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Mining Gold From The Music Stream: Minako Yoshida - Monochrome

Aaron M. Olson, Messenger Clerk, Silver Lake Branch Library,
Minako Yoshida on her album, Monochrome
Minako Yoshida on her album, Monochrome

Minako Yoshida is a prolific Japanese singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who has released over 20 albums since her 1973 debut, Tobira No Fuyu. Unfortunately, though, Yoshida remains somewhat overlooked and underappreciated abroad in the United States and elsewhere outside of Japan despite her wide breadth of work. Starting with the aforementioned debut album, produced by bassist-singer-producer Haruomi Hosono (from the legendary Yellow Magic Orchestra), Minako Yoshida kicked off her career with Laurel Canyon-inspired folk-rock centered around her strong-yet-soothing vocals, reminiscent of the works of Laura Nyro or Carole King, albeit sung in Japanese.

With 6 albums under her belt as a singer-songwriter, for the first time and to great artistic success, Yoshida stepped into the role of producer on her 1980 album Monochrome. Monochrome is led by Yoshida’s familiar voice and piano, but is surrounded and driven by an extremely tight rhythm section of bass, guitar, and drums that bounces and punches along providing the perfect support for the material. Beyond the rhythm section, the instrumentation remains fairly stripped down and sparse but is no less captivating for it, economically incorporating moments of dreamy vibraphone, distant synthesizer, and intricate and artfully layered multi-tracked vocals from Yoshida. The styles and moods of Monochrome are quite varied, the music shifting between smooth soul, contemplative piano ballads, and funky disco, sometimes even in the course of a single song—such as “Sunset” which starts as a tender gospel-inspired lament, but by the end has broken into a driving disco rave-up.

The album title, “Monochrome,” and accompanying cover image—a black & white photo of Yoshida, cross-legged in shiny high-heeled boots sitting in a seemingly empty white room, semi obscured by a shadow— do aptly fit and describe some important attributes of this album, in spite of the above-mentioned stylistic shifts. Reflecting the striking cover image, the music presents something glamorous and shimmering (as exemplified in Yoshida’s shining stylish boots), subtle and classy (like the use of black & white), and slightly mysterious or obscured (like the shadow that covers most of Yoshida on the cover). Like the title suggests, there is a uniformity in the production and sound that runs throughout the album’s course; no matter the variance in genre or instrumentation, this group of songs connect and flow like they belong together in one statement, played in one space by one group of musicians connecting on some deeper musical level. This is no doubt due to the efforts of Yoshida working as the producer, executing her own grand, unified vision. The album is in fact “monochrome” in a sense, but as Yoshida shows us there is plenty of room for variation and excitement within those confines.

Some album highlights include the incredibly catchy and funky disco jam, “Black Moon,” which could get any dance floor up and running; the album opener, “Tornado,” with its crunchy synthesizers, dream-like vibraphones and vocals, and slightly slower-than-average tempo and feel that is executed so tastefully that it never quite drags but gets close, creating a sticky-sweet groove like a fly walking across honey; and “Rainy Day,” the beautifully lethargic and hypnotic slow jam written by Yoshida’s musical cohort Tatsuro Yamashita, a legend of the “city pop” genre and star in his own right. Though Monochrome lands in the middle of her prolific career, it introduced the world to Minako Yoshida as a top-notch producer for the first time and actually serves as a great introduction to the artist for the uninitiated.

Monochrome and other albums by Minako Yoshida are streaming on Freegal.

Book cover for Monochrome
Yoshida, Minako