(Photo credit goes to Japan Live, used with permission)
Just as Pizzicato Five and Flipper’s Guitar started out as full bands before being stripped down to duos, Cibo Matto’s short-lived five-member lineup was likewise reduced back to two when the group returned from hiatus, and Original Love went from four members to just one, advantage Lucy started with five players in its band and ended with two. Not that you’d be able to tell from listening to their music – in both live and studio settings, the duo are surrounded by session players that make sure the group’s sound is as rich as it ever was, even as the songwriting team has been more than halved.
What made Fanfare such an unprecedented oddity in the advantage Lucy catalogue was its sheer variety – which is why, before proceeding to what is, thus far, the group’s final album, we’re going to take a look at another Fanfare selection, “so.” Standing in the starkest possible contrast with week two’s breezy bossa nova pick, “so” is at once optimistic and melancholy – the English lyrics finding Aiko pondering the mysteries of life’s duality as she contrasts “Summer ends, seasons speed by me” with “sadness ends, beauty inspires me.” The live version chosen for this feature has a distinct advantage over the comparatively muted studio take, Aiko’s unexpectedly powerful vocals lending much greater weight to the emotional turmoil at the song’s heart. While both the original and the live recordings are fine, the live cut provides a rare glimpse into the powerful live show that has been at the heart of advantage Lucy’s appeal since the very beginning. It also shows wonderfully how the originally so timid Aiko was able to find her voice, actually overpowering the instrumentation in the live version – which is especially shocking in light of how the loud guitars in the studio recording all but drowned her out completely.
Fanfare is, without a doubt, advantage Lucy’s peak as a group. One of only two full albums recorded as a four-piece band, and the more experimental and varied of the two at that, on Fanfare the group proved that they had much more to offer than just “Everytime, Everywhere” (although that song is still their most popular, by an overwhelming margin). The group scaled back activities for a few years after 2000’s full-length Station, leaving Toshiba EMI and releasing material on their own independent label, and guitarist/group founder Takayuki Fukumura passed away from heart disease in 2003. By the time advantage Lucy got back into the studio for another full-length, they had lost yet another member, as drummer Kaname Banba had quit the group, leaving Aiko and Ishizaka as a duo.
That full-length, the last album of originals from advantage Lucy to date, is 2005’s Echo Park – a tidy set of songs in the same quaint indie-pop vein as most of the group’s most-beloved work. Gone are the experiments with tape loops and bossa nova, the musically adventurous spirit the group once possessed represented in its entirety by some light touches of bluegrass throughout. This isn’t to say that Echo Park is a bad album, or a boring one, but it’s very definitely the product of a group that had lost quite a bit in getting to where they were at the time of its recording. Ishizaka’s guitars shine like a summer’s day, Aiko sings sweetly in English and Japanese, and the lineup of studio players backing the duo up do an excellent job – it’s everything one could want from an advantage Lucy album, and could only be considered a disappointment in light of the fact that it isn’t Fanfare. The chosen Echo Park selection, “everything,” finds the group adopting elements from psychedelia in a manner none too dissimilar from Dr. Head’s extended suites like “Dolphin’s Song” and the early work of Original Love, while Aiko faux-naively boasts “from now, I know everything.”
Years after the release of Echo Park, Aiko and Ishizaka continue to occasionally play shows as advantage Lucy, but their days of recording new music have seemingly been put behind them. In 2011 the two announced their family registry on the advantage Lucy blog, and recently Aiko has been spending most of her time with her son (photos of whom the doting mother regularly uploads on her instagram) in between playing occasional gigs as a solo performer or along with Ishizaka and their touring band. It’s uncertain if they will be getting back into the studio again, but even if they don’t, they leave behind a legacy that’s nothing to scoff at. And it’s always better to keep touring with old material than to trot out predictable retreads of their old work; while they may have been in danger of doing that with Echo Park, advantage Lucy’s semi-retirement makes sure they won’t give themselves the chance to tarnish their reputation with anything sub-par. There’s a touch of nobility to that approach, even if it is also a bit defeatist.