The current J-pop climate seems perfect for a Mondo Grosso revival.
The group/alias for celebrated dance producer Shinichi Osawa emerged out of Kyoto in 1991, boasting a sound apt for the ascendent sounds of acid jazz. That style - loaded up with piano, upright bass and all sorts of flutes and brass - has become en vogue with a new generation, as younger outfits such as Suchmos and cero channel the age of Jamiroquai en route to big festival stages and strong sales. When Osawa announced he would put out a new album as Mondo Grosso this June, the project’s first in 14 years, it seemed like a cunning move to capitalise on a current trend.
Mondo Grosso’s resulting full-length, however, makes it clear Osawa isn’t interested in totally rehashing the past. It’s transmitted directly in the English title, Reborn Again and Always Starting New. The closest the other four members of the group get to this release is the Wikipedia page. And for the most part, Osawa’s creating slightly blurry dance-pop numbers anchored by the voices of a generation of artists who rose to prominence well after the last Mondo Grosso. Save for a few moments of wistful look backs, Reborn Again shines as a way for Osawa to show his chops off with a wide array of vocalists.
Still, Osawa allows himself a certain amount of nostalgia for what was, and it’s these moments that end up being the most mixed on Reborn Again. Lead number “TIME” (above) finds the producer working with vocalist bird, who appeared on one of Mondo Grosso’s biggest late ‘90s hits “Life.” The two work well together, bird’s huskier delivery meshing up well with Osawa’s guitar-based music, bringing out the melancholy lurking at the center of the song. Other glances towards yesteryear aren’t so charming. Two versions of the rumbling house-pop cut “Spring Awakens Eternally” featuring ‘90s heavyweight UA appear on the album, and both go on way too long without any interesting developments or tension.
Thankfully, the bulk of Reborn Again focuses on the “starting new” part, and results in some absorbing dance-pop. Advance single “Labyrinth” featuring vocals from Hikari Mitsushima (video above) highlights what Osawa does well in a bouncy almost-five-minute frame. Mitsushima glides over the follow-the-bouncing-ball track, while Osawa adds strings and piano to heighten the tension, and distorts the backing vocal tracks to add an unease to an otherwise fluttery number. The album’s finest moments come from this slightly hazy combination, such as on the fever dream skipper “Planet Tantra” featuring Aska Saito of idol outfit Nogizaka46 and the skittery horn fog of “late night blue” featuring YUKA of folk-pop duo moumoon. As those numbers illustrate, Osawa is great at finding new sonic backdrops to highlight well-known popstars; Saito and YUKA sound like they’ve stepped out of a black hole here, miles away from the sunnier fare they mostly dabble in.
Osawa isn’t so much as being reborn into something new on this album, but rather finding a fresh take on the electronic-dappled sound he played around with in (and as) Mondo Grosso in the 1990s. When he isn’t reminiscing directly, he allows echoes of that older work to lurk in his new electronic compositions, letting a different set of voices meld with his music while little nods to the past emerge.
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