As formative influences, musical antecedents can be limiting or liberating, a rote formula to follow or a fertile field to nurture and see what might come up. In the case of Hyogo-based singer/guitarist Tatsuhiko Watanabe, mastermind of the Penelopes, what he’s heard — and it’s evident from the band’s first two albums that he’s traveled widely in pop style circles, from Merseybeat, Monkees, the Who, Roy Orbison and Neil Diamond to the Style Council, Elvis Costello, Edwyn Collins and the Smiths — is simply essential creative nutrition, the raw materials to be processed and recombined for his sweetly rendered social and political commentaries.
In Watanabe, Japan has its first great Western indie-pop auteur, an eccentric as capable of conjuring up ’60s AM radio delectability as serious ’90s alternapop. Contrary to the prevailing noise/kitsch/garage/punk genre winds blowing across the Pacific, the Penelopes strike up breezy guitar chords at easy tempos, arranging catchy melodies into lush harmonies (the vocals are in English, with a perceptible but unobtrusive accent); keyboards top it all off, shaping Watanabe’s easy travels through numerous Anglo-American idioms.
In a Big Golden Cage (which followed a series of self-released cassettes) navigates various realms of semi-acoustic retro guitar pop as if to the manor born. Watanabe matches the brisk clarity of early Johnny Marr strums while singing in a pretty if uncertain voice. But if the sounds are echoes of the past, the lyrics take a modern course, cagily expressing frustration at the strictures and consumer obsessions of Japanese life in veiled, seemingly romantic terms. The horn-charged “Love Without Radar,” “Paper Tiger in Me” and the lush “Evergreen” are especially delectable treats, but the whole album is wonderful in its exotic familiarity.
The more forthright, diverse and accomplished Touch the Ground favors synthetic horns and the roller-rink organ pep of early Attractions in the pursuit of “My Own Soul Music” and “Good Music,” an autobiographical ode that credits good music for helping him escape “the teenage wasteland.” In keeping with the general increase in spunk, Watanabe makes his desires and opinions explicit here, both in cheerful sonic citations and lyrics like “Stand Up, Change Your World” and “The King Half-Undressed,” which he sings in a confident, handsome voice. A wonderful, uncommon record whose geographical circumstances truly add to its extraordinary resonance.