Ichiko Hashimoto – Mood Music, 1987

Odd that this is my first Ichiko Hashimoto post, given how much I admire her work–though her catalogue covers so much ground that it’s hard to know quite where to start. A trained jazz pianist, composer, and singer, Hashimoto was one half of Colored Music (friendly reminder that this record is so great), made a slew of ambitious solo records, performed with YMO, collaborated with Belladonna of Sadness composer Masahiko Sato, and scored an anime series, all while establishing herself as an powerful and singular composer, arranger, and producer. Though she’s worked across many genres, she’s maintained a signature proclivity towards gently sinister and avant-garde arrangements, and lugubriouis, pillowy vocals (her love of chanson-style singing pops up all over her discography, not just here).

Mood Music might not be her most canonical record, but it’s a personal favorite and has been on repeat recently. Comprised mostly of jazz standards, the record cribs heavily from bossa nova, samba, and exotica, but Hashimoto quietly subverts these textures into something darker, and at times, less familiar. Her quavering, syrupy-swoony orchestration suggests a Scott Walker-esque approach to sentimentality, particularly on thick and headier arrangements like “Poinciana” and “Night and Day.” The record’s two original compositions, “Flower” and “Île De Étrange,” are its most interesting, with the former a white-knuckled, percussionless tower of taut-string urgency, and the latter a hypnagogic, dubby piece of acid jazz. Mood music indeed.

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Piero Milesi – The Nuclear Observatory Of Mr. Nanof, 1986

Guest post by Adam

I found this lurking at the back of a box of records in a charity shop in a nondescript part of north London. I’d never heard of Piero Milesi, but was drawn to both the title and the image on the sleeve, which turns out to be a still from the film to which this is a soundtrack. It depicts an enormous engraving outside a Volterra psychiatric hospital by patient Oreste Fernando Nannetti, who referred to himself as Nanof-11, an “Astronautic Mineral Engineer of the Mental System.” While I’m keen to track down the movie (which doesn’t even have an IMDB page!), in the meantime I make do with the music, which is characterized by lush synthesized themes interspersed with moments of meditative calm. Personal favourites are “The Presence of the City” and “Mr. Nanof’s Tango” (which really begins to soar about half way through, so stay with it). Originally an architect, Piero Milesi created musical installations as well as soundtracks, so you can see why the story of a vast stone book recounting life in a psychiatric institution appealed. Earth to Nanof-11, are you out there; can you hear us?

Scott Walker – Scott 4, 1969

Very deep love for this record, and a very big crush on Scott Walker (no, not that Scott Walker). Walker’s career has been wholly singular, and it’s impossible to accurately describe him, his work, or the thematic ties between such seemingly disparate records–the only way to make sense of it is to listen to it. Walker started out in an LA-based pop trio called the Walker Brothers, though confusingly Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel, another member of the group was named John Maus (no, not that John Maus), and all three used Walker as their stage names—though for Scott, it bore out over a long and strange career. The group attained enough chart success in the UK that they were briefly considered a sort of inverse Beatles export, with screaming mobs of fans and a Tiger Beat cover to prove it.

As their brief window of fame closed, Scott Walker had embarked on a series of solo records, all called Scott, and all vessels for dark, heavily orchestrated and meticulously arranged pop. Though the music felt traditional and baroque enough to be almost regressive—this was the 60s, after all—the subject matter of the songs was dark and heavily referential. Walker wrote about Joseph Stalin, venereal disease, poverty, addiction, child abuse, and Bergman movies, and he sung the songs in a theatrical, almost Sinatra-esque baritone that belied their subject matter. The joke was always on us: Walker was able to pass off drippingly sentimental delivery as sincerity while barely masking his biting cynicism. His music appealed to the elderly, to the suburban, to those who wanted to cling to tradition as the world and its sounds were being lit on fire. Walker was the Carpenters’ evil twin, with a similarly surgical approach to arrangement and production, and the Bacharach pedigree to back it up. Bowie was a huge fan. I imagine that Van Dyke Parks, sharing a penchant for thematic exploitation of traditional orchestration, was also a fan. Leonard Cohen too.

