Saturday, August 23, 2008

Music Review from 2004: Aiko Shimada - Like Hannah

This is a bit old, but it marks the last music review I've done as a freelance writer. It was, in fact, the lead story in the summer music feature of Seattle's publication the International Examiner on August 18, 2004.

Just for background: Aiko Shimada is a local musician from Seattle, known in a few music circles around the U.S. as well. Her music can't be classified, but some people call it "folk," others call it "world," still others call it "alternative." I call it "none of the above." Before moving here, she was offered a lucrative contract by a major label in Japan, but she refused and instead chose her own path of music.

Before her interview, Ms. Shimada gave me her entire back catalog of albums, and I've enjoyed them ever since.

Singer-songwriter talks about her latest album and motherhood
By David Wu

It must be amusing for Aiko Shimada to hear what her fans think of her music. Some say it’s relaxing. Some describe it as hypnotic. And others say, “It has so much dissonance, and it’s kind of disturbing!”

Who, then, should she trust?

“One time this guy came up to me and said, ‘I really like your music!’” Shimada recalled. “And then he goes, ‘Do you like Yanni?’ And I didn’t want to tell him what I think. But I hate Yanni!”

Shimada’s latest album, "Like Hannah," is the 4th album released on her own Bera Records, and her 7th album overall. Notably less layered than her previous album, 2001’s Blue Marble, this volley of songs is typically atypical - a non-categorical execution of deliberate opaqueness and experimental jazz structures.

Shimada, who started learning how to play the guitar in 1988 at age 24, provides the vocals and guitar, and fills out a quartet with the band “gibbous moon” to provide a live, stripped-down feel.

One of the album’s most compelling tracks is the title track, sung in Japanese and inspired by her niece, Hannah. The English translation states: “Things I've always believed/They start to melt and disappear/The body that was tied up/Changes from ice to water.” This theme of forgetting oneself is what unifies the entire album, even with its varying themes throughout. There is a balance of intertwining vagueness and clarity that somehow makes it more than just the sum of its parts.

Unlike her previous projects, it is a collection of both new songs and older songs that she finally had a chance to record. “We could always play them,” said Shimada, “but it wasn’t the way I wanted them to sound. This time, it felt really good as a group, in that we could play those tunes.”

One of the older songs is “Crane,” which Shimada wrote 14 years ago. Its lyrics are based on a traditional Japanese story about a white crane who becomes a woman and repays a poor man for saving her life. It is a stark contrast to anyone who has heard “He Killed a Bird,” the opening track to the 1995 album Bright and Dark.

The complex chord modulations and building textures in “Crane” literally become one with the characters and story. The instrumental starts out on a stripped-down level, as an accordion imitates the Japanese flute-like sho, but simplicity gradually gives way to heavier percussion and bongos that mimic the characters’ actions and thoughts.

“Crane” represents an important cultural concept in Japan, in that good deeds should be countered with good deeds in return. “I don’t think the American culture emphasizes that very much,” Shimada said.

A new song in the collection is “Loneliness.” Shimada’s lyrics start off: “Loneliness/I wish to be friends with you ... You live at the end of my path.” The song is preceded by “In Our Park,” a song about companionship - a compelling and obviously intentional juxtaposition of tracks.

“Loneliness is kind of a good thing because that is the place where you have to be to reach something that you are looking for,” said Shimada, “but you also need another person to push, or to hold your hand.”

Shimada, who recently had a baby, takes time to reflect on this new phase of her life. “It was sort of a surprise that I got pregnant,” she said, “because I was told that it would be hard for me to get pregnant. So I sort of gave up. But then as soon as I felt that way, I got pregnant.

“I just thought: wow, I’m gonna go through this for the first time. And for thousands of years, women have been doing this! I’ve been feeling like I’m having a second life."

She adds: “I’ve done things I want to do, and sure I’ve got more things I want to do. But now I’m facing something else – a new thing – and still it’s a creation of some sort.”

Lyrics from her 1995 song “Half Moon” come to mind: “There is something to look forward to/It only becomes fuller and fuller/Every night it’s brighter in the sky.”

