PIZZICATO FIVE – Happy End of the World (1997)

Review by: Michael Strait
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

Track 1: Keyboards and vaguely distorted, unclear vocals. All sortsa cool synth swirls flowing about! Radio-style distortions crackle. Is this what they call “retrofuturism”? Anyway then it picks up into a properly-recorded song and her voice is revealed to be regal, authoritative and confident without being overbearing as a refined, New Wave-ish (but less sonically prominent) bassline appears. The other instrumentation is provided mostly by piano (fairly buried in the mix) and cool percussion, which – and it’s difficult to notice this at first – is actually still buried under radio-distortion. This track is really fascinating, actually. Oh, did I mention how lovely the melody is? This is the second foreign-language album I’ve reviewed in a row for this game. It’s also the second one that sounds completely cool and in control – gee, are all foreignese people like this?

Track 2: Segues right into it: Wobbly-sounding keyboard stuff and Drill & Bass-ish drums. She sings lyrics that sound like they’re meant to be nonsense in any language (“la la la la la la la la”) while the piano gets even more minimalist. I gotta say, for an album that’s making such sparing use of its instrumentation, and burying most of it so far in the mix, it manages to come across as bafflingly fulsome. Maybe that’s just her voice. The bass in this is interesting – I’m pretty sure it’s an electric bass guitar doing its best to imitate an electronically-generated bass sound, and it’s cool.

Track 3: Sub 2 minutes and opens sounding like a parody of an old Disney movie. Then it develops into, possibly, a parody of advertising! A man talks over oldschool advert-style instrumental music in a way that suggests he is trying to sell me something. Maybe this is a joke track I’d get if I were Japanese. I don’t dislike it at all, though – what’s fun is that, about a minute in, the man disappears and background music is remixed into a dance track. Fun stuff!

Track 4: Chanting of what I think is the band’s name opens this track. She sounds quietly but deeply pleased with something on this track, like she’s just observed her lover do one of those little things she loves about him which she can’t rationally explain. In terms of instrumentation and songwriting, this is the most traditional rock song yet, which means it still has keyboard flourishes, sparingly-applied strings and the sorts of harmonies that haven’t been associated with rock since the 70s. The drumming is also very cymbal-centric, with occasional deeply distorted flourishes on the more box-shaped drums. So much is going on here that I almost lose sight of how subtly effective the hook is.

Track 5: Ah! Hip-hop drums, while a sultry-sounding repetition of the band’s name is chopped about. These hip-hop drums are eventually matched by a reappearance of Drill & Bass-esque drumming (the sort Aphex Twin appropriated for use in IDM, y’know), and there’s the occasional flourish in the middle where either a keyboard or an effects-laden guitar plays a few stabs as the cymbals lightly dance.

Track 6: An extension of the previous track (which was a prelude, dontcha know), this one has the same percussion segment, but develops into something else as a piano comes in and joins the woman as she begins to sing one of her trademark refined melodies, this time singing very softly. Spacey synth flourishes accompany horn segments and wordless male harmonies – damn, this album is fucking awesome, you know? It’s fantastic. I love it. Thank you so much, Alex. To make such a blistering percussion segment, complete with the occasional distorted glitching of a drum or two, sound so light and delicate as an accompaniment to what I presume is an intimate and reflective love song takes some doing, but these guys managed it. You know what this song sounds like? Paris. I can just see the Eiffel tower out of the window this woman is staring out of…

Track 7: Baby, baby, baby, ah! A percussion-effusive intro breaks into a glockenspiel-led track with synth sounds that occasionally make it sound like the theme song to a level on Mario Kart, but in an endearing way. Actually, this sounds a lot like a Mario Kart level song, complete with the near-absence of vocals except for the lady’s repeated refrain of “baby, baby, baby, ah!” She’s charismatic enough to make it sound like an unmissable part of the song, the rest of which sounds like a very lovable sorta surfish pastiche. Someone overdub this on a video of someone playing Shy Guy Beach and tell me it doesn’t fit – it fuckin’ does!

Track 8: Ah, this bassline, mang… instantly noticeable, swagger like Jay-Z, and then more Mario-type synths come in to match it. Ain’t that sound like an insult? Crazy thing is – it isn’t! This has one of the best vocal melodies yet, too, and the subtly-yet-overwhelmingly excited vocal tone is back. I think I might be developing a crush on this girl, actually – I’ve no idea what she looks like, nor what she’s saying, but her vocals just ooze personality. This song has, I think, an electric keyboard, being used in a very minimalist yet very effective manner – it usually plays half-second or so stabs of sound, somehow managing to fluidly cover multiple notes as it does so. Lends the entire thing this weird sense of liquidity and I love it. “Mon Amour Tokyo”, this song is called, and now I wanna go there.

