If FPM's debut disc was for the dance club, Luxury provides the soundtrack for the after-party
Fantastic Plastic Machine
Emperor Norton Records
Perhaps the worst thing you can say about Tomoyuki Tanaka--the one-man music machine behind Fantastic Plastic Machine--is that his reputation precedes him. The trippy, bouncy Fantastic Plastic Machine debut album is so infectious, fans can hardly be blamed for wanting more of the same.

I'm guilty of this too. When I first popped the followup disc Luxury into the CD player, I was expecting some more of that groovalicious retro sound. It seemed like I was going to get it, too: the first track, "Theme of Luxury", kicked off at a nice healthy pace, liberally looping a riff from the first CD's "L'aventure fantastique". Then the peppy rhythm came to an abrupt end with a cover of Annie Lennox's "There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)", which was quirky and subdued, though not as compellingly as Fantastic Plastic Machine's "Steppin' Out" cover. This, unfortunately, set the tone for most of Luxury, which seems lackadaisical and uninspired compared to the deft and insanely happy Fantastic Plastic Machine.

Had I put Luxury aside, my opinion would have ended there. But I ended up listening to it a second time, then a third time, then a fourth. In short, Luxury began to grow on me as I abandoned the notion that it should sound anything like Fantastic Plastic Machine.

Some of my initial criticisms are still unchanged. I still don't like "There Must Be An Angel" all that much--purely a matter of taste--and, overall, Luxury just doesn't fit together like Fantastic Plastic Machine. The ebb and flow of mood and tempo from Fantastic Plastic Machine's song arrangement was as much a part of the appeal as the songs themselves. "Mr. Salesman", for instance, glided into "Bachelor Pad" so smoothly they may as well have been the same song. Luxury doesn't have that cohesiveness, and it suffers for it.

Not that the songs themselves are substandard. The Machine still has its gift for goofiness, as "Electric Lady Land" reveals. It's lyrics are silly enough ("I'm your Lady Machine / I'll be all that you need / The automated girl of your dreams"), but the processed voice and wacky music make it a catchy, fluffy favorite. The penchant for multilingual performances is also as strong as ever, with French, German, and Japanese lyrics appearing in three songs.

There's just no common theme to Luxury, though were I to pick the most common thread on the disc, it would be, well, luxury. In fact, if Tanaka had stuck with the languor of "Honolulu, Calcutta" and "Bossa for Jackie (Dedicated to Mrs. Kennedy)", Luxury would have been the perfect complement to Fantastic Plastic Machine, the disc you would listen to as the evening winds down rather than when it's in full swing.

The irony here is that the whole reason I gave Luxury another chance--and thereby learned to appreciate it--was the sheer energy of "You Must Learn All Night Long", a six-minute exercise in body-moving drums, bass, brass and fun. So far as I'm concerned, it's the best track on the disc. It feels a bit out of place on Luxury, but without it I never would have come back, and I would have missed out on some fun music, especially "Electric Lady Land". I also wouldn't have been reminded that change is a good thing. If the next Fantastic Plastic Machine CD sounds completely different from the first two, I won't mind at all.

A Critical Eye exclusive (July 20, 1999)
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