Here’s to the next phase.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Remarks Regarding 6 CDs I Bought Yesterday

... not really reviews because I've only had these for a day, and who in their right mind would write a strict review after only a day of absorption? (Food for thought.) Here I have impressions, but no final judgments.

Six CDs, some old, some new, so let's roll:

The Joshua Tree
U2 (1987)

I've already known many of these songs, but it's nice to finally add this to my U2 collection.

"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is a powerful song; in fact, I would call it the prequel to the song "Walking on Broken Glass" by Annie Lennox. Why? Well, many a man has attempted feebly to sing along with Bono to this song in the car, causing many a car window to break.

Best song of the album for me: "One Tree Hill," written in memory of Bono's friend Greg Carroll, who died in an accident while delivering Bono's motorcycle in the rain. I believe Bono has talked about this song extensively since '87, but the lyrics are abstract enough ("it runs like a river/runs to the sea" ... foreshadowing a similar visual 5 years later by another band) that I think the only two people who know exactly what Bono is referring to are Bono and Greg. Underneath somber (/hopeful?) lyrics are an intense, and almost upbeat, instrumentation that further drives the ambiguity of this masterpiece of a song.

Recently, some drunk woman started singing "With or Without You" to me at a bar on Seattle's Alki Beach, and so unfortunately I'll forever associate the song with drunk ladies.

Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails
The Baseball Project (2008)

Who here loves baseball? Raise your hands, please.

OK, whether or not you raised your hand, you will like this album. It's pure rock and roll, centered on baseball themes, and it makes statements about the game, its heroes, and even its controversial aspects.

"The Yankee Flipper" is noteworthy because it actually does some interesting name-dropping. As the song states, Jack McDowell (former pitcher of the Yankees) flipped an audience of 50,000 people off after a bad performance; and the song claims that this was due to a night on the town with Scott and Mike Mills of R.E.M. (not to mention, one of the members of the Baseball Project is R.E.M.'s very own Peter Buck). Just as well. McDowell was the one who gave up The Double in Seattle, perhaps the most famous sports play in Seattle history (so far) that was the crushing blow that allowed Seattle to upset the Yankees in 1995. Thanks, Jack, for drinking with R.E.M.

I could have downloaded this online, but I opted to get it at the store - why? Because of the amazing liner notes - not only are there lyrics for each song (which I believe will one day be seen as a true baseball classic), but some great prose introduction for the context of each song.

Fleet Foxes (s/t)
Fleet Foxes (2008)

I first heard of Fleet Foxes when I emerged on their live performance at Sasquatch Festival a few months ago - they were on a few bands prior to Modest Mouse and R.E.M.

My first impression was that they all looked like disciples of Jesus. I was half-expecting to see some bread and fish being distributed around the audience, but all I saw were beachballs and some weird looking green plants. I was about ready to turn and walk around, but then something clicked and I realized that their music was... stunning.

I couldn't quite pin what I was hearing. It was quote-unquote alternative rock, yes. But it was also folk. And also baroque. And also chant from the 1600s. And the harmonies were glorious and - for a band that is now signed to Sub Pop in Seattle - very anti-Nirvana. Kurt would have loved them.

A few days later, their album was released to glorious reviews in Rolling Stone (4 stars) and a #1 showing on the College Music Journal chart. Fleet Foxes are on their way.

So yes, I have the album, and I concur that the album is amazing. It takes you to another place. There is not a dull moment in the album; every single second offers a miracle of sound. First single "White Winter Hymnal" is just the tip of the white winter iceberg; other gems include "Your Protector" and "He Doesn't Know Why" - for these and many other songs, you will be singing along with them in your head because they just kind of linger.

Well maybe you don't want to listen to this song in the middle of a long drive, if you're sleepy, because if you do you'll want to hit yourself over your head a few times to stay awake. (But do listen if you have a white chocolate mocha handy.) Like I said, there is not a dull moment; but the album stays away from adrenaline, and rightfully (and refreshingly) so.

This album is a moment in time, plus a few more.

