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Haruomi Hosono - Hosono House Music Album Reviews

Though his international esteem is virtually nonexistent, this Japanese polymath pioneered a musical ethic of open borders and freewheeling hybridity, epitomized by five new reissues.

In the early 1980s, the Japanese singer, bassist, and producer Haruomi Hosono created an idea he called “sightseeing music.” It is a mode of making and listening that asks both creators and consumers to think of themselves as musical tourists, soaking up the sights and sounds of foreign cultures with an open mind and documenting them through personal translations. This peripatetic strategy ignored walls between genres and operated with an ethos of open borders and freewheeling hybridity. This concept powered a catalog of near-encyclopedic breadth. New Orleans funk, Okinawan folk, big-band swing, Bollywood bop, jazz fusion, acid-house chaos: A true musical polymath, Hosono has explored it all.

Hosono, now in his 70s, remains a titan in his country’s musical history, but he does not strike such a towering figure abroad. Still, the impact of his vision has rippled across vast musical distances, making him perhaps the only artist whose sphere of tangible influence includes Derrick May, Afrika Bambaataa, Duran Duran, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Mac DeMarco. With his techno-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, Hosono helped pioneer sounds that shaped modern techno, hip-hop, and synth-pop. While Yellow Magic’s influence is unimpeachable (if underrated), Hosono’s role before and after the band’s pioneering run lingers in the margins. That’s partially because the bulk of his solo work has never been available in the United States, so his brilliance felt like a secret for record collectors and YouTube spelunkers. But a series of long-awaited reissues from Light in the Attic documents a five-album stretch from 1973 to 1989 that offers a revelatory glimpse at a mere sliver of his dizzying discography. At last, Hosono can step toward deserved international attention.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hosono helped foster a local folk music scene in Tokyo’s Shibuya coffee shops. One of his bands at the time, Happy End, became the first Japanese rock group to sing exclusively in the native tongue, teasing out how to bend the idiosyncrasies of the language around Western rhythms. This alone is a career-defining achievement, but Hosono was rapaciously creative. After the band broke up in 1973, he and a group of musicians called Tin Pan Alley (a kind of Japanese answer to Phil Spector’s “Wrecking Crew” of ace session players) rented a pad an hour from Tokyo.

While there, they recorded Hosono House, an album of what Hosono called “virtual American country”—a sort of Japanese emulation of Americana. In the chunky rhythms of “Bara to Yaju” and the honky-tonk swing of “Fuyu Goe,” you can hear how careful and considerate he was of the musical vernaculars he sourced. Hosono House instantly establishes a thread through this line of reissues: Hosono had a concrete belief in the plasticity of genre. In his singular focus on the mutable, he was able not only to inhabit different genres but bend them to his will.

Hosono’s albums suppose you can travel entire musical worlds in a single sitting, or you can at least take a trip somewhere you’ve never been. On 1978’s Paraiso, he brings you on a tour of the world’s tropics, crafting lounge pop songs so elegant and languorous they should be heard with a fruity drink in hand. The album is the first to feature his Yellow Magic bandmates—Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. On their “Femme Fatale” (unrelated to the Velvet Underground), the caws of tropical birds, Sakamoto’s lush Rhodes chords, and Takahashi’s paradisical acoustic drums coalesce into a rich oceanside scene. Yellow Magic, which emerged soon after Paraiso, was intended as a one-off critique of the exocticism and Orientalism of Western visions of Asian music. (Their loving target was Martin Denny’s “Firecracker,” which led to a cover more famous than the original.) The beginnings of that intellectual engagement become clear here.

The same year, Hosono released a radically different record, Cochin Moon, a synth-and-sequencer fantasia that recreated the uneasy feeling of his month-long trip to India alongside legendary Japanese visual artist Tadanori Yokoo. Hosono hoped for the album to be an ethnographic work of field recordings, like the flutes of snakecharmers or the recitations of the religious. But two unforeseen events waylaid him: First, Yokoo introduced Hosono to Kraftwerk, a central influence on the electronic backbone of this record and Yellow Magic’s subsequent debut. Hosono also contracted a stomach illness, the diarrhea producing a delirium so intense he felt he was near death.

Cochin Moon is a hallucinatory listen. Though the music is informed by Bollywood soundtracks and traditional Indian touches, the clear disorientation of his sickness is embodied in each synth pulse and distended vocal. On “Hepatitis,” the synths sound simultaneously like bubbling cauldrons, malfunctioning zippers, and manic music boxes, an overload meant to make you woozy. That unfiltered mood gives the record an almost-shocking quality.

Those first synth explorations would flower with Yellow Magic Orchestra. In 1982, during one of the band’s hiatuses, Hosono took it a step further with Philharmony. It elevated the rudimentary technology of sampling into avant-garde expression. Listing a Prophet-5 synth, LinnDrum drum machine, MC-4 sequencer, and the early Emulator sampler as his “guest performers,” Hosono used Philharmony as an opportunity to test the limits of recording technology. He described the process of sampling, looping, and rewiring his breaths, vocals, and instruments into what feel like cubist shapes as improvisatory painting. Listening means surfing a circuit board one moment and spending an evening at a robot-run opera the next. Alongside all this cybertronic experimentation were funny 16-bit funk songs (on “Living-Dining-Kitchen,” he sings about his love of junk food) and straight-up synth-pop killers like the wonderful “Sports Men.” It still feels groundbreaking.

After the Yellow Magic Orchestra broke up for the first time some seven years later, Hosono fully established his theory of “sightseeing music” on omni Sight Seeing, a clear refutation of the homenogizing phenomenon of “world music.” His inveterate genre-hopping takes us between the acid-house epic “Laugh-Gas” and the Steve Reich-inspired keyboard exploration “Orgone Box,” between the ambient experiment “Korendor” and the bizarro pop of “Pleocene.” Other songs reference Algerian raï and American swing. A winking eccentricity flows through it all, as if Hosono saw each trope he encountered as another card in a deck, ready to be shuffled and made into the stuff of magic tricks.

This unabashed love of trying new things without fear of failure is what makes Hosono’s catalog so delightful even now. In these five albums, we’re only given a snapshot of his 21 solo records, but the wizard-like inventiveness displayed here spotlights why Hosono should be considered a major figure. Taken together, these reissues represent a partial shadow history for the slow breakdown of genre boundaries. Nearly half a century after Hosono House, it’s easy to take for granted how permeable once-distinct zones have become. But rule breakers like Hosono, however overlooked they became, had to first do the hard work that’s so lovingly documented here.

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