Music Musings: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (1997-2003)

Moods for Ska ~We Don't Know
What Ska Is!~ (1997)
Music Musings: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (1990-1996) can be found here.

4th Compilation Album: Moods for Ska ~We Don't Know What Ska Is!~ ムース・フォー・トーキョー・スカ 〜ウィ・ドント・ノウ・ワット・スカ・イズ!〜 (1997)

Nope, I did not review TSPO's first three compilation albums as they are rare and quite difficult to locate. I believe this one, although their fourth, is the first worth noting. This album is a hodgepodge of live and studio tracks, and contains many fan favorites like "Pedorazu" and "Monster Rock".

I see this album as a good intro to TSPO; although it's nearly two decades old, many of the songs on this record are played by the band at nearly every concert they play these days, like "Shot in the Dark", "Burning Scale", and "Skadon", all extremely lively songs. 

"Mr. Mystery Shuffle" is my favorite track with vocals on the album. It sticks to the traditional definition of a shuffle beat wise, yet is anything but mundane. Cleanhead Gimura is responsible for the vocals on this one, a posthumous release. If you read part one of this series, you already know I'm a sucker for his unique vocals, and he sounds borderline evil on this song, so it's particularly delicious to my ears! 

Top picks: There's not a track I don't like!

Arkestra (1998)
8th Album: Arkestra アーケストラ(1998)

Arkestra was the first of two albums which included the late Cleanhead Gimura's younger brother Rui Sugimura on vocals. Sugimura was far from his older brother's convenient replacement; his singing and personal style are much different from the elder Sugimura's. Rui Sugimura has a lighter, more pop-oriented voice which also goes well with traditional jazz tunes. Nevertheless, I prefer Cleanhead.

Out of the instrumental tracks, "the PIRATES" is my hands-down favorite. It has a comical, sinisterly nature to it as it sounds like the theme song of a cartoon villain—in a good way, of course. Bassist Tsuyoshi Kawakami is the star on this number. While the bass line is simple, it's harmony with Tatsuyuki Aoki's surgical drumming is extremely catchy and addicting.

The majority of the songs on this record include vocals, a few of which are unfortunately on the generic side. However, Sugimura shines on the last three tracks: "Funade no Machi (Sailing Town)"; "Hikari (Light)"; and "Dear My Sister". The harmonica solo close to the beginning of "Funade no Machi", reminiscent of country music, might initially seem out of place. Nevertheless, one of my favorite aspects of this track is the arrangement; I especially like the radio-like filter over the bridge portions. On the foundation of a simple, slow beat, the musical style of the foreground instruments changes. For instance, when Sugimura sings of a "symphony in the sky" the music turns symphonic.

Generally, "Hikari" is driven by Sugimura's melancholic vocals. It's a slower track about saying goodbye, but I find it more soothing than sad. The music is minimalistic to an extent at the beginning, similar to the sound of midi music files, yet the saxophones pick up toward the end

"Dear My Sister" is a favorite of mine because of the lyrics; there's nothing too remarkable about it musically. It's a fun, inspirational song essentially about leaving loneliness behind, and the upbeat tempo makes it fit nicely on my workout playlist. Sugimura's fast, almost rapping vocals adds to the positive mood the song evokes. 

During the Arkestra tour, drummer Tatsuyuki Aoki died after an apparent suicide and was replaced by Kinichi Motegi. Naturally, this marked a significant change in TSPO's music in the drumming department. Motegi is skilled with amazing singing abilities to boot, but lacks the flair and precision Aoki had in my opinion.

Additionally, this was the first album including guitarist Takashi Kato, who I consider to be more talented than the previous Toru Terashi.

