March 29, 2017

Jansen/Barbieri - Worlds In A Small Room, 1985

Arguably an apotheosis of the long and fruitful 80s Japanese and British musical cross-pollination. Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri were both founding members of Japan, alongside David Sylvian, and the band toured with Masami Tsuchiya of Ippu-Do and Yukihiro Takahashi of YMO. Jansen and Barbieri both contributed to Ippu-Do's Night Mirage, and Tsuchiya went on to release his mini-album Alone the same year as Worlds In A Small Room. At this point it becomes unclear who is influencing whom and in what order, as the opening track of Worlds immediately calls to mind the signature staggered synth swells of Alone. Later in the record, "Moving In Circles" is a direct, if gritty nod to the theme from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, so it's unsurprising that Japan bandmate David Sylvian worked closely with Sakamoto and the two even riffed on the Mr. Lawrence theme together, with Jansen contributing drums, and Seigen Ono mixing. I suspect Ono might have had some indirect influence on Worlds's stark prettiness. Here on the Japanese release of Worlds, "Moving In Circles" gets a bonus reprise, but this time with vocals from Jansen, sounding like a less theatrical Sylvian--a reminder that the two are brothers as well as bandmates. "Mission" sounds for all the world like a murky YMO demo circa BGM (a very good thing). The following year, Jansen and YMO's Takahashi went on to collaborate on the excellent Stay Close. There are probably dozens more inlets of inspiration and collaboration evidenced on this record--this is just scratching the surface. (*closes out of 25 tabs*)

Perhaps more importantly, this is a stunning record that only opens up with increasing generosity upon further listens. "Breaking The Silence" and the later "The Way The Light Falls" are unrepentantly beautiful but without any wasted gestures. There are still surprises, though--a few rays of koto on "Distance Fires," a synthetic organ, a sudden swerve towards pop, towards classical. Sparse, mysterious, and nostalgic, this is a movie score waiting for a movie that's good enough.

As a footnote to all of this, there's a gorgeous collection of Jansen's archival photos on his website, including members of Japan, Sakamoto, Tsuchiya, Yukihiro Takahashi, and many others (notably this one of Sakamoto in the studio during an Akiko Yano recording session.)

March 27, 2017

[Mix for Blowing Up The Workshop] #73

Honored to contribute a mix to Blowing Up The Workshop, which is a very useful archive of mixtapes including many from my own musical and curatorial heroes. I was thinking about escapism, cinematic déjà vu, anime soundtracks, hyper-optimistic fantasy about the experience of tourism, courtyards, commercials, and ruins as I put this together. If you like it, you can download it here. Thanks for listening!

1. Jun Miyake - Good Morning Yamanashi 
2. Giovanni Venosta - Woman In Late 
3. Lena D’Água - Tao 
4. Nuno Canavarro - Untitled 8 
5. Forrest Fang - The Luminous Crowd 
6. Einojuhani Rautavaara - Cantus Arcticus I: Melancholy 
7. Kurban - Masto A Iran 
8. Maria Marquez & Frank Harris - Canto Del Pilon 
9. Iury Lech - Barreras 
10. Marcel Pérès & Ensemble Organum - Offertoire "Diffusa Est Gratia In Labiis Tuis" (comp. Machaut)
11. Masami Tsuchiya - Never Mind 
12. Pale Cocoon - Sora 
13. Connie Francis - Siboney 
14. Kenji Kawai - Nightstalker 
15. Jansen / Barbieri - Breaking The Silence 
16. Hiroko Yakushimaru - Tomeina Churippu

March 23, 2017

[Mix for NTS Radio] Getting Warmer Episode 11

My newest mix for NTS Radio was inspired by spring, melodrama, seasonal affective disorder, women looking at men with suspicion, heartbreak, long hair, and Ennio Morricone. If you like it, you can download an mp3 version here. Thanks for listening!

1. Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Ever New
2. Arthur - Valentine Grey
3. Linda Smith - I So Liked Spring
4. Sammi Smith - Help Me Make It Through The Night
5. Connie Converse - How Sad, How Lovely
6. Connie Francis - Vaya Con Dios
7. Dusty Springfield - The Windmills of Your Mind
8. Shirley Collins - Adieu To Old England
9. Judee Sill - Lady O
10. Barbara Moore - Drifting
11. Claire Hamill - Speedbreaker
12. Renée Fleming - The Trees on the Mountains (comp. Carlisle Floyd)
13. Joyce Heath - I Wouldn't Dream Of It
14. Bessie Griffin & The Gospel Pearls - I Believe
15. Patsy Cline - Sweet Dreams
16. Elena Ledda & Mauro Palmas - Sett'ispadas
17. Hollins & Starr - Cry Baby Cry

March 20, 2017

Toshifumi Hinata - Sarah's Crime, 1985

Guest post by Ian Hinton-Smith

Difficult to put into words. How to describe Sarah's Crime? Smooth, evocative, dreamy, and deeply romantic. Perfect solo listening. Much like Soichiro Suzuki of World Standard on later albums like Canon, I'd dub Toshifumi Hinata a master of thoughtful, gentle composition.

While there's very little information available about his background, it's known that Hinata spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Surrey, South of England. Lazy English Sundays have certainly been captured on "Premonition." You can almost hear his cream tea and plate of buttered scones rattling on the piano as he plays, looking out of a window onto the lawn. "Pavement," with its pastoral field recordings, rain, thunder, and church bells, might also tell of his time in Surrey. Like those two tracks, so the rest of Sarah's Crime has a cinematic quality that evokes a feeling, a place, even a storyline.

"Boardwalk" is a jazzy little moocher: sandy toes, seagulls in the South of France, and a sweet melodica/accordian duet. More than a hint of Pink Floyd's "St. Tropez" but with a winking ballroom grandeur. The remarkable opening title track instantly conjures up a yacht slipping towards the horizon as the credits roll. Swells of violin filling the sails, synth pads rolling in and out like ocean waves, with perfectly prim drum machine drama. Like much of the record, it's unabashedly romantic, but stops just short of saccharine. Tasteful as ever.

"Memories" feels like a take on the Korgis' "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime." Plaintive piano chords, reverb-drenched harmonica, and a touch of Angelo Badalementi mystery transport you to a swaying cornfield. The standout track, however, which is alone worth the price of admission, is "Chaconne." Vaporous whisps of slow curving chords pinned down by a Philip Glass/John Carpenter style repetitive chiming bell loop. Just as you're drifting away on it (I often have this on my sleep playlists), it spikes up a notch, almost into drama, but the heartrate remains relaxed and sleep is only moments away. I adore this track. Four years of hearing it nearly every night and I never tire of it.

Something worth mentioning about this album, and Hinata's style generally, is that his use of melody and phrasing over sublime chord patterns is like having someone reading aloud to you. Chord changes set up a scene while melodies conjure up slow but meaningful narratives. If An Artist Of The Floating World is ever made into a movie, the soundtrack is ready to go.

Finally, I'll leave this review, as Hinata does, on closing track "Pentimento" with a question mark: does a failed romance amount to nothing? Or does the second half, where happy memories appear to come drifting back in passionate swells mean that it was worth it even if it's over? Sit by the window, listen, and try to figure it out. I'm still trying. It's alright not knowing sometimes.


March 17, 2017

[Interview] Phew

Phew has had a decade-spanning, genre-hopping career and has cemented herself as an experimental music icon. She was a member of Aunt Sally, a punk band at the heart of the Kansai No Wave scene, and has collaborated with an incredible list of musical luminaries. Her debut self-titled record from 1981 has been canonized by Japanese record collectors and post punk devotees alike. Still, it’s perhaps now, working with only her collection of analog hardware, that she’s at her most powerful. She has just released Light Sleep, a collection of six tracks culled from three CD-Rs that had previously only been available at her live performances. If you're not yet familiar with her work, it's an ideal place to jump in, and you can buy it here. In conjunction with Blank Forms, Phew will be making her US debut on April 6th at First Unitarian Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Tickets are available here.


You said in a recent interview that you wished you could “sing like dance, and use electronics like singing.” There’s some really beautiful footage online of you playing in Tokyo in 2014, and the whole thing sort of feels like a dance.

Thank you. For me, when I play live I’m definitely concentrating on the physicality of the performance. But I do have to be in control, although there is an element of merging—you treat the machines like an extension of your own body.

You’re committed to using analog gear instead of digital, but it's of course harder to use and less predictable. Do you feel that the unpredictability has turned into a central part of your live performance?