Track 9: Squelchy low treble synths introduce this song as more wordless “ba bababa” harmonies are sung. Damn, they really do love the metallic drum sounds in this band, don’t they? It’s like they never play anything else. It’s not just cymbals – I think every metal percussion instrument is in this guy’s setup. The bassist also deserves mention for being a consistently kool kat the entire album. It’s like he represents its ego – a controlled but nonetheless dominant force in this album’s personality. Confident, but not overconfident. Just certain that life’s gonna go its way. A trumpeter shows up on this track at the end. It’s nice.

Track 10: a 10-minuter called “Porno 3003”. Hah, what a coincidence – I watched about 3,003 pornos this month! She’s delivering a spoken word monologue over a sonically complex groove that has an absolutely glorious sample – this grainy snippet of a horn from some movie soundtrack, I think, so grainy I can’t even identify what kind of horn it used to be, but they turn a couple of brief bars from it into the song’s main motif and it’s exactly the sort of transcendent that a good sample can be. The horn sounds like it’s from some dinosaur movie, too, considering how much import it purports to carry. The rest of the track is mostly percussion, our lady’s monologue, some synth textures and some string samples that are probably from the same soundtrack. A little over halfway through it develops a piano groove, which sticks around. For a track with such an economy of moving parts, it does a good job of keeping one’s interest and sounding genuinely busy. All that said, I ‘spect I’d enjoy this track even more if I understood the lyrics. Eight minutes in, the samples go away and a triumphant electric piano motif rises up out of their ashes, accompanying the monologue for about a minute until the samples come back. I gotta say – I liked that track, but I wish I understood the story she was telling!

Track 11: Typical. The last track was all Japanese and here this one opens with an all-English Language phone conversation in which someone tells Ms. Five that they love her music. Anyway, one phunky-ass synthpop bassline runs through this one – actually it sounds halfway to Eurodance, this thing, but it somehow avoids being too corny. Or is it merely embracing the corn so hard that it’s camouflaging it? Ah well, whatever – the percussion is way too exotic to be properly Eurodance and frankly the sonics are too good. Few lyrics on this one, either – gee, did she use ‘em all up last track? Mostly just wordless vocals singing simple melodies. Rather intentionally dated-sounding synth riff intermission in the middle of this track. Now that I think about this closer, this whole track sounds like an affectionate parody of the late 80s/early 90s European pop scene. It’s a nice lil gesture.

Track 12: Alright, I’ll be honest now – this album is definitely too long. Ain’t no excuse to be over an hour when half of that time is in the last 5 tracks, and while their sound is wonderful and intriguing and intoxicating it’s also not all that varied. That said, this track features our resident sexy confident singer lady singing a proper melody again, and that’s so welcome. Other than that, I guess I’ve not much to say about this song – it sounds like the first half of the album again, but a little less. Meh. Not too big a fan of this one. I mean, obviously it’s nice to be back in Paris in the summertime, walking round the colourful streets and fanning myself happily with a paper fan as I peruse fruits – but I have been here before, and that’s something I can’t quite escape.

Track 13: Oh, now this one’s interesting – I think there might, might, be a 60s guitar sample underlying this whole thing, but there’s so much else going on it’s difficult to properly tell. Either way, some people are harmonising about a “happy ending!” while the electric piano makes some grandiose stabs and suddenly I’ve figured out what this album is: it’s not retrofuturism, it’s futureretroism. It’s a vast hodgepodge of nostalgic different elements of different eras of the musical past –  1950s jazz, 1970s jazz-funk, 1980s synthpop, 1990s Eurodance, 2000s video game soundtracks – all splurged together in an anachronism stew as if it’s been curated by people from the 23rd century to whom the differences between the meagre decades are non-existent and irrelevant. It’s a big “old times!!” party for the rich kids of the future who don’t actually know that much about history but want in on some of that chic because the past was so classy! Anyway, after 5 minutes the track ends and we get some silence while waiting for a hidden track, which makes me sigh and check the date – since we vanquished that shit when the digital age came around – and realise in astonishment that this was released in 1997; I mean, how could they have so perfectly parodied the 2000s Mario Kart soundtracks then? Is Japan literally in the future? How the fuck is this possible? Are this band time travellers? I am so confused over this that I barely notice the hidden track rolling around, but it was about 30 seconds long and not a lot happened so never mind. Well, I suppose time travel is indeed possible and these guys did it with their keyboards – and now I’m signing out. Thanks for the assignment, Alex, much appreciated.
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Author: tomymostalas

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