Sunday, November 26, 2017

Things we like: Japan, again

The summons came in the form of a coat-pull from my buddy Phil Overeem, the Christgau of Columbia, Missouri -- a link to a NYT story about the release, on Light in the Attic (the reish label best known for its revival of obscuro '70s Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez's career), of Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk and Rock 1969-1973.

The comp documents the music, influenced by America's Woodstock and Laurel Canyon crews, made by musos from Tokyo in the east and the Kansai region in the west, and recorded by indie labels like URC (Underground Record Club) and Elec, as well as major label King's Bellwood imprint. Some of the musos would go on to Western success with later outfits like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sadistic Mika Band. A couple had been mentioned favorably (Takashi Nishioka's Itutsu No Akai Fusen) or less so (Happy End, Haruomi Hosono's Apryl Fool) in Julian Cope's Japrocksampler. Sachiko Kanenobu married pioneering rock scribe Paul Williams, emigrated to the States, and revived her career in the '90s.

While it's well curated and beautifully packaged, I found the music less than inspiring -- at its best when echoing traditional-sounding enka (with its bluesy scale that omits the 4th and 7th degrees), or pioneering depresso rockers the Jacks (unfairly maligned by Richie Unterberger in his All Music Guide bio), who blended their folk balladry with touches of free jazz and psychedelia; less so when taking more literal cues from the likes of the Band and CSNY. It underwhelmed me in much the same way as the German comp Love, Peace & Poetry: Japanese Psychedelic Music (which was packaged with a "WTF?" blonde model on the cover) had. Although that one included several artists Cope had lauded, and I wanted to like it, the overall impression it left was one of mediocrity -- lesser echoes of US and UK models.

On the upside, the LITA comp got me thinking about Japanese music I dig but hadn't listened to for a minute. Even before Jon Teague pulled my coat to Boris -- whose massive catalog covers a musical spectrum from harsh noise to doom metal to dream pop -- via a CD-R of Akuma No Uta, I'd owned a copy of Shoukichi Kina's Peppermint Tea House, released on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label back in the '90s. Kina's been called "the Bob Marley of Okinawa," and Richard Thompson covered his "Haisai Ojisan" on the first French, Frith, Kaiser & Thompson album wa-a-ay back in '87. To these feedback-scorched ears, Kina's music sounds like the Japanese pop music I heard as a kid, with traditional-sounding melodies played on electrified Western instruments. The bounce quotient is high, and the music is sprightly and fun, which I see as a plus and is probably what attracted Byrne, as well.

Much more to the point is Kan Mikami, who started his career in 1970 as a teenage police academy dropout from the godforsaken northern prefecture of Aomori, playing for cells of student radicals and would-be terrorists (as heard on Live in Kouchi University 1972, a rough audience recording released by his fan club in 2006). Mikami's monochromatic minor key music resembles Delta blues, and he sings over his own minimal guitar accompaniment in a voice as rough-hewn and wildly expressive as Charlie Patton or Bukka White's. Mikami was featured in some of J.A. Caesar's soundtracks for Shuji Teriyama's theatrical productions, and even acted in films. His early, major label records were withdrawn due to their lyrics, which expressed sympathy for criminals.

From 1991 to 2010, he recorded roughly an album a year for the forward-looking Tokyo-based label PSF (which stood for either "Poor Strong Factory" or "Psychedelic Speed Freaks," depending) -- an outgrowth of Hideo Ikeezumi's Tokyo record store, Modern Music, where by the late '80s, listeners already exposed to Fluxus experiments and free jazz were tuning their ears to psychedelic rock. In trying to run down some of Mikami's PSF releases online, I discovered that a new US indie, Black Editions, has acquired the rights to the PSF catalog from Ikeezumi, who died this past February, and is undertaking an ambitious reissue program.

The first Black Editions release to hit my mailbox was Tokyo Flashback, the first vinyl release (an opulently packaged double LP) of the 1991 CD sampler that was many American listeners' introduction to the likes of High Rise (the explosive power trio who serve as the model for Boris when the slightly younger band isn't being inspired by the Melvins or Pink Floyd), Ghost (a more meditative sounding outfit who like to record in sacred spaces, and have had US releases of their material on Drag City and Now Sound), White Heaven (the band that gave us the John Cipollina-esque guitarist Michio Kurihara, a frequent collaborator of both Boris and Ghost), and Marble Sheep (whose guitarist Ken Matsutani went on to helm the Captain Trip label, releasing crucial material by rockaroll Renaissance man Mick Farren, as well as a 4CD box set of live Doug Yule-fronted VU).

I was spinning the fourth side of Tokyo Flashback when my wife looked up from her newspaper and asked, "Who's that? He sounds like he's exorcising demons." Or perhaps he's the demon, I thought, for the artist who'd caught her discerning ear was none other than Keiji Haino, the man whose music represents the sinister heart of the Japanese underground. (Imagine the vibe of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood incarnated in the form of a black-clad specter in dark shades, wearing the same hair style James Earl Jones sported in Conan the Barbarian -- a look pioneered by the Jacks' Yoshio Hayakawa and Les Rallizes Denudes' Takashi Mizutani.) Solo and acapella, Haino's anguished moans and blood-curdling shrieks are bone-chilling. Surrounded by the sturm und drang of his trio Fushitsusha (also represented on Tokyo Flashback), with his coruscating noise guitar riding over the top, it's hard to imagine a more intense music.

So now, I'm waiting for my copy of Black Editions' reish of Haino's solo debut Watashi Dake? -- the 1981 album that made its creator's US rep when Fred Frith heard it while visiting Tokyo and took home copies for Lower Manhattan buddies like John Zorn and Bill Laswell -- and hoping they get around to re-releasing Fushitsusha's "2nd Live" from '91 and the two-volume Live in the First Year of Heisei from '90 (on which Kan Mikami is accompanied by Haino and free jazz bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa) sooner than later. Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we.


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