But for Walker, the real god was Jacques Brel, Belgian master of theatrical showmanship and literary lyricism, and arbiter of chanson as the world knew it. Brel paved the way for Walker’s Trojan horse smuggling of a tortured psyche under a palatable, market-friendly facade. Walker covered Brel nine times on the first three Scott records, with 4 serving as his first entirely self-written release, and it was arguably the best and strangest of his 60s releases. Despite the weight of Walker’s persona bearing down on it, 4 attains glimpses of very direct beauty—the weightless “Boy Child” comes to mind—and it readily winks at Morricone’s spaghetti Americana. Yet when 4 failed to chart, unlike all his prior releases, Walker asked his label to delete it from their catalog, tried to swing more commercial, failed, and churned out a slew of half-hearted records just to get out of contract. He then all but disappeared for twenty years, reemerging in 1995 with the left-field Tilt as challenging and abstract proof that he had finally allowed his inner demons to break from the confines of polite genre. 2006’s even more mutinous The Drift was my introductions to Walker when I was 16—at the time, it was the most explicitly avant-garde record I had ever heard—so I can’t listen to Scott 4 without hearing the early inklings of sonic assault, and I love it.

Mkwaju Ensemble – Mkwaju, 1981

This group of Japanese percussionists, led by Midori Takada and Yoji Sadanari, only released two albums, both in 1981. They’re joined on their first release by Joe Hisaishi (more from him soon), who’s credited as keyboardist and producer, as well as Hideki Matsutake (of Logic System, though he’s often referred to as the “fourth member” of YMO) as computer programmer. With such forward-thinking musicians, Mkwaju (the Swahili word for tamarind) takes you for quite a ride. African rhythms and instrumentation combine with synth sounds in a repetitive but ever-evolving flurry stopping just short of cacophony. More information here; listen to the expansive proto-house “Tira-Rin” below. 

Tangerine Dream – Zeit, 1972

Guest Post by Joel Ebner
In over twenty years of record collecting, there are only a few albums I’ve bought, sold, then repurchased at a later date. Of those albums, Zeit is the only album I bought twice because I’d had a complete change of heart about the music. As a teenager, the promise of Zeit (translated simply as “Time”) seemed on paper to be a godsend. Its associations with German kosmische favorites Faust and Neu! and its lineage of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II and Oval’s Systemisch sent me on a mission to track down a copy. Only thing was, I found myself completely unsatisfied with the record once I’d heard it.
Saw-toothed synth patches, 8-bit samplers, and reverb-drenched guitars made sense to my 18-year-old brain. but cellos? The opening moments of the album, “Birth of Liquid Plejades”—conjured from dramatic, legato strings—were too classical, too 20th century for me to find a link to the techno-futurist ambient artists of Warp and Thrill Jockey. And I certainly wasn’t given much latitude by the record’s length: well over an hour of long-form, rhythmless space is a lot to ask of even the most patient and adventurous listener, and after about 20 minutes I simply couldn’t make my way through composition in its entirety. For years, Zeit sat on the shelf until my senior year of college, when I sold it in a big stack of records.
I think I found a used copy of Phaedra 7 or 8 years later, giving me cause to ask whether my initial assessment of Zeit had been hasty. Upon second consideration, I was astounded. Had I changed, or had the record? Had the earth shifted under my feet? Today, in those cellos of “Plejades,” I now hear tragedy, and surprise, and sadness. Subsequent album tracks which I’d once glossed over—perhaps due to their increasing atonality—unfold slowly, a nascent universe, patient yet hostile. I look at that stark record cover—is it an eclipse? a black hole?—and I see the infinite promise of the world swallowed by the inevitability of death. It’s all there: the origin and the collapse, in one amazing record.
I spent this last weekend listening to Zeit after reading about Edgar Froese’s passing, and have found it difficult not to hear a funeral dirge, a tacit acknowledgement by Froese some forty odd years before the fact that he will be gone someday, that we’ll all be gone someday, that all the planets and the stars and space and music and possibility, it’ll all be gone. But I’m still here. And though I’m not sure that it was impossible for me to recognize and relate to the themes contained in Zeit as younger man, I certainly understand them better now. It only took me a little time to figure it out.

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