Yes. I performed in Paris last night, for example, and it took about five minutes into my set to be able to match the sound I had been producing in sound check—but you just run with it. It’s definitely harder, but it’s also fun and satisfying to perform that way. To finally get the sound right is like catching a wild horse and making it your own.

How much room do you leave for improvisation and live composition during performances?

I go into it with a big sketch of what I want from a song, and from there it’s like filling in a coloring book. It’s never going to be the same twice, and that’s the fun part. If something’s not working, I’ll do something else.

You’ve also said that you don’t think you’re a singer in the conventional sense, because you don’t aim to communicate a story or incite feeling within the listener. It seems as if you've resisted ideas about what the voice “should” do as a “human instrument.” Still, your voice is really powerful and evocative. Do you feel you use voice as a texture, or even as a machine?

Yes—it’s definitely still an instrument, but the way I treat voice is hugely influenced by how I listened to music when I was a little girl. When I was ten or eleven years old, the Beatles’ Abbey Road came out, so I was listening to a lot of the Beatles without understanding any of the English. I was tasting voice in the same way as I would guitar, with no understanding of lyrical meaning. I’ve used voice that way ever since, texturally.

You’ve said that you hated the 80s in Japan—that everyone was drunk on money, and you didn’t even want to leave the house. It’s interesting because I imagine most people think of the 80s as a musical explosion for Japan, especially given what people were suddenly able to do with synthesizers.

I don’t know. I wasn’t even listening to contemporary music at the time. I was mostly listening to music from the ‘50s. A lot of Elvis Presley.

Right, you even did an Elvis cover. Did your parents listen to Elvis around the house while you were growing up?

No, they were listening to more jazz. Especially my dad. But I hated it—I was totally allergic to jazz.

Interesting! I would have guessed there’s a lot of avant-garde jazz influence in your music.

Maybe subconsciously. I feel better about jazz now, but if there are jazz influences in my music they’re unintentional.

You’ve also mentioned the Sex Pistols being a big influence on you as a teenager.

When the Pistols came out I was roughly the same age as their members. Seeing them live was influential, but it was less about their music specifically than about punk as a movement. UK punk was a huge influence in my desire to have a band, but Aunt Sally was less about making a political statement than embracing the possibilities of punk, musically. The main takeaway from punk, for me, was a lack of leadership, a lack of any “pop star” identity.

Has music ever been a form of protest for you?

In the 80s, it absolutely wasn’t. We were just making music. We never even thought about the fact that having three women in a punk band could be radical. Now, in 2017, it does feel more like a protest. But it’s less about having a specific message, and more about the live performance and considering the experience of the audience. There’s something very small and fragile about that relationship, and that’s the most important and radical aspect of making music for me.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that you've always gotten the best out of all the collaborators you’ve worked with over the years, playing to their strengths while still keeping the music balanced. It always sounds like you, even when you're playing different genres. What do you look for in a collaboration?

I look for someone that changes me, someone that allows me change into something I didn’t expect. That’s the most exciting part. Surprise, flexibility.

A lot of people are referring to Light Sleep as a return to the sounds of your first record. To me the sound feels more intimate and specific—the gestures feel smaller and more detailed, a lot of the beats feel like microbeats. It’s more delicate. Is this kind of intimacy a product of working without collaborators?

Yes. The recordings on Light Sleep were made before my record A New World. The songs are rough sketches, like drawing an object in pencil, which is probably the intimacy and scale that you’re hearing. I also recorded them in my bedroom, so they're meant to be small.

Do you have plans or projects for when you’re done touring?

I want to do a performance in collaboration with a video artist. I’d like it to be somewhere in between a vocal performance piece and an installation, so it would probably be in a gallery or museum setting.


Thank you to Phew, Juri Onuki, Cora Walters, Lawrence Kumpf, and Keiko Yoshida 
for facilitating this interview.

March 13, 2017

[Mix for LYL Radio] The Oddlogs Episode 4

I made a two hour guest mix of long-form instrumentals for Lyon/Paris based online radio station LYL Radio. The Oddlogs is their series of guest sets with different music bloggers from around the world, and their lineup has been excellent thus far so I'm honored to be in such good company. I wanted to take advantage of the long time slot to use lengthier, more meditative tracks that are less synth-heavy and more acoustic-centric, with (almost) no vocals. There's also a lot of excellent natural reverb and room tone in here. In the spirit of the music, I recorded my talkback segments in my bathroom for added reverb, and made my best attempt at ASMR-esque speaking. For what it's worth, I think it makes a solid snow soundtrack. If you like the mix, you can download an mp3 version without my speaking in it here. Enjoy!

