Donovan Hikaru & 猫 シ Corp. – CRS 3.0

Midnight Moon Tapes, 2017

If Consumer Recreation Services rings a bell in your pop-culture mind, there’s a reason. CRS is the shadowy group that pushes Michael Douglas to the edge in David Fincher’s surreal 1997 film The Game. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Donovan Hikaru, that quirky reclusive master of the global financial market, has used CRS as the inspiration for three albums.

Hikaru’s two previous CRS releases, 1.0 and 2.0, the second of which was released with a cassette hidden somewhere in San Francisco, containing exclusive tracks for the fan savvy enough to track it down. That’s certainly something Fincher’s company would approve of. The first two albums featured a different direction for Donovan Hikaru, with waves of pensive ambiance replacing the bouncy pop-inspired exuberance of DH albums such as Business Travel Bonanza!.

For CRS 3.0, the structure has seen some changes, the obvious one being that the album is now a split release with 猫 シ Corp., the versatile ambient artist responsible for the mallsoft classic Palm Mall as well as synthwave and broken transmission released under a variety of monikers. Hikaru’s tracks are up first, chock full of an eclectic mix of sax-based lounge and synthwave. The feel is, again, different from his business-based work, but there’s a definite procession from the recent mallsoft EP Kiosk Vibes. His eight tracks display an impressive amount of variety – this is arguably the most experimental DH records to date – and the final track, “They Own the Whole Building…”, veers close to the shadowed corners of dark ambient, making one wonder what Donovan could do in the genre if he devoted more of his impressive international resources in such a direction.

猫 シ Corp. has always shown such versatility, and his contributions are no different. His half of CRS 3.0 is slightly heavier and more ambient, but still has the 80s-synth-and-sax styling of side projects such as the Izusu Piazza-idolizing いすゞ・ピアッツァ ENTERPRISES. Owing to the intensity and urban-noir plot of The Game, the tone skews toward the buried tension that wracks Nicholas Van Orton. “Empty Floor” is particularly noteworthy, with its sparse percussion and mysterious chimes, and “Like My Father Before Me” is dominated by an ominous looped bass synth. It’s heavy stuff, but considering the subject matter of Fincher’s film, it makes a good deal of sense. “Left for Dead” is even more desolate, treading dark ambient waters in a surprising turn; Mexican samples echo in the background, reflecting Van Orton’s confusion upon finding himself transported south of the border. Once the bounce of “Golf Clubs” and the piano-lounge of “Happy Birthday, Nicky” kick in, however, the mood has shifted yet again, back to L.A. chic.

Split releases often run the risk of sounding, well, uneven, and CRS 3.0 is somewhat guilty of this, especially when compared to the consistent conceptual execution of the previous two albums in the series. However, like the film that inspired it, the album runs an impressive gauntlet of emotion, reflected in the deftly conceived and executed range of styles. What CRS 3.0 might lack in consistency, it more than makes up for with hefty doses of creativity and experimentation.

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Donovan Hikaru – Kiosk Vibes

bandcamp, 2016

Donovan Hikaru, arguably the most ambitious executive of the corporate-wave genre, has set his sights on a new prize: the shopping mall. At first, this might seem like an odd choice, until one remembers the lucrative possibilities of the retail industry; ah yes, the profit-minded Donovan will fit right in. Conceptual pondering aside, what makes David Jackman’s music so gratifying is how easily and creatively it fits into its target concept: a soundtrack to his alter ego’s global business ventures. Mallsoft functions in much the same way, aiming to provide an ambient backdrop to the shopping experience. Whether focused on field recordings taken from real-life malls or on the “muzak” that often drifts through those cavernous monuments to commerce (or both), mallsoft is a curious, intentionally non-intrusive style of ambient.

While Kiosk Vibes, the first mallsoft foray from Donovan Hikaru, follows some of the sub-genre’s established rules, it’s first and foremost a DH record. The five tracks (with a sixth available on a very limited CD-R, along with a background story showing that the music is indeed a soundtrack) have an intentionally muffled sound, making the music sound like it’s being heard from a distance. This technique is a defining characteristic of the mallsoft style – it’s background music after all – and it’s a highly effective one, creating an accurate audio illusion of vast grand spaces.

Like usual, however, there’s more to Donovan Hikaru than meets the ear. Beneath the expected muted layering of Kiosk Vibes courses the same unexpected and exuberant lifeblood of past DH albums, manifested as melodic energy and groovy hooks. There’s also not a single drop of the marketing cynicism or mindless consumerism that defines many mallsoft records; Kiosk Vibes is about exploring the wonders of one’s surroundings rather than making an economical statement.

As with most Donovan Hikaru releases, there’s practically zero sampled ambiance. The music is the focus, rather than a collage of assembled samples. The buried sound palette might catch DH fans off-guard at first, but the effect is smoothly implemented, and one’s ears quickly adjust. Beneath the thick hazy synths, the romantic vibe of “Nighttime Promenade” and the wavering “Concierge” include the classy saxophone melodies that have always a vital part of Donovan’s musical DNA.

