After hearing the dance/pop track “Big in Japan” by popular French DJ Martin Solveig, the song’s hook struck me in an odd way: “Because the next thing you know I’m big in Japan.” This chorus is particularly odd if it is a derisively intended commentary on Japan as a second-tier music market. If so, it is an under-informed view of that country’s scene and global musical impact. For one thing, Japan happens to be one of the biggest music markets in the world, including a quite healthy local urban music community that especially excels in hip-hop. Yet, R&B and soul have plenty to boast of, like megastar Toshinobu "Toshi" Kubota (recording since 1986) and the Zukana Sisters that has attracted media attention from a national public radio outlet, Public Radio International. Among those proving a lie to Solveig’s hooky disparagement is underground company Sweet Soul Records, who produced two glowing compilation of ‘70s and ‘80s urban music by homegrown talent. Besides their catalog, Sweet Soul has been quite active in distributing U.S. progressive soul artists like Amber Ojeda’s current project, Here I Am.
A new group of handpicked vocalists are on hand for Sweet Soul’s third installment in its series of vintage soul and R&B, Soul Over The Race: Volume 2. The pace and continuity work effectively throughout; touching on disco, funk and ballads with dustings of jazz and blues. From the very first note, the vocal cast and house band are locked into the essence of the seventies and eighties but with a fresh musical perspective. Sayumi’s vocal range covers a lot of territory with gentleness (“I Can’t Let Him Down” from Love Unlimited) and assertiveness (Chic’s “Thinking of You”). The same can be said for Emi Hinouchi (hip-hop group M-Flo) whose angelic voice peppers the disco flavored, “I Believe in Miracles” from The Jackson Sisters and coyness wraps around the sophisticated ballad, Leroy Hutson’s “Lucky Fellow.” Fasun’s bluesy dynamics are perfectly appropriate for Melissa Manchester’s “Bad Weather.” Finally, Kaori Sawada, who recently released her debut, Affectionately Yours, sparks plenty of energy with rare grooves from Sharon Ridley (“Changes”) and Alice Clark (“Don’t You Care”).
The only track that slightly falters is their take on Tom Browne’s dance club smash, “Funkin’ for Jamaica.” Though the musicians and vocalists are quite competent, the slowed-down arrangement strips a bit of the funky zest from Browne’s original version. Otherwise, Soul Over The Race 2 is another big and solid showcase for Japan’s much under-appreciated soul market. Sweet Soul’s latest is one more step toward rectifying Japan’s unsung music status.
Music: 3.5 stars
Vocals: 3.5 stars
Lyrics: 3.5 stars
Production: 4.0 stars
SoulTracks Call: Highly Recommended
By Peggy Oliver