Top picks: "the PIRATES"; "Funade no Machi (Boating Town)"; "Hikari (Light)"; "Dear My Sister"

Justa Record Compilation Vol. 1 (1999)
5th Compilation Album: Justa Record Compilation, Vol. 1 (1999)

...of which there is no Vol. 2 in existence! I'm not sure why. I wouldn't necessarily call this a compilation either as several of the tracks weren't released previously, so it's more like a self-cover album with new tracks...or something. Either way, it's solid, and Sugimura's vocals are miles better on this record than Arkestra.

TSPO has a long history of covering famous songs, but their cover of Bob Marley's "Ska Jerk" is surprisingly brilliant. When it comes to traditional reggae and ska music, Marley is the best in my book (and I believe it's safe to assume he is many, many other people's). Therefore, I think it was extremely ballsy for TSPO to attempt such a classic. Musically, TSPO kept to the original and I admire the fact that Sugimura made the song "his" instead of trying to sound like Marley. The dub version is also delicious.

Apparently TSPO felt the need to outdo themselves on the cover front with this album as they also covered jazz classic "Compared to What", written Gene McDaniels and first recored in 1969 by Roberta Flack. Admittedly, Sugimura's diction is better on "Ska Jerk", but musically, this song is a successful homage to the original.

This was the last album with Rui Sugimura as he left the band after a one-year stint.

Top picks: I love all the songs on this one, especially the dubs.

Full-Tension Beaters (2000)
9th Album: Full-Tension Beaters フルテンション・ビーズ(2000)

Although the awesome album cover draws you in, I think this album suffers from the same issues as Tokyo Strut (1996), and it is my least favorite of this time period. It's a good listen, but few of the songs standout, and a couple of them could have been produced by any ska or jazz band since they lack the usual TSPO touch. I sense a slight lack of direction with this one, and while I love Tatsuyuki Hiyamuta's personality, the presence of his agitations on so many tracks is somewhat annoying. Kind of a disappointing release considering the previous album's greatness.

Thankfully, there are some nice tracks on this one, though the album as a whole is skippable. I love the sound of bass guitar, especially when Kawakami plays it, so the dubs on this record—"Skarada Dub" and "John Lord (Live dub)"—appeal to me. I feel "Skarada Dub" is the better of the two as the echoing of Kawakami's bass is simply cool and haunting.

"Monsoon Town" and "In a Sentimental Mood" are appropriately named. "Monsoon Town" gives a 1950's resort feeling without being cheesy, and is similar to "In a Sentimental Mood" in terms of being relaxing, yet the latter has more pep. 

Top picks: "Skarada Dub"; "John Lord (Live dub)"; "Monsoon Town"; "Interlude Dizzy's Blues"; "In a Sentimental Mood"

Gunslingers -Live Best- (2001)
2nd Live Album: Gunslingers -Live Best- カンスリンガーズライブ・ベスト(2001)

This stunning live album includes previously unreleased songs as well as tracks which only made it onto singles or collaboration albums. TSPO is known for revving up the volume times infinity at their concerts, so all of their live albums are worth a listen, especially if you're in the mood to cut a rug.

As difficult as it is to choose, I believe "Tin Tin Deo"; "Lupin the 3rd '78"; "Filmmakers Bleed"; and "Enter the Dragon" are worth a closer look, or listen rather. TSPO's version of "Tin Tin Deo" is originally from their first album. The original studio recording is sick, but what's completely mental is hearing trumpeter NARGO and keyboardist Oki's solos live as they add many clever, unique touches to their original roles.

"Lupin the 3rd '78" is a song well-known to many old-school anime fans. In true TSPO fashion, they twist the theme song into a fast-paced jazz tune with an alternative rock edge for the live version. There's a reason it still often has a place on their set lists.

"Filmmakers Bleed" doesn't stand out to me on Full-Tension Beaters, but this live version is a delightful makeover. There's something borderline grunge rock about it thanks to guitarist Terashi. If jazz and rock had a baby, this is how their offspring would sound. 

