Tomoyuki Tanaka, better known by his stage name FANTASTIC PLASTIC MACHINE (or FPM) was once a prominent electronic music artist in the late nineties, piggy-backing off the novelty music fad known as Shibuya-kei. Created singlehandedly by Pizzicato Five, Shibuya-kei was an ironic form of pop taking cues from swinging London, Burt Bacharach, Serge Gainsbourg, and every producer driven act in sixties Europe. It died almost as quickly as it appeared.
FPM chugged along, churning out two successful shibuya-kei style albums, his self-titled debut and Luxury, a sort of bizarre concept album about commercialism. Soon he shifted from quirky, retro-pop artist into super-DJ-mega-club-house-producer. beautiful. (period included!) released in 2001, vividly represents this change.
A sort of mish-mash of 70s pop and club-soul, beautiful. is a weirdly hyper-produced album. Absurd orchestral arrangements over a battery of cut-up samples, insane lyrics that are entirely non-sequitirs, thumping club beats, grating midi strings, and porn grooves dominate. Beginning with a weird vocal sample that intones, “I, AM BEAUTIFUL”, the album opener, beautiful days, sets the tone: a summery, up-tempo club song with cheesy strings played on a keyboard. A deep voiced man and woman sing about memories, childhood and other such nonsense. This continues consistently until they recite the word BEAUTIFUL ad nauseum. It’s so annoying that it becomes stunning.
Paragon is a more standard breakbeat track but with a bossanova undercurrent. A restless piano sample plays in the back while someone scats in bursts. After the initial excitement wears off, the album’s weakness becomes apparent: the music is often long and boring despite the absurdity. But then Love is Psychedelic starts, beginning with a luscious toned, deep voiced man saying, over cheesy orchestral strings, “LOVE….is psychedelic, love is something that always leads my body and soul…to a PARADISE.” What. With a crazy beat and a real orchestra playing annoying flourishes every other note, this sexy voiced man recounts a bizarre experience with LOVE, which makes him see a “foot-long shining chunk of light…” On a Chair can’t actually follow up something as amazing as Love is Psychedelic. It’s a generic, chill beat with vocal samples stretched and pitched while the familiar midi strings play, while Whistle Song is a monotonous samba, tropical, kitsch cover of the Frankie Knuckles song of the same name.
One Minute of Love is a welcome respite from boredom, a strange, kitschy cobbling of bizarre samples while a robot-voice sings some gibberish. Todos os Desejos returns to the generic club scene with trumpets and arpeggiated flutes. It does pick up towards the middle, its cut-up samples becoming more transparent, creating an interesting tension, but it subsides. I’m Still a Simple Man returns to the absurd lyric style from earlier, about a guy who fascinated by technologic advances but likes making love the old fashioned way. All this set to a cheery house beat with guitars and bizarre synthetic backup singers. But Black Dada is the album highlight, a straight-up, chill, seventies porn groove while a stuttering vocal sample of “DA-DA” appears throughout. It’s a stunner of production. It strikes the right tone of hilarity, absurdity, sexiness, and irony that is missing sorely throughout beautiful. God Save the Mona Lisa, is unfortunately a let-down after the incredible Black Dada. It seems to be a sort of bizarre epic baroque pop song, beginning with low hums, transitioning into cheesy fake timpani sounds while the vocalist sings about stories and love, all culminating in a tale about a girl who draws a mustache on the Mona Lisa’s face. (!)
For all its silliness, beautiful. isn’t sure of what it wants to be, veering from total humor to more commercial, generic pop songs that are irritating for all the wrong reasons. FPM proves he is a formidable pop producer, but one who is trying to distance himself from the Shibuya movement totally. Unfortunately, he became as plastic as the world he was (we hope) criticizing. Still, the few gems in beautiful. are amazing, proving, for a time, that humor and self-awareness in pop music could be (and still is) effective.