1. Joanna Brouk - Winter Chimes
2. Raul Lovisoni - Amon Ra
3. Daniel Lentz - Lascaux
4. Daniel Schmidt & the Berkeley Gamelan - Faint Impressions
5. Daniel Kobialka - Orbital Mystery
6. David Casper -Tantra-La
7. Ernest Hood - From The Bluff (Excerpt)
8. Roberto Mazza - Artigli Arguti
9. Vincenzo Zitello - Nembo Verso Nord
10. Pandit Ram Narayan - Rāga Kirvani
11. Seigén Ono - Suimen-Jo Niwa
12. Joel Andrews - The Violet Flame, Part 2 (Excerpt)
13. Stuart Dempster - Secret Currents

March 8, 2017

Claire Hamill - Voices, 1986

This blog started with the intention of sharing records that more people should hear, and I think that's more the case for this record than any other thus far. It occupies a strange mid-point, both in visibility and in the context of the artist's body of work. It's been reprinted a handful of times, and its Discogs recommendations include acts as disparate and big-league as Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, and Prefab Sprout (begging the question, who exactly is listening to this record?). Claire Hamill debuted on Island Records, opened for Jethro Tull, and made several very big-budget albums. She dabbled in folk, synth pop, and electro before landing on Voices, which has been (somewhat confusingly) labeled as new age. It's perhaps owing to that very difficulty in pinning her down or understanding her body of work that her work itself, with its dazzling high points, seems to have slipped through the cracks. We missed the trees for the forest.

But backing up: after an audition for Island founder Chris Blackwell, Hamill released her debut at seventeen, an impressive folk record that belied her age. It immediately drew comparisons to Joni Mitchell and was advertised in Time Out with the tagline "When most girls are frantically hunting husbands, starting work in Woolworths or learning to type, Claire has finished her first album." (Happy International Women's Day, by the way!) But despite her label's high hopes for megastardom, her records continued to fall flat of large-scale acclaim. After a few more folk-rock efforts on a new label, Hamill ended up on CODA Records, Beggars Banquet's "new age" imprint. She released Touchpaper, an ambitious electro-sophisti-pop record about which there are some great notes here, and then, while living in the English countryside married with a new baby--"a sweet time in my life"--decided to make a record out of just her voice. Entirely self-written, self-produced, and featuring just a bit of synth and drum machine, Voices feels like a pared-down predecessor to Camille's Le Fil. She uses her voice not just as a choir but as strings, as as keyboard, and as texture, all the while staying attentive to inclusions of inhales--they're emphatic, but never oppressive. Songs like "Harvest," which so clearly evokes a chorus of women singing while reaping wheat, manage to worldlessly distill the bucolic ethos of what Aaron Copland need an entire opera to do. Despite repetitive motifs and loops, nothing ever slogs. Everything moves.

What's really shocking about a first listen, though, is how clearly you can hear threads leading directly to and from so many important artists. At the risk of sounding like the token music journalist who compares every female artist to every other female artist, you can explicitly hear the Celtic-tinged multi-tracking that Enya would go on to make a career out of, Kate Bush's emotional fluency, a Cocteau Twins cavernous goth sensibility, Julia Holter's polished baroque, Virginia Astley's loving chronicle of the English countryside. Nothing folky, but totally pastoral. A (mostly) worldless spectrum of feeling. There are jewels to be found throughout Claire Hamill's career, but Voices is her strongest, and perhaps most unsung, stroke of brilliance.

A note that while I always encourage you to buy records you love whenever possible, Claire has been personally funding her continued independent music-making, so if you love this as much as I do, please consider buying it!

March 7, 2017

Kenji Kawai - Ghost In The Shell, 1995

A few days ago, poor Steve Aoki revealed his remix of the iconic 攻殻機動隊 (Ghost in the Shell) theme for the forthcoming remake. The remix is the EDM equivalent of trying to embroider lace with a power drill, and incensed anime fans have flooded the comments with rage (as well as with links to the also-iconic theme from the Stand Alone Complex series). Rather than adding further insult to injury, I wanted to share the original soundtrack, as it's one of the best anime soundtracks (and arguably one of the best soundtracks, period).

