'Good Luck and Do Your Best': Japan Seen Through Gold Panda's Eyes

The cover of Gold Panda's Good Luck and Do Your BestEXPAND
The cover of Gold Panda's Good Luck and Do Your Best

Electronic music can often seem mechanical or surgical, with samples severed into fragments of their former selves. But British producer Gold Panda uses this slice-and-dice method to create instead a rich palette of sounds, which is at its fullest yet on Good Luck and Do Your Best, his third full-length, released last week. The samples he uses on the record are usually under two seconds long, much shorter than what his contemporaries tend to borrow.

Those seconds add up to a surprising richness and warmth. It comes first in the blissed-out “oohs” in “In My Car” — real human voices layered on top of a hip-hop beat, while rising synth waves give way to a cascade of koto strings. Then there’s the staccato piano melody in “Chiba Nights,” which combine with a chugging bassline to make you want to dance (not usually Gold Panda's first concern). Jazz-trumpet-inflected album closer “Your Good Times Are Just Beginning” is a satisfying send-off to an equally satisfying record.

Gold Panda drew inspiration for this album from two recent trips to Japan. A press release describes the result as being “doused in a Japanese-inspired haze,” and the cover artwork features a Japanese police officer bowing in front of a bamboo-covered wall. The koto from “In My Car” appears throughout, reversing, swelling, and intertwining with glitchy beats. It’s not Gold Panda’s first foray into global sounds; his previous album, 2013’s Half of Where You Live, included songs called “Brazil,” “My Father in Hong Kong 1961,” and “Enoshima,” which sampled strings, chimes, woodblock beats, and recordings of birds.

But Gold Panda’s declaration of himself as a world traveler began even earlier, with his first single, 2009’s “Quitter’s Raga.” His songs have since been called “Oriental-influenced,” “electronically rendered exotica” that “transport you to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto.” Regardless of whether it’s his intention, this consistency of description shows he’s created something that perpetuates the idea of Asia as exotic. As different, separate. This is classic Orientalism — the West defining the East as its opposite, the abnormal to its normal, the foreign to its familiar.

The producer insists that he is a true student of Japanese culture: He learned the language and has lived in Japan, where he sourced many of his samples for Good Luck. That preference for old over new is evident on the gorgeous single “Time Eater,” which begins with an eerie metallic arpeggio sounding like temple chimes. The beat creeps in and little droplets of piano rain erratically over the track. It showcases what Gold Panda does best — simple, infectious hooks that repeat over and over, building layers of sound. He gradually adds texture in the form of percussion, dreamy atmospherics, vinyl crackles, and occasional vocal flourishes.

It’s true that his borrowing is not the outright stealing Western, mostly white artists have done throughout musical history. He’s more like Claude Debussy, whose enthrallment with Indonesian gamelan music — characterized by its repetition and slowly evolving forms — influenced compositions for an entirely different genre. Like Debussy, Gold Panda is reverent of his source material but creates music that bears no resemblance to it. He’s not trying to emulate traditional Japanese sounds; he’s cutting up recordings into snippets, looping them, and creating something new and unrecognizable.

Still, this record is Japan seen through the eyes of Gold Panda, the East as interpreted by a Westerner, and the parallels to other forms of musical appropriation are hard to ignore. But if you choose, if only for 45 minutes, to separate the music from its context, it’s a tremendous pleasure to experience.

Gold Panda plays the Bowery Ballroom on June 1.


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