Tag Archives: Jim O’Rourke

Top 25 Releases of 2018: No. 10 – 6

qujaku - qujaku

Vinyl, So I Buried, 2018

No.10 – Qujaku – Qujaku
Leading lights of Japan’s current wave of noise-rock, Hamamatsu-based Qujaku’s debut album is a powerful statement from a band who are now really starting to grow into their ambitions. In the past, there has often been a nagging sense that Qujaku were playing over the heads of their audience to some imagined stadium rock crowd that they were imagining just over the horizon. Recently, however, they’ve learned to modulate their performances better and channel their strengths to suit the spaces they’re in, without compromising their more expansive tendencies. On this self-titled debut they proudly peacock across its two discs with swaggering gothic elegance, from the frankly ludicrous 20-minute opener Shoku no Hakumei to the cracked, fragile closing Sweet Love of Mine.Qujaku – Yui, Hate No Romance

ryo asada - code

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2018

No.9 – Ryo Asada – Code
Veering from free jazz to acoustic balladry to a capella harmonising to minimalist synthpop (although mostly the former two to be honest), this “debut” album by Fukuoka artist Ryo Asada isn’t really a debut, as he has been playing and occasionally releasing with the band tepPohseen for years. It has the feeling of a debut though in the hyperactive, unfiltered way it tries to be everything, in love with every musical possibility it discovers. It’s one of the strangest Japanese releases of the year, and perhaps strangest in how much fun it is.Ryo Asada – Timetrial Again

jim o'rourke - sleep like its winter

CD, Newhere, 2018

No.8 – Jim O’Rourke – Sleep Like it’s Winter
In addition to the five releases in his Steamroom series that he put out over the course of 2018, Jim O’Rourke released this wonderfully eerie piece for new ambient/drone-focused electronic label Newhere Music, which in many ways feels like he took one of his Steamroom releases and then built on and refined it. Seeing him perform it live, it’s clear that the piece we hear on this record is really just a point in the evolution of O’Rourke’s experimental soundscapes. In the ever-shifting topography of O’Rourke’s music, however, this release stands as a significant landmark.

5kai - 5kai

CD, self-released, 2018

No.7 – 5kai – 5kai
Emerging in Kyoto out of the ashes of the short-lived Lego Chameleon, 5kai’s debut album is a stark mix of post-hardcore and math-rock that manages to be both icily, almost confrontationally reserved while at the same time allowing a sort of fragile, melancholy beauty to filter through in the sparse melodies and plaintive vocals. The intelligent, rhythmically complex arrangements ensure that the minimalist components keep leading the listener through fresh patterns and makes this album one of the year’s most accomplished debuts.

phew - voice hardcore

CD/Vinyl, Bereket/Mesh-Key, 2018

No.6 – Phew – Voice Hardcore
The release of this album by eclectic experimental former postpunk artist Phew straddles the edge of 2017 and 2018 (The Wire included it in their 2017 best) but is included here mainly because I wanted to include Phew’s also excellent analogue synth album Light Sleep in my top albums of 2017. Voice Hardcore might seem a misleading title depending on the associations the word “hardcore” has for you, being an album much of which is characterised by spectral ambient drones, but it’s nonetheless brutally uncompromising in its core creative premise, that every sound on the album is one created by Phew’s voice. The undulating choral tones she layers on many of the tracks sometimes stand alone, but on others they form the backdrop to disconcerting yelps, tortured utterances and simple phrases repeated, looped, overlapping. 2018 also saw Phew working with London-based Ana da Silva on the excellent Island, but Voice Hardcore stands as a singularly unique and fascinating record from one of Japan’s most reliably distinctive artists. (NOTE: The CD edition features 9 tracks, while the vinyl and download editions feature 6.)

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.2 – Kafka’s Ibiki – Nemutte

kafka's ibiki - nemutte

CD, Felicity, 2016

Kafka’s Ibiki is another name for the Tokyo-based trio of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, Eiko Ishibashi and Jim O’Rourke, who form the recurring core of any number of other projects of their own collectively, as well as individually branching out to collaborate with others as with Ishibashi’s recent Kouen Kyodai project with Masami Akita (No.14 on this list). Where typically we are used to seeing this trio together as the backbone of either Ishibashi or O’Rourke’s solo projects, Kafka’s Ibiki comes across more as a space for them to explore the alchemy produced by all three together.

