Review: Cornelius, 'Mellow Waves'
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Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Cornelius makes some of the coolest music in the world, a cosmopolitan bricolage of Japanese pop music that is neither J-pop or Western Top 40 — just a long drag and exhale of plunderphonic neon-psychedelia that sounds like nothing else. In the 1990s, Keigo Oyamada — better known by his stage name Cornelius — came from Tokyo's Shibuya-kei scene, where bands like Pizzicato Five and his old group Flipper's Guitar constructed a glitzy and gleefully refracted version of The Beach Boys and Serge Gainsbourg's lushly orchestrated pop music. When he went solo as Cornelius, albums like Fantasma, Point and Sensuous expanded our consciousness sundae with an impossibly incandescent cherry on top.
While it's been 11 years since the last Cornelius record, Oyamada has stayed busy. He composed soundtracks for the newest Ghost In The Shell movies, played alongside Yoko Ono and Yellow Magic Orchestra, joined the electronic-fusion supergroup Metafive, and bolstered a healthy remix resume (Beastie Boys, Blur, Philip Glass, among many). He likes to have a few overlapping projects going at once, but has thankfully returned to making music under his most beloved moniker.
Mellow Waves finds Cornelius in a meditative mode, simultaneously slowing down to take in Tokyo's incessant flow but still tweaking the fluorescent glow. You can hear it almost immediately on the album's opener, "If You're Here," a slow-jam with tremolo-heavy keyboards, sparse percussion, and a clipped guitar solo that is at once lost and broken and pointed. It's immediately one of Cornelius' most stirring songs partly because, for the first time, Oyamada allows his voice to be the melody instead of an abstract instrument bent to his will. It's also the first time he's introduced other perspectives to Cornelius; the lyrics to "If You're Here" and the twinkling "Dear Future Person" were written by psych-pop musician Shintaro Sakamoto. A distant cousin of Oyamada's — Miki Berenyi from the British noise-pop band Lush — also sings her own English-language lyrics for a woozy lullaby, "The Spell Of A Vanishing Loveliness."
Lest we paint Mellow Waves as one long bummer, its mellow vibes are more like "a continuous line of sound," as Oyamada describes it. That's where we find the breezy Brazilian synth-fusion of "Sometime / Someplace" needling its way into MaxMSP-style guitar skronk, or turning the soft funk of "In A Dream" into a Cocteau Twins fantasy land. "Surfing On Mind Wave Pt. 2" is a buzzing and sun-drenched drone that surfs on Terry Riley's ecstatic waves. The expertly and playfully layered "Mellow Yellow Feel" is a good reminder of just how much influence Cornelius has imparted on the young Japanese math-rock scene (see: Tricot, toe), its guitars chirping like 8-bit protagonists in audio-rich stereo pans over subtle, but inventive percussion.
The album ends with "Crepuscule," a quiet guitar instrumental that slowly weaves in strings and synths, before closing with a tremolo fade-out... perfect for restarting the whole experience. Cornelius makes cool sound effortless, no matter how meticulously it's arranged, and with Mellow Waves, Oyamada allows more of his reflection to stare back.