The middle three tracks, however, are pure synth, and show Kiosk Vibes at its most experimental. “Mint Chocolate Chip” features the same kind of irresistible keyboard hook that Donovan has always specialized in; the jangling off-key stab that bursts forth as the track winds down is exactly the kind of left-of-center detail that sets Jackman’s work apart from his peers. It also enhances the track’s carnival-like feel; anyone who’s been to an ice-cream parlor will undoubtedly take note of the perfect nostalgia of this track. The heavily reverbed drums, floating melody, and light synth taps of “Macys Run” are delightfully retro, while remaining perfectly suited to the mallsoft vibe. “Lost in the Galleria” portrays the joy of losing one’s way in a brightly lit commercial paradise. Rather than a panicked or stressful feel, the beatless wandering keys are drenched in comforting whimsy; this Galleria is a safe haven for the aimless. While there aren’t many tracks in the Donovan discography that are free from beats, they’re all superb, and “Lost in the Galleria” is no exception.

Kiosk Vibes is a departure for Donovan Hikaru, but it’s a skillfully subtle one. There’s no celebratory buffet or San Tablos sunset here, but the music – and equally important, the conceptual aesthetic – retains the same playfully experimental vibe that has defined Donovan Hikaru since his first appearance. Jackman is a talented musical sandboxer, happily toying with genre convention while indulging his catchy songwriting verve, and this release shows there’s more to DH than the corporate boardroom and huge expense accounts. If Donovan Hikaru is indeed turning his attention to new financial vistas to conquer, Kiosk Vibes is strong evidence that his off-kilter quirk will remain as engaging as ever.

Donovan Hikaru – Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe!

Adhesive Sounds (AS064), 2016

If you’d told me a year ago that an album of chill-out corporate jazz would be one of my favorite records of 2016, I’d likely have thought you were out of your gourd. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe! from Donovan Hikaru is exactly that. You never know how things may turn out, do you?

Donovan Hikaru is no stranger to the eclectic offshoot of vaporwave that finds its identity in the music of business. This album is a re-release of 2015’s Business Travel Bonanza, now bundled by the superlative label Adhesive Sounds with an all-new EP, It’s My Company….I Can Fly If I Want To. Yes, Donovan Hikaru, whose actual name is David Jackman, has his corporate tongue firmly in his virtual cheek. Rather than a work of field recording sourced from the business world, a la the vaporwave subgenre known as mallsoft, Jackman’s work is free of samples, all intended to convey the dizzying world of big business, corporate mergers, and deals discussed over a nice lunch spread. It’s approached in from the perspective of financial success and mutual benefit, rather than one of aggressive takeover. Donovan Hikaru has worn a variety of suits in this vein, such as in the tense ambiance of his two CRS releases, inspired by the shadowy corporation at the center of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. He’s even held a contest where a single limited edition CRS cassette was the prize in a real-world scavenger hunt.

On Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe!, however, the mood is certainly lighter. Following such releases as Corporate Parasailing and Free Market Foreplay, the music is an immediately appealing fusion of downtempo, retro-synth, and electro-tinged jazz. On this release, there’s a tropical feel, for our successful executive is wheeling and dealing in the global market – specifically the tropics. And if there’s some playtime to be had, well, it’s all part of a well-rounded business trip. As you might expect, there’s a fictional corporation here (Trust LLC) as well as an invented island paradise (San Tablos) where promising clients are buttered up, all of which gives Donovan Hikaru a sense of identity – constructed as it may be – beyond the anonymity of many vaporwave artists.

The music moves from the upbeat tropical percussion and saxophone of “Caribbean CEO Package,” which soon shows itself to be the music playing at the airport as our executive arrives, to the electro-bounce retro anthem of “Business Brunch on the Pier.” Jackman quickly proves himself to be a master of pop-style intertwining melody, with short stick-in-your-head sequences of notes that perfectly convey the lure of the open market (and of expensive and leisurely meals). Things wind down with “Hotel Lobby – Afternoon Nap”, with its relaxing piano, light rhythms, and distant sax before the exultant energy of “Celebrating the Merger With Lobster and Steak at Reynaldo’s by the Pier.” The album’s a great listen strictly on its own merits, but the addition of the creatively playful track titles and corporate-handshake concept lofts the album over the top into something irresistible, launching the fun factor into the bright blue and cloudless stratosphere.

There’s more to Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe! than catchy synth riffs and a perfectly honed concept, however. The speak-and-spell-voiced business-channel commentary of “Buying Out the Industry” is ridiculously clever – here’s where the field recording and real-life commercial aspects of vaporwave are turned on their head – while “Rainbow Over San Tablos,” “Into the San Tablos Abyss,” and “Mountain Dreams” prove Jackman is also talented at evocative and beautiful ambiance via synth, horn, and string. Then you’ve got the slight edginess and intrigue of “1 Industrial Park Road” and the lengthy Middle Eastern flavor of “Marrakech Real Estate” to add diversity to what is already a slick package of well-produced tunes. Despite the different feel, tracks such as these fit smoothly into the fast-paced money-driven world of Donovan Hikaru without a hitch.

On paper, an album like Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe! might seem to favor style over substance, but Jackman’s too smart for that. He’s not just a talented producer, but a recording artist who takes risks while not taking himself or his work too seriously. I think that’s where the real appeal of Donovan Hikaru lies – the freedom to experiment while not losing sight of having fun. Do that with a good amount of savvy, and success will soon follow. Isn’t that what a free market is all about?