Monday, October 29, 2007

Ghostly Groover

Roxy Music (Spook-Rock)
Track: The Bogus Man (1973)

Halloween is approaching and Roxy Music's ghostly groover The Bogus Man is the perfect soundtrack for gruesome goings on.

Hail Roxy. They blew my pubescent mind when they erupted onto BBC's Top of the Pops with Virginia Plain in 1972. For a twelve-year old it was a life-changing experience to see Bryan Ferry in leopard skin and eye-liner, Brian Eno poncing about in a feather boa, Phil Manzanera in glitter boots and shades. And the music was even better: literate, self-aware songs of decadent high life and seedy subversion.

Roxy sure made dressing up seem like fun, which reminds me that a couple years ago I won first prize in a Halloween costume competition at a Kyoto night club. If I say so myself I made a pretty convincing vampire, and I'll never forget the DJ playing The Bogus Man in my honor.

It's hardly more than a glorified jam, but its twisted nursery rhyme quality makes it one of Roxy Music’s most memorable songs.
It's a loose, deliciously disturbing ode to the bogie man, and the influence of Can is obvious in the plodding drums and insistent bass line.

Incidentally, another great Halloween track is Throbbing Gristle's disturbing Hamburger Lady. It's bloody terrifying and I only play it when I have company, otherwise I get the heebeejeebies. Download it if you dare. In the meantime, here's a cool animation of The Bogus Man. Have a scary Halloween!

Friday, October 19, 2007


Radiohead (Post-Millenium Rock)
LP: In Rainbows (Self-released, 2007)

Radiohead have created incredible buzz not only by announcing their seventh studio album just 10 days before its release but also by inviting consumers to decide how much they are willing to pay for it. By going straight to their fans and cutting out the middle men the band stick it to the record companies and the odious RIAA. Good for them, I say.

I downloaded the album this morning – paying 5 pounds (That's US $ 10.25, or 1,176 Japanese yen.) My impressions after one listen:

1. 15 Step. The opener begins with squelchy electro drums. Is this LP gonna be another Kid A? Nope, the song quickly begins to sound more like the Radiohead of old. Perhaps the band are subtly hinting this represents a return to a more song-based approach: “How come I end up where I started?” Thom Yorke sounds as miserable as ever, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. An encouraging start.

2. Bodysnatchers. Distorted bass intro reminds me of Kid A’s The National Anthem. There’s a definite Beatle influence here (try singing “We were ta…lking/about the space between us all” over the intro) . The guitars which come gliding in at 2:07 are pure Radiohead and Bodysnatchers cruises on out in a beautifully fucked up fashion. Phew.

3. Nude. Oh…my…god. After one listen this sounds like a bona fide Radiohead classic to me. It's dreamy and regretful and features a spellbinding, heartfelt vocal. Sounds like the band have been immersing themselves in 60s soul. Gasp!, it’s just starting to rain and this moment is oh so perfect.

4. Weird Fishes/Arpeggii. By now it’s clear that this is very much a guitar album, albeit understated, and this song features more glorious arpeggios-a-go-go, not to mention ecstasy-inducing harmonies and synths. An uplifting song of underwater escape, therefore very Radiohead.

5. All I Need. Mysterious and ambivalent ode to romance provides a much needed breather after the headlong rush of the first 4 trax. I'm in heaven already.

6. Faust Arp. Beautiful string arrangement set against gently plucked 'Dear Prudence' acoustic guitar. Very White Album-ish. Lovely hushed vocal. A grower, methinks.

7. Reckoner. Again, elements of black soul in Thom’s vocal performance complementing the very Motownish percussion sample on this track. The lyrics to this record aren’t as impenetrable as before and seem mostly to be concerned with interpersonal relations: “Because we separate/it ripples our reflections.” A gorgeous song from what – no surprises here - is a beautiful sounding album, even if they did release this version at only 160 kbps.

8. House of Cards. “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover/No matter how it ends/No matter how it starts.” A very real song about relationships and here's that sixties vibe again, hovering above the eerie synth lines. On first listening, one of my favorite tracks.

9. Jigsaw Falling Into Place. Wow. Totally cool acoustic guitar intro - pure Radiohead - has a definite Paranoid Android feel. And more spooky, spine-tingling backing vocals. There’s a slightly formulaic feel emerging here, but I still like it.

10. Videotape. Somber, elegiac piano frames a splendid finale to a gorgeous album which I can’t wait to play again. It’s a lovely finish and I’ll just leave it to the band to sum it all up:

No matter what happens now
I won't be afraid
Because I know today has been
The most perfect day I’ve ever seen

So there it is. We’ll see how In Rainbows plays out in the days to come, but for now it sounds like a cracking effort from the Oxford boys and a definite improvement on Hail to the Thief.

HOLD IT. Let me take that back: I just decided In Rainbows is an absolute triumph and their best record since OK Computer. In fact, it might even be better than that milestone. There’s an organic, newfound freshness and a welcome approachability in evidence.

Instrumentally the band are admirably restrained and right at the top of their game. The album is packed with lush string arrangements and delicate guitars which represent a move away from the twisted experimental approach they’re known for.

Thom Yorke's performances throughout are formidable, with intriguing dollops of soul-influenced vocals and mindblowing harmonies scattered over every track. The subject matter focuses on the vagaries of sustaining relationships within the dizzying confines of the new millennium. Radiohead are back, and I think I can guarantee their fans are gonna love this release.

