Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published April 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Cornelius is big in Japan. In music-biz parlance, "big in Japan" is the ultimate backhanded compliment; it's routinely slapped on artists who are great at building small cults, but not mass audiences. But on "Fantasma," Cornelius single-handedly forces a reassessment not only of how insulting that term is, but of pop music itself. You see, Cornelius -- the moniker for Japanese one-man-band Keigo Oyamada -- is big in Japan, having sold half a million copies of "Fantasma," his third album, in his homeland. Given a stateside release, we get to hear what we've been missing out on: a brilliant, soaring symphony constructed out of pop touchstones in a way that's refreshing, freewheeling and, well -- you remember "fun" in pop music, don't you?

The Beck comparisons are inevitable. Cornelius, like Mr. Hansen, has the mix-and-match bug, a penchant for willfully reworking a wide array of sounds ranging from cartoon soundtracks, Nintendo noises, '60s pop, polka, hip-hop, country music and indie rock. But unlike Beck and other recombinant maestros like Cornershop or the Prodigy, whose genre-hopping skills come on crafty but cold, "Fantasma" has a deeply organic, almost soothing feel to it, the shifting tides of sound surprising, but never jarring. The rich harmonies and loping beats of "Clash" and "Star Fruits Surf Rider" give way to rollicking guitar vamps like "New Music Machine," "Free Fall" or "Count Five or Six," which perfectly melds punkish aggression with technoid samples and count-offs. Natural sounds pervade the la-la-la's and gleeful acoustic strums: cats mewling, birds chirping and Cornelius' own sweet voice, modestly intoning with a full-bodied spirituality.

Pop is his church, and while featuring a track called "God Only Knows" will engender some Beach Boys comparisons as well -- the lush production, the multi-part vocals -- Cornelius' pop sense is more modern, exuberant and wide-ranging than Brian Wilson's. A closer antecedent is "Song Cycle," a 1968 orchestral masterpiece by Beach Boys associate Van Dyke Parks that's nigh-forgotten at this point (presumably, it was big in Japan). Like that record, "Fantasma" takes a naturalistic approach to the stuff of pop music. What emerges is a man wholly in love with sounds, not just the act of stapling them together.

Which is to say that they haven't whipped up a clever (or marketable) name yet for what Cornelius does. "Post-(Sgt.) Pepper"? "Hardcore Muzak"? What rhymes with "bricolage"? As a shorthand term, "human" will do, a sound that's deeply in touch with music's capacity to make you feel. (Just try feeling like a human being while you're listening to the Chemical Brothers.) Toward the end of the album, on "Thank You for the Music," Cornelius reprises everything he's done before it, the samples and trills and hooks he's so masterfully interwoven, as he sings a heart-busting "Adios." On the closing song, "Fantasma," after he's offered yet another lovely vocal harmony, he ends the album with a long, deep sigh of satisfaction. And you, the listener, will sigh along with him.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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