Good News for People who Like Bad News
Modest Mouse (2004)

I must admit, despite the fact I'm a Seattle man, I'm not as in tune with Seattle bands as I'd like to be. So here's another: Modest Mouse (of Issaquah, WA, actually).

"Float On," I know this like the back of my kneecap - one of those songs that was outplayed in 2004. Great song, but nothing new for me.

The good stuff is elsewhere on the album. "Satin In a Coffin," a dark picturesque track with a laugher of a lyric is almost reminiscent of "Run For Your Life" by the Beatles, and the tongue-and-cheekiness apparent here is charming enough for me to consider this my favorite on the album.

Blue Scholars (s/t)
Blue Scholars (2004)

Blue Scholars is a hip-hop duo based in Seattle: Sabzi (the DJ) and Geologic (the MC). The name itself is a play on the phrase "blue collar."

They are the premier up-and-coming Seattle hip-hop act at this time, and nothing else really comes close (as far as I can see). These guys are pioneers, and their lyrics and beats are not like anything that has been heard near an eardrum at any time in history.


Sabzi brings a new flair to the art of instrumentation in hip-hop, and probably not least because he himself is a full-fledged musician in his own right. He's a jazz pianist, and has played in punk and ska bands; and this crosses over into his turntablation, as no song on the album is strictly a beat looped, nor just a hook looped, actually they throw loops out of the ghetto windows. (Hear "Motion Movement" in particular.) Each track is a living and breathing entity, that shifts shapes and bruises legs with lyrics that talk about Seattle, its problems, society and its problems, the U.S. and its problems, and a few other things.

The world is a problem, but Blue Scholars aren't.

DJ-Kicks: Four Tet
Four Tet (2006)

OK, now we go back to 2006 and cross the Atlantic to beautiful London to hear the DJ mix tape by Four Tet.

Great song here is the remix of Stereolabs "Les yper sound," with a melody and beat that will sound good in a jazzy Thai restaurant with good Kaidow, lights dim, records scratching, people buzzing, heads bobbing.

You get the picture.

Four Tet keeps the senses enlightened and stimulated in this album, with each track swirling into the next with vicious electronica and acoustica. Worth the discounted $6 I paid? Yes indeed.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Dying Breed of the Eclectic Music Enthusiast

Being a fan of many genres of music - arguably more than the average person - it's interesting to see and meet people from many walks of life, and to see exactly how they react when I bring up a particular genre.

Exhibit A: I'm a huge R.E.M. fan, which many of you know (and many of you don't). Now for those of you who only know me for the R&B/soul/hip-hop production side of things, it may surprise you that my top 5 favorite music acts are in rock and roll. R.E.M. is one, tied with the Beatles for my favorite. "Weird," one person called me when I mentioned how I was the member of a vast community of online R.E.M. aficionados.

Exhibit B: One of my favorite albums is Michael Jackson's Thriller. Upon hearing I am a fan of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, a similar reaction from another friend: "You have a weird taste in music." I responded, "That's just me being eclectic." Her response: "That's one word for it."

Certainly, both friends above were/are entitled to their opinions and were definitely welcome to share it; yet, I believe individuality in taste, in anything, is something that should be embraced and shared, encouraged and not discouraged. But in the bigger picture I'm glad they said what they said, because it brings me to my bloggable point of the day:

R&B and Rock - it's hard to marry the two sides when it comes to discussion amongst avid fans of either side.

It's like liberals vs. conservatives, or even PCs vs. Macs; maybe worse. Some will deny that it's that bad because there are millions who love both sides; but they likely haven't been exposed to instances of disparity.

Exhibit C: Back in middle school, Fall '91, grunge was in full swing and one DJ decided to throw in a new song, "Smells like Teen Spirit." It was booed so hard that the DJ stopped spinning the song after less than a minute. This was Seattle too. (All was right in the world to these kids, apparently, after the DJ proceeded to play "I Wanna Sex U Up" by Color Me Badd.) And yes, there are multitudes in Seattle who are focussed and tunnel-visioned on R&B and hip-hop, and could have cared less about grunge back then, and still don't years later. "It gives me a headache," was/is a common response. Seattle.

Let me redeem my former middle school and peers, however.

