"Oil on Canvas" is Japan's farewell letter-- usually referred to as a live album, it's really a "mostly" live album, eleven of the fifteen cuts are live, with four studio recordings-- three new instrumentals and a re-recording of "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" standout "Nightporter".
The live material finds the leaner Japan of their last album (David Sylvian- vocals, keyboards, Mick Karn- bass, clarinet, alto saxophone, vocals, Steve Jansen- drums, marimba and Richard Barbieri- keyboards) augmented by guitarist Masami Tsuchiya. Tsuchiya proves brilliant, providing the band with the sort of ambient-with-an-attitude (to steal David Torn's term) edge that they needed.
As a rule, I found the material on the live record far exceeds that of the studio recordings-- probably the best example of this is "Ghosts", where Tsuchiya provides suitable atmosphere, providing the piece with an even more haunted air and Karn provides a moody sax to interplay with the piece. And certainly to hear just how powerful the band has become, check the first live piece, "Sons of Pioneers". Karn's bass positively throbs as he inserts agile fills around the main line and is supported gently by Jansen's simple and perfect tribal line. Barbieri and Tsuchiya maintain mood and ambience and Sylvian, whose voice has acquired more depth since the studio recording, sounds positively despondant.
The studio recordings are of mixed value with each disc being bookended by studio recordings. The three instrumentals are nice and pleasant enough, and provide good entry and exit into the record, but don't really stand too well on their own. The rerecording of "Nightporter" I'm rather mixed on. I find both Sylvian's vocal and the lovely clarinet solo from Karn to be superb and a definite improvement (the former is particularly surprising as I rather enjoyed Sylvian's vocal on the original.
The remaster packages the album in a digipack with all artwork reduced curiously to black and white and nice portraits of each band member on a full panel. The remastering has lifted the quality out of the gutter that the previous American CD transfer had. People have complained in the past about the sound, but I find it a drastic improvement, crisp and clean and sounding like it was recording yesterday, not in the early '80s. I can't speak to copy protection, I picked up the UK copies (which came out substantially in advance). I have mixed feelings about the decision to split the record onto two discs-- the album stretches about 72 minutes and could easily keep on one disc, but the original studio bookends around live tracks would then be violated and whatnot, so it's sort of integrity of original release vs. saving a few bucks. I could go either way, I'm certainly happy to have it this way. It should be noted that all the material on this record is pulled from the last two records-- it's a pity, as live recordings are circulating with additional pieces from "Quiet Life" (the title track, "Alien" and "Fall in Love With Me") as well as "European Son" and "Life in Tokyo" that could have been easily squeezed on here.
Either way, this is a fine live record, well worth the investment for fans, and as good an introduction to Japan's later material as anything else. Highly recommended.