Fishmans


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Corduroy's Mood (1991), 7.5/10 (EP)
Chappie Don't Cry (1991), 5/10
King Master George (1992), 4.5/10
Neo Yankees' Holiday (1993), 5/10
Orange (1994), 4/10
Oh Mountain (1995), 6/10
Kuchu Camp (1996), 6.5/10
Long Season (1996), 7/10
Uchu Nippon Setagaya (1997), 6/10
8 Gatsu no Genjo (1998), 6/10 (live)
98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare (1999), 6/10 (live)
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The Japanese combo Fishmans or Fisshumanzu, fronted by vocalist Shinji Sato with drummer Kin-Ichi Motegi and bassist Yuzuru Kashiwabara, debuted with the EP Corduroy's Mood (Media Remoras, 1991). Goki Gen Wa Ikagadesu Ka shows the influence of Queen's operatic musichall and of the Beatles' childish melodies. The more original melodic combination of Anomusume Ga Nemutteru harkens back to the 1960s of the Mersey-beat, bubblegum-pop and Tamla Motown. The gentle folk-ish lullaby Mura Saki No Sora Kara is infected with romantic saxophone and ragtime piano. The embarrassing Sukuwareru Kimochi, however, is the kind of operatic piano ballad that only Queen would attempt. The EP was released one year after Camera Talk (1990) by Flipper's Guitar, the album that established the Japanese pop movement of shibuya-kei.

Chappie Don't Cry (Media Remoras, 1991) signaled a dramatic turn towards reggae music. Hikkurikaetteta belongs to the lightweight genre of the Paragons' The Tide is High and spawns silly harmless ditties like Hikouki/ Airplane (ideal for kindergartens) and Go Go Club (the most danceable of the batch). Some of the songs are incredibly boring (notably the eight-minute torture of Future) or trivial (Good Morning, Chansu). Save the charming trumpet sonata Natsunoomoide (Shinji Sato himself on trumpet) and the lively garage-rock Inago Ga Ton Deru (a few years before the Dance Hall Crashers). Only the swinging, jazzy Piano returns to the Queen-esque pop of the EP.

King Master George (1992) mostly returned instead to their pop roots, but in general it's a rather confused work that seems to collect inferior leftovers from the previous album as well as experiments for the next one. There are timid attempts at psychedelic dub such as I Kotoba Chodai/ Unreliable Angel and especially Tayorinai Tenshi (with a melancholy trumpet solo). There are a couple of pop ditties: Dareka o Sagasou, a choral singalong a` la Hey Jude of the Beatles, and especially 100-Miri Chotto No. There are two minutes of punk-rock (Shifudoresutoran) and the psychedelic litany Nante Tta No. And there are brief noisy interludes.

Neo Yankees' Holiday (1993), the first album produced by Kazuyuki "Zak" Matsumura, is another confused collection which tries several different styles and excels at none. First of foremost (and most annoying), there is pop-reggae torture in songs such as Running Man and Paradaisu. Then there's funk (Tsukarenai Hito) and reggae-jazz (Umaku Arukenai Yo). There is a psychedelic dub: Just Thing (especially its instrumental coda) and especially Taiheiyo, which sounds like a slow-motion, delirious cover of a Rolling Stones song. Amid all these failed experiments, the album is rescued by retro-pop reminiscent of their first EP: the marching aria of Walkin', which sounds like a singalong of the teen idols of the 1960s (with trombone and thankfully with no dub rhythm), and 1 2 3 4, which sounds like a dub cover of a French ye-ye song of the same era.

Orange (1994) is even worse. Kibun is tedious funk-pop, Melody is a bad imitation of Sly Stone's psychdelic soul,, Kansha toys with Brazilian percussive frenzy, and Woofer Girl inflicts more pop-reggae torture. The album closes with the pop singalong Yoru No Omoi and one misses the days of Corduroy's Mood (from which this second-rate song would have been omitted). The impression is of a group with no personality, desperately trying to break through, that clones old Western melodies with little or no imagination.

The live album Oh Mountain (1995) contains the seven-minute psychedelic jam Oashisu e Yokoso, a seven-minute version of Kansha, a seven-minute version of Chansu, a revitalized Running Man (transformed into a feverish soul-reggae shuffle), the funk-soul singalong Oh Crime, some of their best reggae-pop numbers (Hikouki/ Airplane, Blue Summer, which was one of their earliest songs), and especially the melodic acid-dub lullaby Doyobi No Yoru (with some of their best synth noise).