Exhibit D: In Spring '90 (I was in the 6th grade), word got out that I was going to play a Mozart sonata for the school's talent show. Groans were heard. The majority of the students were more interested in the latest choreography dance routines for Janet Jackson's songs on Rhythm Nation. So anyway, the day of the performance came, and I whipped through that 3rd movement of the sonata in about 6 minutes. The kids gave me a nice and long ovation, and a few even started getting into classical music after that. The ensuing reception I received when I walked through the halls was overwhelming in the following two weeks.

It was an unexpected response, and I'm forever grateful to them.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My 160GB iPod is Dead

"It just works," they say about Apple products.

Sorry, no, it's not always true.

After being the proud owner of a 6G iPod classic 160GB model, for a week, it pained me to watch/listen as it went defunct during work today.

I get to head to the quote-unquote Genius Bar at the Apple Store in the U-Village tomorrow. Good times. On a quick tangent, I wonder how Apple promotes its employees to Genius Bar status... "Congratulations, you are now qualified to be a genius."

It is unclear exactly what brought this device to its knees; it must have been all the great care I took not to move it too much that killed it. The Red X of doom is the Apple's equivalent of the blue screen of death.

Just to set the record straight, I already did everything I could to revive it from its state of death. Tried to reset it. Tried to restore it. Immersed it in water. Stomped on it. Microwaved it. Threw it 40 feet in the air to see if the impact upon hitting the ground would wake it up. Unfortunately, none of those did anything to revive the iPod.

(For those who are sense-of-humor-impared, I was just joking in most of the last paragraph.)

Getting another 160GB model in its place is almost out of the question. Especially after all the horrible and horrific reviews this product has been getting. I should have read these reviews up front.

But at the same time, assuming that this device had worked properly, this would have been perfect for what I need.

Apple has been doing what it can to transition from hard-drive-based iPods to flash-drive devices. Note that Apple hasn't been very forthcoming in admitting that its hard-drivers are prone to kaputness - in fact, they probably don't say a word because they know all the consumer reviews will.

Don't get me wrong; I'm one of the few numerous people out there who appreciate both the PC and Mac universes. I'm a PC user, and I predict sometime within the next decade I will buy an iMac or a Mac Pro (the latter of which, despite its overly-massive cost, is massively good). The biggest complaint I have about people who are sold out for either universe are the fact that neither is totally right - and will stubbornly attack the other without thinking. They're a little worse than American liberals vs. conservatives in my honest opinion. Many PC users hate the cost and relative un-upgradability of the Mac, while many Mac users go out of their way to dis-credit anything that has to do with PCs. The fact of the matter is, there are good and bad things about both.

If the device that I'm using was anything other than an iPod, all the Mac people would immediately say "get an iPod." Fair enough, it's a great device. If it works. Well, guess what, I will stick with the iPod, the $34 if-you-open-this-then this-is-what-you'll-be-paying no-matter-what fee notwithstanding. OK, let's explore my options:

I once said no-no to the small nano, but that might be my best choice because of its relative durability, and also (most important to me) the fact that it can still record out on the field (using a great device called the Belkin TrueTalk Stereo). The downside: only as much as 8 GB capacity in the current 3G nano models. Not bad, but I suspect that this device will only last me a year as I'll want to upgrade to much more capacity in the long run.

I could go for the iPod touch (the iPhones that aren't phones) but I'm not all about spending all that dough for only 16GB or 32GB, for a device that (at least without breaking into it) has no recording capability. Friends of mine have it and are happy with it; but that's one of Apple's big pluses: marketing for niche users. The iPod touch isn't my niche, and that's OK.

Or I could go back to the classic, and just get the lesser 80GB, which has slightly better consumer reviews than the 160GB counterpart.

On the bright side, there is one ounce of legacy from my kaput 160GB - I was able to get a recording of a live performance of a band that I play with once in a while... I get to market the live EP as being "recorded on an iPod that only lasted a week." Fun stuff.

Needless to say, I am disappointed in this turn of events. But as they say, one bad Apple doesn't spoil a whole bunch. Two bad Apples, on the other hand... well, we'll see.