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Music to Fight Robots By: The Sound of Yoko Kanno

1 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 14,875 views One CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

In the summer of 1999 I heard Yoko Kanno’s “Tank!” for the first time. It was on a disc of anime themes that a friend had burned for me, all of which I summarily ignored as “Tank!” seized my imagination. The driving, big-band jazz theme to Shinichirō Watanabe’s cult hit “Cowboy Bebop” is one of the great all-time TV themes; imagine Laurie Johnson’s “Avengers” theme wrapped around Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme like a strip of be-bop bacon around a jazzy prawn.

“Tank!” is pure, bombastic fun. One listen was enough to encourage me to import all of Yoko Kanno’s “Bebop” soundtracks from Japan for a chunk of money that probably could have bought me an actual, live tank.

In the wake of “Bebop,” I began following Kanno’s career and soon discovered that she could change her sound in ways that few Hollywood composers are able or willing to do. I love the film scores of Mark Isham, Hans Zimmer and John Williams, but I don’t think any of them would be willing to supress their egos the way Kanno does. As near as I can tell, she simply makes the music a director asks for, even if it doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing that mecha warriors would get down with. The spaceships and robots rarely change from film to film and series to series, but Kanno has changed her approach to them time and again, fueling the machinery with techno (“Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”), lush orchestration (“Macross,” “Escaflowne”), lounge jazz (“Darker Than Black”), and even bluegrass (“Cowboy Bebop” again).

In the course of digging deep, Kanno has produced more than a few gems. The instrumental version of “Voices,” a piano-driven piece that provides emotional counterpart to the robotic hijinx of “Macross,” is one of the loveliest melodies I’ve ever heard. A quiet bout of piano (played by Kanno herself) opens up into a lush, soaring Pan-Asian melody; it’s the aural equivalent of walking through a forest and happening upon an entire golden city in a clearing. “Car 24,” a peppy horn-driven number from “Bebop,” sounds like a television show them from the 1950s, perfectly preserved. And “Inner Universe,” the relentless goth-techno number that opens “Stand Alone Complex,” is at once intimate and epic, like Imogen Heap fronting Nine Inch Nails.

Kanno’s works don’t exactly transcend genre, but they can easily trick you into thinking that they do through sheer force of will. The composer is shrewd and canny, but also mischievous; in a way, she’s much like the great Warner Bros. cartoon composer Carl Stalling, who also lifted themes and melodies out of necessity and, through the specific nature of his work, managed to forge his own distinctive sound. Yoko Kanno can sound like Hans Zimmer, but Hans Zimmer can’t sound like Yoko Kanno. No matter how much she works (and she works a hell of a lot), Kanno brings a sweetness and an earnestness to her scores that is impossible to fake.

Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who’s created so much ear candy, Kanno has found an entirely second calling in scoring commercials. “CM Yoko” and “CM Yoko2,” both available through iTunes, are Stalling to the nth degree, in that they’re both listenable and schizophrenic. Other film composers may write the occasional commercial jingle in the downtime between scoring films (Elfman, in particular, has admitted to writing several), but they’ve got nothing on Kanno, either in quality or quantity. A partial list of her clients on Wikipedia is more than 70 names strong, and includes such heavy hitters as Microsoft and Toyota. There are only 53 tracks between the two “CM Yoko” discs – each one a unique, profit-generating snowflake – which means that a third volume is likely in the offing, and possibly a fourth depending on how much soundtrack work Kanno is getting right now. Not even They Might Be Giants, a band which writes a new song every six minutes, is quite as prolific.

The first volume is the more accessible of the two. It skips from Nashville-styled bubblegum jingles performed in French (“Kare 100% Tres Bien”) to pocket-sized Sarah McLachlan-like ballads (“Long Goodbye”) intended to sell Citizen timepieces. At one extreme it features “Exaelitus,” quite possibly the darkest ditty ever used to sell a Lexus, and at the other, a relentlessly sunny jingle called “Don’t Spend MONEY! MONEY!” that seems to have been imported directly from the 1950s for the sole purpose of sticking in your head forever and ever. (For the life of me, I can’t figure out what “Don’t Spend” is supposed to be selling, or how it’s supposed to sell it if we’re not allowed to spend anything).

“CM Yoko” is tuneful, crass, bizarre and even lovely by turns, and it’s ironic through and through. This is one of the many reasons I love the popular culture of Japan: We may rudely Tivo commercial jingles out of our lives, but the polite Japanese have found a way to purchase them twice. You could do worse than to purchase one of the “CM Yoko” albums through iTunes yourself, along with her “Bebop” scores and pretty much anything else by Kanno that you can get your hands on. She’ll put a tiger in your tank.

Geoff Carter

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One Comment »

  1. […] appreciation for Kanno and esp. Inner Universe. http://monkeygoggles.com/?p=2749. Better late than never. bmaas71 – Wed 03 Feb 4:16 0 votes previous […]

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