A helpful sampler for listeners curious about this little-known facet of Japanese music.
While Shibuya-kei artists such as Pizzicato Five and Cornelius found crossover success in the United States, and such avant-garde musicians as Merzbow and Keiji Haino have earned reputations among more adventurous listeners, there’s a world of Japanese pop from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that has been all but impossible to hear in the West. Light in the Attic’s engaging compilation Even a Tree Can Shed Tears is a helpful sampler for listeners curious about this little-known facet of Japanese music.
Kenji Endo’s quietly dramatic “Curry Rice” opens the set with the kind of conversational tone that’s the mark of folk-rock around the world. Particular to Endo is a signature meowing sound, as befits a musician whose early album covers show him holding a cat. Despite the foodie subject matter and feline preoccupation, its lyrics speak of ritual suicide or seppuku, specifically that of author Yukio Mishima.
Translated lyrics add weight to such tracks, yet others are irresistible even if you don’t understand a word. Sachiko Kanenobu’s sweetly melodic “Anata Kara Toku E” will make you want to hunt down the singer-songwriter’s worthy 1972 album Misora, which has been reissued several times. Dubbed the “Japanese Joni Mitchell” for the sake of an easy comparison, Kanenobu went on to marry Crawdaddy critic Paul Williams and retired from music until she returned to the studio for a ‘90’s alt-rock resurgence.
Like several songs compiled here, “Anata Kara Toku E” was originally released on the independent label URC (Underground Record Club), which capitalized on the wave of folk music that, much as it became a staple of American colleges in the era, swept Japanese campuses in the ‘60s. There was a healthy camaraderie among URC groups, whose members would often play on each other’s records. Kanenobu’s sometime-backing-band Happy End, (whom you might remember from the soundtrack to Lost in Translation) was one of the most influential of the era, marrying folk rock with Japanese sensibilities. The group’s “Natsu Nandesu” opens with a deft acoustic guitar figure before wistful male harmonies emerge.
Even a Tree is sequenced to showcase the variety of this music, such infectious melodies off-set by heavier psychedelic-influenced tracks as Kazuhiko Kato’s “Arthur Hakase No Jinriki Hikouki,” from an album whose cover features a Benji-like pup in a Superman costume. Kato will lead the listener down a cinematic rabbit hole: as a member of the Folk Crusaders, he starred in director Nagisa Oshima’s The Three Resurrected Drunkards, which is described as “a Monkees’ Head-like romp.” (As you will soon sadly discover, the movie used to be available on Fandor.)
Another name that may be familiar here is Maki Asakawa, the subject of a 2011 compilation released on Honest Jon’s Records. While she’s better known for smoky, atmospheric jazz vocals, “Konna Fu Ni Sugite Iku No Nara” (which also appears on that 2011 comp) features an acoustic rhythm guitar and folk-rock beat well-suited to her comp-mates here.
Album closer “Otokorashiitte Wakaru Kai” by duo The Dylan II may sound familiar – it’s “I Shall Be Released” with Japanese lyrics. While other tracks such as Hachimitsu Pie’s soaring, Laurel-Canyonesque rocker “Hei No Ue De” tap clear Western sources, Akai Tori’s “Takeda No Komori Uta” arranges a traditional Japanese folksong for vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar.
Barely lasting two and a half minutes, Fumiyo Nunoya’s soulful folk-rocker “Mizu Tamari” was a departure from an artist whose group Blues Creation had released an album influenced by Cream and Blue Cheer. It leaves you wanting more, which seems to be the true measure of a sampler such as Even a Tree Can Shed Tears.
Liner notes by producer Yosuke Kitazawa explain that even in an era where the most obscure music seems readily available, this is one subgenre that has been hard to track down. Eagle-eared listeners may remember Kanenobu from a 2006 email newsletter sent by the late and lamented Manhattan record shop Other Music. As such well-curated discoveries become harder to come by, Light in the Attic steps in to take up the cause.