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Found Sound: Masaki Ueda’s Hold You Tonight

In this infrequent feature, I’ll write about older Japanese albums I’ve come across whether through finding them lodged underneath my bed, on sale for 100 Yen at a local swap meet or discarded in the forest . Today we look at Masaki Ueda’s Hold You Tonight

A glance at Masaki Ueda’s official discography reveals him to be a highly prolific recording artist. He’s been releasing music since the 1970s, unloading a crates-worth of music in every decade since. He’s still going strong…Ueda’s latest album came out just this past May. His web site’s biography also points out he has produced plenty of records, including ones in Korea, and that he even appeared on a famous Indonesian pop star’s song in 2001. It’s a hell of a resume, to say the least and I’m sure Ueda enjoyed every second of it.

Yet venture away from officially-approved corner of the web and information on him quickly dries up. Google gives some videos, a few CD stores, an anime web site and a Linkedin page for some other Masaki Ueda. Then…nothing. J-Pop stars tend to follow two paths: they either get so big and beloved they earn the right to live forever, evidenced by vintage Pink Lady still popping up regularly on TV and SMAP basically being turned into a jeweled sarcophagus before our eyes today. Otherwise, they usually burn out early, chewed up and spit out by the business, doomed to appear on a variety TV show twenty years down the line to join a bunch of comedians heading down the exact same road to laugh at their peak. Ueda managed to dodge both superstardom and one-hit-wonder-hood – he’s an artist who seems like he was pretty well-known at one point, and was able to be consistently good enough to sort of just blend into the middle while still holding onto to some sort of fanbase (I mean, dude has a website).

That’s a little surprising given the cover to his 1984 LP Hold You Tonight, the one Ueda record lurking within my massive pile of found music. It’s an image that someone my age, trained by nearly every bro-mantic comedy and Adult Swim cartoon, instantly laughs at because “the 80s…so ironic!” You can see it at the top – Ueda stands, somewhat awkwardly slumped like a wax dummy slowly melting, front-and-center clutching a saxophone, an instrument not terribly present on the actual songs. It’s begging to be a picture used by FreeDarko without any explanation whatsoever. The back sleeve isn’t much better, a close-up of his sunglasses-wearing face staring off at…something. I’m not even going to dwell on the fact the records split into two halves, the “So Sweet Side” and “Bitter Sweet Side.”

Hold You Tonight’s actual sound mimics the cover, which is to say it’s very much the type of thing you’d expect to hear from any country in 1984. Opener “Power In Your Loving” struts out of the gates with big synthesized drum hits and swirly electronics borrowed from Hall And Oates, before piling on trumpet blasts, a guitar solo, piano and (seriously) keytar. “Power In Your Loving” comes off as especially aged, holding up about as well as a “Where’s The Beef?” commercial, but the rest of this LP certainly wouldn’t be confused with coming out of any generation. Ueda dips his toes in Club Med beach pop, yachtrock, sad-sack balladry and the genre he seems most fond of, R&B.

So this album seems to be prime laugh-track fodder, right? Though Hold You Tonight definitely sounds strange in 2010, it also features plenty of moments easily connected to artists operating today, plus a handful of legitimately great songs. The majority of side A…the “So Sweet Side”…embraces pina-colada beach pop, and Ueda makes the style work for him. Early one-two punch “Water Mind” and “Sailin’ In My Life” feature a few regrettable moments (check the smooth-jazz guitar solo on the latter) but also capture the easy, breezy charm this semi-genre can pull off when done right. “Two On The Beach” moves at an even more relaxed pace than those two tracks, using guitars and crystal-blue keyboards to create a gorgeous blanket of sound for Ueda to sing over (more on that later) with some liberal drum machine nudging things forward. What’s most striking about these songs is how similar to current trends in music they are – Ueda dabbles in the same seaside party sound a handful of Swedish bands soak in. Though I doubt Studio or Boat Club ever gave Hold You Tonight a spin, what Ueda did here didn’t age too badly.

The “Bitter Sweet Side” isn’t nearly as strong, leaving the soft-rock resort to bask in a little trudging balladry before giving itself over completely to plastic-peppy pop. A few moments stand out – the chorus to “My Baby Kicks Up My Heart” sounds especially lively, though also a little bit like a Sea World commercial. And Ueda’s cover of The Temptation’s “My Girl” works in vaguely reggae-ish vibes alongside a great drum-machine bounce, making it a strong rendition of that famous tune and a late album hurrah.

Masaki Ueda’s strongest musical attribute, at least on Hold You Tonight, is his voice. It’s a deep, somewhat raspy croon that works wonders when matched up against laid back music, which this LP mostly is made up of. His vocals even make the slow songs, tracks that otherwise would have been cut-copy slogs, sound more unique, more his own. It’s his singing that, I believe, probably afforded him a long career capable of withstanding album covers like that. It’s strong, very distinct and (as evidenced solely on this record) versatile, well equipped to deal with yachtrock, R&B and goofy new wave.

One of the few Ueda songs you can hear online further hints at it. “Just Dance The Night,” released a year before Hold You Tonight, would simultaneously fit just fine on that LP but also stand-out completely from the other songs. It’s one part Italo Disco, one part Off The Wall-aping R&B. Yet Ueda pulls it off – the same way he can make beach pop, funk or duets with Indonesian superstars work. Hold You Tonight isn’t an essential Japanese listen, but it’s a great way to see just how Masaki Ueda manages to keep chugging along today while hundreds of others have vanished.