For two decades Shintaro Sakamoto was the leader of Yura Yura Teikoku, pioneers in Japanese psych-pop and a continuous source of innovation in Japan’s music scene. Despite their impressive discography, their impact remains relatively unknown outside of Japan; it took the trio 16 years to play a show outside of Japan, yet reputable labels took notice once their material reached international shores, including Sony and James Murphy’s DFA. For three creative minds that embrace creativity and change, it’s no surprise the members wanted to eventually branch out. They amicably disbanded in 2010 after ten illustrious albums, vowing to churn out their own material in the near future. Sakamoto’s role as the group’s frontman casts the brightest spotlight on him at this stage. With his debut solo album, he takes full advantage of it. How to Live With a Phantom is a resounding success that will serve as a solid introduction for new fans, many of them overseas. And for longtime fans, it’s more of what they’ve always loved.
With his bushy mop hair and nonchalant body language, Sakamoto’s role as an eclectic multi-instrumentalist may come as a bit of a surprise. He bears more of a resemblance to the hardcore noise-rockers that Japan has plentifully produced, but on a purely superficial level. His songs are a lot more organized than his hair. How to Live With a Phantom is so meticulously constructed, and rooted in a variety of eclectic styles – from psych-pop to Latin and jazz – that it’s hard to imagine he did it all himself. Every instrument on the album was performed by Sakamoto, excluding percussion and woodwinds. But virtuosity means little if the songs are absent of feeling and memorable moments. You don’t have to tell Sakamoto that though; How to Live With a Phantom is exciting from start to finish, despite its cool and easy-breezy flow. Credit Sakamoto’s ingeniously subtle songwriting twists, and some not-so-subtle flashes of brilliance – like the late-night sax solo on “You Just Decided” (which plays smitten with fans of Destroyer’s Kaputt), or the stabs of psychedelic organs on the bouncy “A Gleam of Hope”, which emits optimism (as the title suggests) with quick guitar licks and a cheerfully suave delivery. The stabs of organs are previously introduced on the swanky “My Memories Fade”, which is perhaps Sakamoto’s best vocal performance on the track as he alternates swiftly between hazy verses and a somber yet rushed chorus, which benefits from a twangy guitar accompaniment.
Although Sakamoto is responsible for almost every sound on How to Live With a Phantom, additional musicianship shines strongly in their understated moments. Backing vocals throughout the album are of the female variety, welcoming in its reflective melodic cooing and a far cry from intrusive. The percussion is lush and complementary; it plays the surf-pop card with minimal obtrusion on a gentler effort like “In a Phantom Mood”, and generally sticks to an amiable vein of Latin pop throughout. The tropical tug of “In a Phantom Mood” has a delivery reminiscent of Os Mutantes, whose masterful blending of psych-rock and Latin styles of music make them a usual influence for artists like Sakamoto. And just like how Os Mutantes were fond of employing Rita Lee’s caressing and angelic (and occasionally ferocious) vocals over their swirling compositions, Sakamoto enlists the aid of a highly effective backing vocalist, whose presence is felt on nearly every track. She usually says nothing of importance, often simply humming a melody or repeating Sakamoto verbatim, but the melodic addition is essential in breathing life into the tracks.
Sakamoto learned to play electric bass for the album, so it’s large role on several songs comes as bit of a surprise. “How to Live With a Phantom” works off minimal percussion with dragged-out snares, allowing a tranquil bass line to serve as the primary accompaniment to Sakamoto’s elongated vocals. And even on a more instrumentally expansive effort, like the woodwind-accompanied lazy-day gem “Something’s Different”, its dopey movement is a charming aspect that responds to the drums’ minimal presence by dragging out notes at the end of each verse. It’s a clever tactic, and one that works exceedingly well here.
Sakamoto began recording the album directly after Yura Yura Teikoku disbanded, holing himself up in his home studio for a year. Knowing his ambition and flat-out love for music, the number of b-sides and demos from these sessions may have reached triple digits. How to Live With a Phantom is the culmination of decades of experience, in a band as good as any psych-rockers in the world. As far as their lack of recognition goes, they simply valued music above recognition and stardom. Worldwide exposure wasn’t at the forefront of their minds. Sakamoto continues that sentiment here, not only in his understated audible demeanor, but in his infusion of styles from all over the world. This is a gem of an album that will not only open listeners’ minds to quality artists overseas, but introduce them to a chilled-out fusion of styles past and present that normally aren’t executed as well today. Shintaro Sakamoto one of those singular talents that shouldn’t be missed.
Top Cuts: “In a Phantom Mood”, “You Just Decided”, “My Memories Fade”, “A Gleam of Hope”