To make the aforementioned theme, scoring giant Kenji Kawai combined Bulgarian choral harmonies and traditional Japanese vocal techniques into a wedding song with lyrics in the ancient Japanese language Yamato Kotaba. The theme is repeated in three different variations, all of which should give you goosebumps. The rest of the soundtrack is gorgeous, murky atmospherics: submerged keyboards, sparse taiko, synthetic strings, ominous clanging, a lone (Spanish?) guitar. If you haven't seen the movie, song titles like "Nightstalker" and "Floating Museum" should be able to paint a sufficient picture. The real curveball is the closer, sometimes listed as a bonus track, which is a bubblegum pop sung in Cantonese. Many reviewers complain about the inclusion of the jarring closer, but I think a slightly psychotic ending makes sense in the context of a movie about fragmented personhood in a cyberpunk dystopia. Bonus round: here's a very beautiful live performance of the theme.

March 3, 2017

Don Cherry & Latif Khan - Music/Sangam, 1978

Another Don Cherry collision with terrific results. Originally recorded in Paris in 1978, this only had a 1000-copy run in France and, despite being considered one of Cherry's strongest works by die-hard fans, was mostly forgotten until its reissue in 2009. I think this is one of the earlier works of Indo-jazz fusion ever, and it's arguably one of the more successful--while Cherry had a propensity towards cultural dabbling, he avoided many of the pitfalls of "world music" aesthetic through his commitment to musicianship, collaboration, and sensitivity. Also, he sings a bit!

Ustad Ahmed Latif Khan was a tabla virtuoso, avid composer, and member of the Delhi Gharana. He also had perfect pitch and used it to great advantage, tuning his daya (right drum of the tabla) to the same pitch as his baya (left drum of the tabla)--typically the baya is between a fifth and an octave below the daya, but Khan's tuning allowed for an unusually deep, full tone of the bass notes. He stood out both for this tonal precision and because of his taste for irregular and extremely syncopated rhythms. From the liner notes:
“Sangam” means “meeting place” in Sanskrit. Don obviously knew exactly what he wanted to do, and Latif immediately understood, his fingers fizzing across the tablas at frightening speed, his perfect pitch making him the obvious person to tune the disparate instruments in Don’s armoury to those in the studio, which included a grand piano, a B3 Hammond organ and chromatic timpani.
 It was Don who suggested that Latif overdub new tabla parts to enrich and add complexity to the first takes. We could reasonably have expected to spend the night doing this because this was the first time the percussionist had done this. It took him all of five minutes to get used to listening to the first tracks over the headphones before playing them without the slightest mistake. When we got to the timpani, which he was playing for the first time, his keen sense of pitch and tone once again did miracles. During one take, just for the fun of it Latif started to play a fairly slow, disconnected duple time, moving on to three and then four… all the way up to 19 by which time his fingers were whizzing invisibly across the skins, leaving us in awe and him looking as if he didn’t know what the fuss was all about. All this just made Don even keener to impress his musical companion for a day… and so he did, with great ease and a complicity created by their shared love of music.
Of course, the subtleties of this album call for greater analysis, for example the meeting between the Malian doussou n’gouni and Indian tablas, the Hammond organ taking over from the tampura, 5 1/4 time as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the reinvented Indonesian gamelan… and the lyricism of the (pocket!) cornet.

March 1, 2017

Seigén Ono - Seigén, 1984

Ouch, so beautiful. Seigén Ono's debut album was released when he was 26 years old, though he had already worked with David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and went on to become one of Japan's most sought-after producers and engineers. I feel as if this record has been steadily opening up for me over the past year, finally cracking wide during (surprise surprise) a headphones listen. It might feel a bit austere at first, and there are definitely a few explicit nods to western minimalism, but it's deceptively generous, even lush. Incisive modern classical, a few bits of very Japanese smooth jazz, and an avant-garde sensibility. Featuring some songwriting from Yasuaki Shimizu and a slew of razor-sharp session musicians. An incredible network of moody textures, all perfectly atmospheric. Part of the perennial favorite Music Interior series, the entirety of which will probably be posted here eventually, realistically. The liner notes call this "a perfect production of beauty," and the statement doesn't even feel hyperbolic.

Note that this includes two additional tracks but not the two bonus tracks from the recent reissue, which doesn't seem to be readily available for sale anymore, though they're well worth it if you find a copy.