Nicolay: Shibuya: City Lights Vol. 2
Foreign Exchange Music

Nicolay's Shibuya: City Lights Vol. 2 exudes the kind of effervescent joy one experiences when visiting an exotic new land for the first time. Specifically, its fifteen tracks collectively convey the excitement the typical Westerner might feel when first exposed to downtown Tokyo in all its night-time metropolitan glory. The idea for the project came about when Nicolay's first visit to the city in November 2006 proved to be life-changing and invigorating. Returning stateside, he laid down basic tracks for not one but three albums, the previously-issued Time:Line and Leave It All Behind recordings as well as the latest, a sequel to Where City Lights Volume 1. Just as the soulful emphasis of The Foreign Exchange's Leave It All Behind differentiated itself from the hip-hop stylings of Time:Line, so too does Shibuya: City Lights Vol. 2 distance itself from the others by embracing an instrumental style that uses current electronic music and production technologies to produce music with strong roots in ‘70s jazz fusion. That bridging of musical eras serves as a metaphor for the commingling of ancient and modern traditions that exists within the city as a whole.

Though the album is largely instrumental in make-up, Durham, North Carolina vocalist Carlitta Durand adds her honey-dipped voice to four tracks, with two strategically placed at the beginning and end. Shibuya: City Lights Vol. 2 plays like a travelogue, with Durand acting as tour guide for the lush opener “Lose Your Way” (“We'll take a walk through the city tonight”) before a visit to “Shibuya Station” sets us off on a dizzying dash through the city. Electric piano and synthesizers add splashes of saturated colour to the song's broken beat soundtrack, after which we make our way through the equally hectic “Crossing.” Subsequent stops include visits to a “Meiji Shrine” and “The Inner Garden” before the “Bullet Train” eventually brings about “Departure” (whose laid-back, quasi-hip-hop swagger could perhaps intimate a return of sorts for Nicolay too).

With its whistle-like theme and tricky, stop-start time signature, “Rain In Ueno Park” could pass for a Pat Metheny composition from the guitarist's own ambitious 1992 opus Secret Story. Interestingly, placing piano at the center of a synthetic arrangement as happens in “The Inner Garden” strengthens the association, as one could easily hear the song as a Lyle Mays spotlight on a Metheny Group album. The standout track “Saturday Night” steps away from the jazz-fusion style for a sexy slice of creamy soul-funk powered by an irresistibly grooving bass pulse and an equally delicious vocal by Durand. Her multi-tracked invitation to “come undone” is seductive all by itself, but the thrusting techno pattern that drives the track home takes the track to a higher level (a shame the onset of “A Ride Under the Neon Moon” ends the track so abruptly).

Whatever references there are to Japan are handled subtly via suggestion and an occasional field recording. In place of crassly-aped traditional sounds, “Meiji Shrine,” for instance, evokes the locale's character via synthetic means, with Nicolay attemtping to capture the spirit of the locale rather than mimic it literally. At album's end, “Shibuya Epilogue” is so bright and carefree it suggests a memory of the trip joyously revisited. At this stage it should be clear that Shibuya: City Lights Vol. 2 turns a blind eye to the city's dark underbelly and instead paints Tokyo as a vibrant, hyperactive paradise—a travel agent's dream, sonically speaking.

November 2009