And now...please excuse me while I catch my breath.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Bugaku dance and music
Miyajima, Japan

Against the backdrop of one of the most iconic scenes in Japan - the Itsukushima
Shrine on Miyajima Island - my father Raymondo and I recently watched the traditional Bugaku dance.

Bugaku is a form of Gagaku, the music and dance originally performed and practiced in the Imperial court in the early 9th century. I’ve heard this may be the oldest extant orchestral music in the world.

Despite the crowds of day trippers and the garish modern architecture visible in the far distance, I felt incredibly moved by the performance, which was performed in honor of a newly married couple.

At the same time I couldn't help feeling we have lost some essential part of our nature. If Bugaku derives from a time of feudal domination, it also symbolizes a time of simplicity, elegance and leisure.

The tempo of gagaku is so slow that it seems almost devoid of a pulse. But the stately pace created by a single drum, percussion and flutes suggests a oneness with nature which is essential to the animist core of the Shinto religion. I don’t share the animist belief in souls, but in a deep metaphorical sense I can appreciate that the unification of matter and spirit plays a role in daily life.

This feeling of communion with nature grew stronger as we climbed the wooded mountainside of Miyajima. The shrines dotted along the way were a constant reminder of the eternal, that in its essence life is a meditation and that family, nature and the universe are in some profound way reflected in each other.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Songs of Hungry Ghosts

The Old Man in the Park
Hiroshima, Japan

As he reached the end of the main thoroughfare the old man turned a corner and was surprised to see the shell of the bombed out building directly in front of him. Its skeletal dome was illuminated from below, causing it to stand in sharp relief against the evening sky.

As he approached the monument he was afforded a more complete view of the surrounding area. Although there were now lawns encircling the dome and modern bridges straddling the river, the topography seemed strangely familiar to him from old newsreels and photo journals.

The closer he came, the harder he found it to focus on the building’s spidery form. He had been unaware of the mist which clouded his eyes and he struggled to suppress the unfamiliar emotions which now welled up inside him. He let out a heavy sigh, and cast embarrassed glances in each direction, concerned that others might observe his disquiet.

It was then that he noticed a mournful sound floating on the evening air. Across the river two young musicians were singing. Their position under a concrete bridge caused their verses to echo eerily around the park before flying down the river like hungry ghosts. Though he could not make out the words, to the old man they sounded like the saddest lamentation imaginable.

A bird flew overhead and the old man cast his eyes heavenward. Then it was here. He struggled to frame the thought.

In reply came a roaring silence followed by the distant hum of traffic. Such mysteries confounded explanation. Thereupon, shaking his head and wiping his face on his sleeve, the old man continued on his way.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Good American

Iron & Wine (Psychedelic Folk)
LP: The Shepherd's Dog (
Sub Pop, 2007)

Right now it's difficult to admire an America embroiled in a divisive foreign conflict which has created untold death and misery for thousands of innocent people. As someone who loves that fair country and lived there for a good many years, that saddens me deeply.

Yet Iron and Wine's superb new album The Shepherd's Dog quietly hints there may yet be redemption if only America can realign its moral compass. I've had this record on permanent rotation for days, and it’s hardly left my mind as its hypnotic mysteries unfold.

Homespun yet edgy, The Shepherd’s Dog is firmly rooted in an American folk tradition, with liberal applications of pedal steel guitars, acoustic slide and tack piano. However the use of vocoder, dub reggae, African rhythms and psychedelic effects create a contemporary, experimental feel.

The consistently immaculate songwriting and vocal/instrumental performances are matched by Brian Deck’s superb production. Featuring delicate abstract soundscapes and lush, multi-layered textures, great attention is paid to details which reveal themselves only after repeated listening.

Listening to Sam Beam’s breathy vocals one can’t help being reminded of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, though Beam’s poetry is far less fatalistic and gloomy than those two beautiful losers'. The stunning arrangement of House by the Sea sounds as if Drake has shacked up with a psychedelic Appalachian Afro-pop combo, and the results are gorgeous: “And like the shape of a wave/The jealous sisters will sing on my grave."

Many of the songs invoke a joyous celebration of nature - seen here as a metaphor for all that's good and true in the American psyche - but Beam's lyricism also condemns riot squads, strip malls and the fascist abuse of authority.

What strikes me most is Beam’s quiet call for America to find itself at a time of inner and outer conflict : “I've been dreaming our love and our freedom." The Shepherd’s Dog is haunted by the spectre of Iraq, and there are constant references to violence, ghosts, and birds of freedom.

’s political leader is presented as a “cartoon king”, “righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys,” as his cronies send soldiers off to die while they claim the glory: “There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar."

In Carousel Beam sings the pain of those who are almost home, of olive branches and doves, grieving girls with crosses around their necks yearning for a life without despair: "Give me a yellow brick road/And a Japanese car/And benevolent change."

The astonishing poetry of Resurrection Fern almost breaks your heart with its depiction of a town riven by decay and moral disarray, where the protagonist cries over “Our bravery wasted and our shame.” “I love this town,” he sings, “but it ain’t the same.”

If history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, The Shepherd’s Dog urges the USA to rouse itself from its moral slumber. These luscious hymns suggest it might best accomplish this by emphasizing its finest traditions, acknowledging its failures and reconnecting with its poetic authenticity. If that were to happen, there could yet be a new morning in America.