TSPO love to take on the major classics, so I'm sure they didn't think covering "Enter the Dragon" would be a daunting task. Well, at least it doesn't sound like it as their version is unforgivingly hardcore, yet respectful of the source. They updated the theme and reconstructed it with a series of rifts, heavy bass lines, and killer sax rhythms. Somehow, under all the embellishments, it's still clearly "Enter the Dragon".

Top picks: All of it!

Stompin' On Down Beat Alley (2002)
10th Album: Stompin' On Down Beat Alley ストンピン・オン・ダウン・ビート・アレイ(2002)

TSPO definitely redeemed themselves after Full-Tension Beaters with this record. While it leans toward the mainstream, the band's creative muscles were clearly exercised out of atrophy with Stompin' On Down Beat Alley

TSPO invited three prominent vocalists to participate on this album, which had not been done since Grand Prix (1995). "Kanari Naku Sora (Canary Crying at the Sky[?])" stars the former vocalist of the now disbanded Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (yup, that was their name, they were incredible) Yusuke Chiba. Prominent soloist Tajima Takao lent his vocals on "Mekureta Orenji (Turning[?] Orange)", and Tamio Okuda of UNICORN took the mic for "Utsukushiku Moeru Mori (Beautifully Burning Forest)". 

All three songs are wonderful, but "Kanari Naku Sora" is glorious. Chiba, known for his raspy voice, sounds like a cabaret singer who turned up for work terribly drunk—I love it! Chiba speaks of death and destruction using the theme of birds who escape the horrors unlike their flightless counterparts. 

It's quite difficult to choose the best songs out of the instrumental tracks as they're all amazing in their own way, but "Soul Growl" and "Boggies Not Dead" stand out to me the most. The former song is the only reggae-inspired one with plenty of feel-good vibes offered by the warm sax solos.

Although song names are often a preview to a track, TSPO's ability to evoke specific emotion without the use of words is incredible. "Boggies Not Dead" is lighthearted and somehow funny as you can imagine some wacky-looking bad guy trying to get away to this song. 

This album was an huge success for TSPO and resulted in a European tour.

Top picks: Can't choose! Not only is this album an amazing listen as a whole, it's like attending a party.
BEST (1989-1997) (2002)

6th Compilation Album: BEST (1989-1997) ベスト1989〜1997(2002)

All of the songs on this album are off records I review in part one of this series, so please check it out if you haven't already. For those who want a taste of early TSPO, this is definitely the album to get.

Top picks: The songs on this album are all pretty solid. 

High Numbers (2003)
11th Album: High Numbers ハイ・ナンバーズ (2003)

This album doesn't pack as much punch as Stompin' on Down Beat Ally, but it's a good one with an equal share of fast and low-paced songs. TSPO's humor is also apparent on this record. Guided by silly intermittent commentary, listeners are taken on a jazz-influenced intergalactic journey on the album opener "Rendezvous in Space". Strangely, the speaker filters and rocket sounds go together with the loungey jazz tune.

"Natty Parade" is a traditional ska track with several enjoyable solos from the members; I usually hit the replay button with this one.

"Ocean to Ocean" and "Lover's Walk" are the perfect songs to unwind to on this album. To be honest, there isn't anything particularly outstanding about "Ocean to Ocean" music-wise. I think the charm lies in the arrangement as there's great harmony between the instruments that's rather calming and reflective of the title. 

"Lover's Walk" sounds exactly as one would expect, like a tune heard on a boardwalk with a romantic sunset in the background or something; very tranquil, particularly the guitar and trombone solos.

Drummer Motegi shows off his wonderful vocal skills on "Ginga to Meiro (Milky Way and Maze)". His voice is quite similar to Sugimura's, best suitable for pop music. It's a classic love song which uses space imagery (a silent theme on this album?). It's a beautiful song; I wish Motegi would release a solo album of his own.

Top picks: "Rendezvous in Space"; "Natty Parade"; "Ocean to Ocean"; "Ginga to Meiro (Milky Way and Maze)"; "Lover's Walk"

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