There’s more to Nemutte, however, than just three people in a room. The forty-odd minutes of the single track that makes up the album are less a jam session than a three-dimensional sound collage stitched together by O’Rourke from multiple sessions, each part distorted in a variety of ways, to the point where his bandmates were often unable to recognise themselves. Virtuoso performers though the trio might be, Nemutte is as much a masterclass in playing the studio as it is of instruments themselves.

That combination of finely honed studio work and the organic spontaneity of how the component elements initially came into being means that while Nemutte is broadly speaking an ambient record, it is at a more richly textured end of the spectrum than, for example, the no less immaculate but far sparser science of something like Brian Eno’s recent Reflections. Closer to home, it differs from Ishibashi’s Kouen Kyodai record in that it places the emphasis less on the intersections of two contrasting elements and more as a shifting pattern that undulates between multiple poles of influence. It differs too from the conceptual, mathematically determined wax and wane of Asuna and Fumihito Taguchi’s 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records (No.19 in this list) in that while both albums build to a climax around their midpoint, from which they subsequently draw back, Nemutte is far more a piece of music, composed and structured less rigidly and with a greater ear for organic ebb and flow.

A closer comparison might instead by the impressive Don’t Light Up The Dark by Ippei Matsui, Ztomu Motoyama and Ytamo, which brings together similar organic musical elements within a similarly spaced-out sonic environment. Nemutte nevertheless still differentiates itself, maintaining a propulsive sense of urgency driven by minimal but driving bass and Yamamoto’s skittering drums. In fact, for all its layers, texture and musical complexity, one of the most striking things about the album is how much of a rock record it is, not only in the rhythm but in the heart-stirring mini-crescendo it starts to build to around the halfway point and quietly bouncing piano chords that it settles into afterwards. Just as Ishibashi and O’Rourke’s own pop and rock records regularly travel into more expansive musical territory, the dynamics of Nemutte suggest a recognition even in this decidedly experimental record the potential of rock’s instinctive grip on the emotions.There doesn’t seem to be anything from Nemutte available online, but this live clip features some elements of what the album is doing.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.3 – Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

jim orourke - simple songs

CD, Drag City, 2015

This album differs starkly from everything else on this year-end rundown in the weight of expectation and breadth of interest its release attracted. Never having heard Jim O’Rourke’s 1999 landmark Eureka and only really having encountered his work through his numerous collaborations and production credits, there is a huge wealth of context behind Simple Songs that I’m not a party to.

My first reference point coming into Simple Songs is the backing band, including Tokyo indie and experimental scene veterans like drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while there are elements of the lineup (including O’Rourke himself) that connect this album to singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno, whose brand of folk and chamber pop shares some similarities with O’Rourke’s own. Yes, he has been doing his thing since way before any of this mattered, but here in Japan now, this is the context into which O’Rourke’s music more or less fits.

And Simple Songs excells, the musicianship an immaculate vehicle for O’Rourke’s meandering musical vision, drifting with ease from one movement to the next, making the dense, rhythmical and melodic complexity of the album feel completely natural. These are not really simple songs then, but while songs like Friends With Benefits and Last Year contain multiple songs’ worth of ideas, each of those ideas has at its heart a simple, memorable pop hook that anchors them in something immediate and accessible without hemming the song in from taking any of its multiple excursions into more abstract sonic territory.

The lyrics feel like a trap for the amateur psychologist, their barbs open to interpretation as possibly a series of vicious put-downs or a maybe a more reflexive exercise in self-laceration. O’Rourke’s lyrics defy easy analysis, but they are sharp and intelligent in their wordplay, and he is a master of his craft when it comes to leaving a word hanging at the end of one line that then gets cruelly undermined by the next.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Simple Songs from the perspective of music in Japan is the production, with the sound striking in how far back it appears to sit, in contrast to the heavily compressed, up-close sound that seems to prevail on so many other people’s records. More than any other record I heard in the past year, Simple Songs seems to want you to feel a sense of the room in which it was recorded – to use the speakers to draw you in rather than to push the sound out.

