Artists From Japan #1: An Introduction To Cornelius

Cornelius

Who is Cornelius?

The average person is probably most familiar, if at all, with Cornelius’ work from his appearances on the soundtracks for Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and Ghost in the Shell or from his incredibly surreal Yo Gabba Gabba appereance, but perhaps you know him as that guy behind classic remixes of Beck, MGMT and The Avalanches, or maybe you’re even familiar with his work as the producer of Yoko Ono’s latest run of critically acclaimed albums.

But all these little marks on pop culture are just branches to the tree that is Cornelius. He is one of the defining pillars of modern Japanese music, with an incredible, and scene-defining career spanning four decades.

1. Flipper’s Guitar (1989 – 1991) – The Beginning

Cornelius, or Keigo Oyamada, rose to prominence back in the late 80’s/early 90’s as a huge part of the incredibly influential Shibuya-kei movement. A genre of music that chewed up YMO, Serge Gainsbourg, and the Beatles, before spitting them out as an infectious, hook-driven mix of psychedelic pop, synthpop, and Yé-yé, that would pretty much define Japan’s music scene for those fledgling 90’s years.

He performed as part of a duo with Kenji Ozawa under the name Flipper’s Guitar, and it’s here that he would slowly develop his legendary talents as a producer, and hone his songwriting skills. Together they created a great run of three albums that are definitely worth diving into for devout Cornelius fans, though certainly not essential when compared to what Cornelius would eventually create during his solo career.

2. First Question Award (1994)

There are no humble beginning’s or wobbly starts for Cornelius’ solo discography, his first album is the kind of home run that would define a lesser musician. Featuring a lot of the same sonic ground he mastered while part of Flipper’s Guitar, but with the added density that came with studio experience. Triumphant horns, catchy guitar melodies, and soaring vocals that made for a summery and infinitely dance-able indie pop/shibuya-kei record. The eclectic production style that would define his greatest albums had begun to show, throwing in sitars, jazz piano riffs, and whatever else served his aesthetic goals, while still maintaining a clear central tone.

The only thing worth really complaining about on this record is the very strained voice Cornelius had as he tried to reach the higher notes of his hooks, and the very breathy distant voices he sometimes showcased in his verses, as he hadn’t quite figured out how to write around his vocal abilities yet, but despite this, and despite being sung in primarily Japanese, it’s hard not to try and sing along, as Cornelius really grasps the idea of writing songs solely as hook delivery devices, and what hooks they are, bubbly and catchy as all hell.

I mean, what can really be said about an album that features a disco-esque slow jam named after a Sonic Youth album/Creedence Clearwater song?

3. 69/96 (1995)

69/96 is the obvious black sheep in Cornelius’ discography, not to say it’s bad, though good would also be a stretch. It could most accurately be described as well-produced nonsense, or experimentation for the sake of nothing. Just take the first three songs, a doo-wop intro sung entirely in English featuring lots of finger snaps and harmonizing, that leads directly into a hard rock song completely dominated by feedback and sharp metallic drums, with an incredibly strained vocal performance, that jumps right into an indie rock-ish pop song with synth warbles, theramins, and a hip-hop-esque backbeat. Any album trying to blend Shibuya-kei, art rock, hard rock, and funk is walking a tight line, and Cornelius does it with the subtlety of a bulldozer, jumping between genres without any concern for a sense of continuity.

The whole album comes off as a misguided attempt to copy what Beck was doing at the time with Mellow Gold, and Stereopathic Soulmanure, especially with songs like 1969, and makes for a generally unpleasant listen as a whole. Though Cornelius’ songwriting abilities hadn’t entirely failed him, and there’s a few songs worth revisiting.

4. Fantasma (1997)

And finally we arrive at, what is quite arguably, Cornelius’ magnum opus, and in this man’s humble opinion, one of the greatest albums of the 90s. Fantasma would go on to break him in the western indie scene with distribution from Matador records, and score him reviews from numerous influential indie publications (including pitchfork), as well as earn him placement in many a best of list.

It’s an incredible album dedicated entirely to the joys of production as a musical artform, using it to build, from the bottom up, pop songs that sound like nothing else, then, or now. Heavily reliant on stereoscopic panning, and crystal clear instrumentation it boasts his strongest set of songs, and his strongest vocal performance to date. His voice had, since 69/96, become restrained, almost bordering on melancholic, but clear and much more effective at creating the kind of infectious hooks that make this album spin in your brain after you turn it off. Strange self-referential production, a set of incredibly diverse, yet cohesive, songs, and some of the most earnest songwriting ever laid to wax.

I can’t sing this albums praise enough, perhaps it would be best to just recommend you listen to this album in it’s entirety, multiple times. But let me provide you with a little best of to whet your appetite. I strongly recommend using headphones so that you can hear the stereo panning I mentioned earlier, not to mention the very layered and rewarding production featured on every song in the album.

5. Point (2001)

Having finally found his voice with Fantasma, Cornelius decided to cut out all the distractions and find what made his songs uniquely his. By stripping the record down so much, Point became the answer to Fantasma for Cornelius, as White Light/White Heat was to Velvet Underground and Nico, and as Yeezus was to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so Point is to Fantasma.

The production is tight, without the kind of embellishments that made Fantasma such a dense mix. Mostly made up of simple, clean guitar melodies, and Cornelius’ now characteristically gentle voice, Point shows how a musician can stretch simple ingredients into an incredibly fulfilling meal. The guitars are hard panned in between notes, something Microphones fans might be familiar with, and the vocals are multi tracked, and scattered into the mix to create an enveloping choir like effect. The drums are sparse and sometimes almost nonexistent, sometimes relying on the guitar for percussive duty.

But Cornelius takes all these simple ingredients and makes an album as rich with production wonders as Fantasma, but more focused on the songwriting element of it. A case could be made that Point features his strongest songwriting, with songs that wander from ambient guitar sections, into indie pop songs made from water splashing samples without ever bucking the audience like 69/96 did. But beyond everything else, Point is an exceedingly pleasant listen. The melodies are gentle, and the songs are both dance able, and the perfect backdrop for laying in your bed (with the exception of the slightly jarring ‘I Hate Hate’).

6. Sensuous (2008)

If you just ignore the horrible artwork for a minute, Sensuous is the exact kind of late career album you want from your favorite artists. You don’t want someone to try and reinvent their whole sound and make an album that tarnishes their legacy, but you certainly don’t want a repackaging of an album you already bought either. Sensuous is neither. At its core its built on the same blocks as Point, strong songwriting with less instrumental noise than Fantasma, but with a return to the playfulness of that Fantasma era. It utilizes much more modern sounding synthesizers than he had previously used, giving the album a warm, almost 80’s new wave feel at times. The drums have much more groove than Point, but they don’t dominate the mix anywhere, there’s even a return to the kind of hard rock guitar sounds he got back in the 69/96 era with Gum. It doesn’t reach the highs of Fantasma or Point, but it manages to define itself outside their shadow, making a more than fitting end to his genuine album output so far.

7. Assorted Music Since Sensuous

Cornelius hasn’t pulled a Mark Hollis since the release of Sensuous. He’s still making music through various avenues, whether through his remix series (CM1, CM2, etc.), through production work for Takeshi Kobayashi and Yoko Ono, or through his soundtrack work for the Ghost in the Shell: Arise movie series, along with the upcoming full-length GitS film. As well as releasing a DVD of his crazy Sensuous live performance. And there’s always that eternal new album hype, though I’m not sure how inclined he is to to do that after Sensuous.

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