Kuchu Camp/ Aerial Camp/ Something in the Air (1996) showed a much more confident trio, with compositions that were both cohesive and unpredictable, without sacrificing the melody. Hence the smooth dreamy reggae ballad Baby Blue and the sleepy "Hawaian" dub dance Atarashi Hito/ A New Person. The fusion of funk, reggae and pop has reached a sophisticated level in relaxed, warm tunes such as opener Zutto Mae. Superficially, this sounds like Harry Belafonte meets Steely Dan, which is potentially a deadly combination; but the melodies (never as cute and catchy as in the past) are often perversely ruined by creative detours. The hazy soul-pop of Naitokurujingu/ Night Cruising sounds like a cross between Burt Bacharach and Stevie Wonder before it gets horribly disfigured by a long coda of sound effects. An eccentric arrangement also hijacks Nice Choice, a festival of electronic keyboards with an unusually shrill guitar distortion and even an interlude of jazz piano. Above all, the trio crafts a trance/dance number such as the percussive acid-soul shuffle Sunny Blue (with bluesy guitar and gospel choir).

The album Long Season (1996) is a lengthy version of their single Season, turned into an elegant dreamy 35-minute concerto, and it marked a major quantum leap forward for the Fishmans. The beginning is a hazy blend of sounds, including keyboards, violin and accordion, but then the piano starts repeating a stark minimalist pattern and the other instruments engage in liquid jamming while the vocals become increasingly abstract and soar in a wordless cosmic chant. The music temporarily fades into a ghostly soundscape of mysterious noises, before being resurrected by an epic guitar riff. The piano resumes its obsessive pattern and the singing returns to an earthly form and then the accordion intones a folkish melody.

The sound is even more elegant and smoother on Uchu Nippon Setagaya (1997). But it is also a bit too thin; and the melodies are less immediate than on previous albums. Lengthy songs such as the nine-minute Weather Report and the eight-minute Bakkubito Ni Nokkatte rely on hypnotic rhythms, eccentric arrangements and endless soft jamming. In the case of the eight-minute Daydream it may all be too ethereal and languid. The 13-minute Walking in the Rhythm announces itself as a choral singalong over a steady anemic pulsation but a singing bass, a discreet piano and a vibrant violin solo bestow on it a quasi-religious quality. Some truly awful ballads test the patience of the listener.

The live 8 Gatsu no Genjo (1998) contains a nine-minute version of Weather Report, an eight-minute version of Naitokurujingu/ Night Cruising, an eight-minute version of Sunny Blue, a seven-minute version of Bakkubito Ni Nokkatte, a ten-minute version of Zutto Mae, and a ten-minute version of Atarashi Hito/ A New Person. None of them matches the originals.

98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare (Polydor, 1999) documents their last live performance. It contains vastly inferior versions of Night Cruising, Nante Tta No, Shiawase-sha, I Kotoba Chodai/ Unreliable Angel, Walking in the Rhythm, Melody, but also a nine-minute version of Hikouki/ Airplane, one of their catchiest songs ever. The highlight is the 16-minute version of the former single Yurameki in the Air/ Flickering in the Air, which becomes increasingly spaced-out and cosmic, blended in a jazz-funk magma with the vocals reduced to mere drones. The 41-version of Long Season is instead ruined by an obnoxious synthesizer. As a sort of "greatest hits", this double album is effective because it samples most of their best material, with the notable exception of Sunny Blue; but the original songs fare generally better than the live versions (Yurameki in the Air being the notable exception).

Shinji Sato died in March 1999, just three months after Yuzuru Kashiwabara had decided to quit. This marked the end of the band. Motegi joined the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, and Kashiwabara formed Polaris.

Several anthologies were released after they broke up: 1991-1994 Singles & More (Pony Canyon, 1999), Rock Festival (Polydor, 2007), that collects the albums from 1996-97, Golden Best (Universal, 2012), a selection of those albums, Go Go Round This World (2016), that collects all the albums from 1991-95, and Blue Summer (Pony Canyon, 2018), selected music from 1991-95.

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