If you have been reading or listening to my bleatings and blatherings for any legth of time, then you know I harbor big fantasies about becoming the Great Value version of KAB's own Stevie Wayne. The closest I've gotten so far is the plaid shirt I am currently wearing, my weekly radio show when I was in college, and my penchant for
telling people what to do sharing the music I love with other people.
Sadly, my lighthouse radio station remains but a dream, and I can't airdrop mixtapes to all of you. But every once in a while, I can pull a favorit e album from the stacks and talk about it here--especially the records that qualify as 100% No Skips for me. And what better way to kick this notion off than by dishing on Takako Mamiya's 1982 treasure LOVE TRIP?
City Pop is a fascinating sub-genre that's (relatively) blown up in the West despite the fact that it's never really existed as A Thing in its home country of Japan. Spilling out of the late 70s and crossing into the late 80s, City Pop was the result of Japanese artists smushing-up of a wide variety of disparate genres largely born outside of their native musical heritage. R&B, jazz, funk, soft rock, Latin music, Carribean music, New Wave...heck, I've even heard some strains of ragtime in a few songs.
Listen, I've worked in a few record stores and I know the value of genre classifications (they make for easy browsin'!). But I'm also not one to get all gatekeep-y about that sort of thing. I'm not going to argue whether or not (my queen) Momoko Kikuchi is strictly an idol singer, especially considering that she went and made ADVENTURE, perhaps theee quintissential City Pop album and another that I could wholeheartedly write about for a No Skips installment. As far as I'm concerned, those kinds of conversations are had by the people who like to block the bins at the record store whilst holding court, making things difficult for the rest of us who simply want to flip through stuff.
When it comes to music and movies, genres are often the most interesting at their blurry edges, after all, and City Pop defies easy categorization. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous threshold for obscenity test from Jacobellis vs Ohio, when it comes to City Pop, I know it when I hear it. It's a vibe more than it is anything strictly definitive.
And that's why something like LOVE TRIP, which could be considered Easy Listening, maybe, or even Adult Contemporary, but no matter. It is without a doubt an essential City Pop masterpiece.
It is a mood, its horns and strings and synths and twangy bass conjuring up rainy late afternoons, or a neon-drenched night in a shitty 5th floor wine bar. It's the perfect soundtrack for a late night drive, wandering around a city that's not your own, or watching the world zip by out the window on a journey by train. And there through it all is Takako-san herself, her sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, always calming voice in your ear, a through line that doesn't dominate, not even on her own record.
If there's a pervasive vibe on LOVE TRIP, it's melancholy, even in its livelier numbers. But the overall effect isn't going to leave you hangdog and crying into your Riunite. I don't think it's completely unique to City Pop necessarily, but one of the genre's hallmarks is the incongruity that often exists in tracks between the words and the feelings: an artist will be singing the most devastating lyrics set to the peppiest music you've ever heard. One of the greatest examples of this is Anri's impossibly peppy "I Can't Stop the Loneliness" from her seminal City Pop LP TIMELY!! It's wild to see the divide between the sentiment of the lyrics and the beat highlighted as she smiles, bops, and sweats her way through this energetic vintage performance:
My favorite track on LOVE TRIP, 哀しみは夜の向こう ("Sadness is in the Night") is another fine example of this incongruity. One of the rare English lines ("Night...it's belong to sorrow") is so good and so fucking smooth, how can I come away from it feeling sad?
Once I'm in the groove with this album, it's hard to pull myself out of it. I listen to Side 1 a few times, then finally flip it over to Side 2...and when I get to the final track, I flip it back to Side 1 and start over. How could I not? The album opens with the title track, and ends with "What a Broken Heart Can Do," which takes the "Love Trip" music and gives it a new spin with all-new lyrics, this time in (oft-broken) English.
This listening cycle, by the way, has been happening regularly for years now because I just love this album so damn much.
On its release (nearly half a century ago? how can that be right?), LOVE TRIP was a commercial flop. A small label, a promotions budget of approximately zero, and lack of radio-friendly songs spelled disaster from the start.
It flopped so hard, in fact, that soon after its release, Takako Mamiya vanished from the public eye. But in the last few years, as often happens, LOVE TRIP has finally gotten the appreciation it deserves. It's been reassessed...and repressed. And repressed. And repressed. Black vinyl, pink vinyl, 2xLP 45rpm editions, cassettes...this album is probably being reissued yet again as I type this.
There are plenty of one-and-done performers from the City Pop era, of course. Some of them left the industry altogether to raise families or take up the family business. Some retreated to behind-the-scenes work, be it writing lyrics for others, providing back-up vocals, or transitioning into voice acting. With the resurgence of City Pop and the reevaluation of their work, a few of these women have emerged from their private lives, even for a moment, to marvel at the new appreciation and hold up a hand to let us know what they've been up to. But not Takako-san, who remains a ghost. (Many have even wondered if that could be literal--she has disappeared so completely, it's even been posited that she died at some point after LOVE TRIP's failure.) A couple of years ago, some Korean YouTubers said they talked to someone from Kitty Records, who relayed that she retired upon flopping and has been happily raising a family ever since. It could be true! It's all an intriguing mystery, but also...it's one I don't need to have solved. Not least of all because if she wanted to step forward, she would.
I really hope that today, she's just enjoying her life while collecting fat royalty checks for all those reissues. Most of all, though, I hope she somehow knows how loved and appreciated LOVE TRIP is now, especially here in my own personal KAB lighthouse.