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More Japanese Insanity

Saturday, 6th September, 2003

An interesting concept cropped up on the EMusic message boards today, courtesy of SoftBoy. The whole of the EMusic catalogue can be listed in chart form, per genre, and I'm sure some people are quite happy downloading the Creedence and the Pixies and the rest of the top listed perennials. SoftBoy's suggestion was to go to the other extreme, and locate the bottom of the charts. This approach should guarantee finding music that almost nobody else has heard, the obvious question being whether it's languishing at the bottom of the charts for a good reason or whether it's just the curse of obscurity.

One album quickly mentioned that points to the latter is 'Old Believers Songs', a collection of ancient laments by a group of children from the Urals called Oktay. It currently occupies the bottom spot on the World/Reggae chart, but I'm thoroughly enjoying the polyphonic interplay, which reminds me of some of the more accessible tracks on the French compilation, 'Voix de l'Orient Sovietique', namely those by The Sulori Group who may well originate in a similar area. Of course, they didn't touch the Tuvan throat singing or the bizarre Kazakh vocals of Almasbek Almatov, but they're worth hearing nonetheless. I seriously need to buy this CD at some point for the liner notes and the music both.

Of course, when you're talking about obscure, Jandek can't be far behind. While he seems to get far too much publicity for an obscurity, it is still highly amazing to me that someone can release 34 albums over 25 years without anything being really known about him. He's never played live, never issued any publicity and the only (unwilling) interview he's ever given didn't touch music, focusing instead on milk allergies and gardening. Nevertheless, his obscurity may be in jeopardy. Quite apart from the dubious honour of admirers releasing a tribute album to his work, there's now even a Jandek tribute band. Known as The Quinn Boys, they are a side project of The Casual Fridays and are working towards a full release. At the moment three mp3s are available. Even more telling, a documentary has been made, though it deals with the fans and the music rather than the artist himself. I'm looking forward to seeing this when it premieres at the 17th Leeds International Film Festival next month.

I'm surprised at the concept of Jandek cover versions. While my experiences are currently limited to one early track and one band-period album, the best material just isn't coverable. There's something different that attracts the ears to songs like 'Painted My Teeth', but this is music. Bizarre music, to be sure, but music nonetheless. To me, what makes Jandek special is that he has often produced music entirely apart from music. I'm fascinated by the way his introspective acoustic guitar and vocal work doesn't seem to be related to any other artist, genre or musical style at all. I'm sure his a capella albums will be just as unique. His mid period, when he went electric and gradually added a drummer and a talented female vocalist, contains all sorts of entirely recognisable musical elements and isn't as groundbreaking.

'Modern Dances', Jandek's fourteenth album, released in 1987, is a mixture of the two main styles. The first eight tracks from 'Painted My Teeth' to 'I Want to Know Why' have vocal interplay between Jandek and Nancy, that often makes sense for a time, while John performs his unique take on drumming. They are interesting but not essential. Then, at the end of the album, are three tracks that return to Jandek's old style from his first seven releases. This is the same quiet wavering solo vocal over the seemingly aimless untuned pseudo-strumming that I heard on Songs in the Key of Z. It's wonderful, haunting and unique, especially when used with ghostly echoing vocals on the final track, 'Carnival Queen'.

The only musical style that Jandek even remotely approaches is old time blues, though there is a massive difference between solo acoustic Jandek and solo acoustic Blind Lemon Jefferson, for instance. However, reading through the mailing list archives at A Guide to Jandek, I found mention of an obscure Japanese artist by the name of Kan Mikami. He sings in Japanese but plays old time blues. It was interesting to see a video of Mikami-san. I'll have to search for more, especially as he has apparently released a number of albums.

The Japanese never cease to amaze me. They are cultural sponges, who acquire and combine entirely diverse elements into something new. A couple of days ago, I was listening to unclassifiable Japanese pop artists like Spoozys or Polysics and I've already mentioned the insane solo Japanese a capella artist who records as Dokaka, but this really doesn't cover a fraction of the material out there.

I bought a wonderful CD a few years ago entitled 'Tokyo Trashville' that focuses on underground Japanese punk, from Guitar Wolf to The 5-6-7-8's. It was short but invigorating. Since then, often with the help of EMusic, I've found more material by these artists and others like them. Japanese punk is a uniquely Japanese take on the well established UK and US punk traditions.

But in Japan, punk isn't really that extreme. Just look at the noise merchants and you'll see what extreme really is. From early grindcore legends such as SOB, Lipcream and Systematic Death to the power electronics crowd of Merzbow or Masonna, the Japanese have a passion of taking extremes and taking them a step further still. While I have a few Merzbow releases, I've only just discovered that Masami Akita (the man behind Merzbow) issued something extreme that was quite apart from his sound.

He released a box set that comprised selected works from his illustrious career, along with unreleased material and a few extras such as a biography and a medallion, of all things. Pretty standard, huh? Well, this puppy, known as Merzbox, is a fifty CD box. Yes, fifty CDs of white noise power electronic screeching. Though not the first, who must surely be England's Whitehouse, Merzbow seems to have become the world's foremost proponent of this sort of material and such a representative selection ought to be fascinating. Of course, the price tag for the one thousand copy limited edition can't be particularly low. I'll see what I can find.

I've been listening to Merzbow and Masonna tonight and will do further research before writing much more about them. Certainly they will appear on my forthcoming extreme music website.


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