Happy End of the World

Published September 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Pizzicato Five just might be the trendiest band on the planet. The Tokyo trio's Combination of disco, lounge, '50s sitcom jingles and techno would scream
Zeitgeist even if they weren't fronted by a gorgeous supermodel type who sings in Japanese and French with a voice that goes from diva deep to
wide-eyed and whispery. Their new album, "Happy End of the World," revives some of the exuberant experimentation of their earlier work and coats it with a shiny, sophisticated gloss.

When Pizzicato Five released their first American album, "Made In USA," in 1994 (in Tokyo, they have 14 records and are top-40 staples), their sound was way ahead of the country's tastes. They were played mostly on college radio, though the fluffy, ethereal "Baby Love Child" got some attention from commercial "alternative" stations.

Perhaps American indifference is what led to their disappointing second American release, "The Sound of Music," where the band was overproduced until it sounded like a dull Dee-Lite. It was a hit at fashion shows, and "Groovy is My Name" was featured in the Isaac Mizrahi documentary "Unzipped," but the band's hyper-glamour, which was so witty and captivating on "Made In USA," here sounded as vapid as any throwaway club music -- you might have danced to it all night long, but you sure wouldn't remember it in the morning.

Now, on "Happy End of the World," Pizzicato Five have combined the disarming quirkiness of "Made In USA" with all kinds of slick tricks to make a record that's wildly diverse in influence but unified in its joyful, surrealist hipness.

It's impossible to catalog all the sounds that Pizzicato Five have plucked for their musical bouquet -- besides the usual disco riffs, house beats,
television theme songs and '40s-style crooning, there's medieval harpsichord music, new wave synths, cheerleading chants and jungle breakbeats. What's amazing is the mastery with which P5 assemble their postmodern pastiche into a coherent, thrillingly original whole.

"Trailer Music" is a perfect example. First there's a ditty that could
have come from a game show or a detergent commercial with a deadpan voice speaking Japanese over it. Then the music starts breaking up, swirling around and recombining, and a thumping bass comes in and makes it all danceable. It's followed by the cheer that opens "It's a Beautiful Day," where voices that sound like a coked-up pep squad chant "P!-I!-Z!-Z!-I!-C!-A!-T!-O! 5!" before launching into a modish disco number. Later, there's "Contact," an homage to the early '80s with primitive computer bleating and cold, mechanized vocals. "Porno 3000" puts an ambient twist on the smarmy music used in triple-X flicks, with a cajoling female voice that could be a madame giving directions to a demure amateur whore.

No song on "Happy End of the World" reaches the twisted brilliance of "Twiggy vs. James Bond" from "Made In USA," but "Mon Amour Tokyo" comes close. Filled with sinister descending synthesizers and deep, knowing vocals, the song belongs in a smoky French bordello or a spy film set in the next millennium.

Of course, most of Pizzicato Five's ingredients -- brightly colored nihilism, drag-queen narcissism and retro espionage music -- are no more substantial than a hot-pink cosmopolitan cocktail. But, to quote an old Pizzicato Five song, "I," "Now, you think I am a nasty bit of goods, I guess. You think I am capricious, cheeky, willful, luxurious, affected, lying, dubious and random. But I am allowed. Because I am cute."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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