In the wider music world, the reaction to Simple Songs felt like it had been (not unjustifiably) coloured by all manner of expectations, although it seems to have satisfied most of the anticipation projected onto it. In the more microcosmic space of the Japanese indie scene, it also has a place where it feels at home though, and that it excels in both contexts pays fine testament to Jim O’Rourke’s songwriting and musical vision.

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Strange Boutique (August 2015) – Fuji Rock and making the audience work

My Japan Times column this August kind of follows on from what I was writing about in July, where I discussed some of the problems I have with Rockin’ On Japan magazine and the Rock in Japan festival. In this instance, I look at the same issue from the other side, focusing on Fuji Rock.

What I like about Fuji Rock is that it actively makes life difficult for you, forcing you out of your comfort zone. It can be annoying at first, but once you get past that wall of irritation and absorb yourself into the festival’s way of doing things, it opens out into a much more reqwarding experience. I shan’t go into the specifics of that here, since you can just read it for yourself in the actual article, but I’ll mention briefly that Moon♀Mama (Pika from Afrirampo’s solo work), Oshiripenpenz, Hysteric Picnic, Bombori and Jim O’Rourke all did a great job of representing the Japanese underground scene, while Manic Sheep flew the flag for Taiwan with pride.

Instead, it’s this idea about making the audience work that I think is interesting. I’ve mentioned this before, but the meaning behind the label name Call And Response (apart from retaining the same CAR initials as this site, Clear And Refreshing) is really about the relationship between music and audience. We will reach out to you, but we expect you to meet us part way – you have to do your part of the exchange as well: you have to contribute your half of the conversation. To put it another way, music is not a service industry.

Except of course that for most people music really is a service industry, which is really at the heart of my dislike of the philosophy behind Rock in Japan. It’s also an attitude that filters through into audiences and can lead to a particularly obnoxious sense of entitlement and incredibly lazy listening habits. “I paid money, so entertain me!” sounds like such a hard-nosed, sensible, bottom-line thing to say, but by even considering money as part of the transaction, you’re shifting the whole meaning of art onto commercial terms, which is something I don’t accept.

Exchanges of money happen all the time in the arts, but they are separate, parallel operations to the actual experience the artist and audience share – and the prices have pretty much nothing to do with the actual value of the work to which they are assigned. The really important transaction that’s happening in art is between the extended hand of communication that the artist offers and the open palm of acceptance that the audience extends in return. It’s a transaction that has more in common with sex than commerce.

Fuji Rock isn’t perfect, and anyone who would voluntarily have sex of even the most metaphorical kind with the vile Owl City should be sectioned as a menace to both themselves and to society at large, but it deserves praise as an event that recognises the importance of breaking down the traditional framework in which audiences consume music and constructing a fresh context of its own that you have to make an effort to enter. More generally, I think this process is important in recognising that music isn’t a “pure” thing, free of the sort of lifestyle-orientated branding that I often complain about, but at the same time, that lifestyle can be constructed in a way that is more amenable to a positive and openminded relationship with art and music.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Kenta Maeno, “Nee, Taxi”

For The Guardian’s new music from around the world blog, this is a loving recreation of classic 1970s style Japanese folk.Kenta Maeno: Nee, Taxi

Nee, Taxi is a textbook contemporary example of the style of the style of folk/singer-songwriter music that flooded Japan in the early 1970s, by one of this current generation’s most talented and versatile songwriters. Largely out of fashion now, Kenta Maeno nonetheless dives headfirst into the genre, recreating with the utmost sincerity and affection the bittersweet melodrama, with both his vocals and the music itself shifting in and out of its own rhythmical constraints. While the songwriting is deeply rooted in the 1970s Japanese folk tradition of artists — in particular the legendary Yosui Inoue — Maeno’s approach, aided by producer and musical collaborator Jim O’Rourke, also owes a great deal to contemporary alternative and alt-folk in its delivery.

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