble with Never" and "You Don't Love Me Anymore"). McGraw, in other words, is a romantic -- even if his lovers turn out to be losers.
An Original Walt Disney Pictures Soundtrack (Disney 6457)
Let's be honest: Mention the character Tarzan, and the first musician to spring to mind probably is not Phil Collins. So how is it that Collins' pop contributions to "Tarzan" make this the most listenable Disney soundtrack since "The Lion King?" In part because there's something genuinely likable about the insouciant themes Collins has concocted for the score, but mostly because he understands that melody and drama are equally important in these songs. So "You'll Be in My Heart" conveys the emotional commitment of its lovers even before we know who, exactly, the characters are, while the raffish, jazzy "Trashin' the Camp" paints a picture so vivid we don't even have to see the animation to imagine the action. Even the orchestral moments can't spoil this disc's pop appeal.