Kevin Pearce reviews Even A Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969 – 1973, a new compilation from Light in the Attic
There is still something so incredibly intoxicating about having a whole new area of musical activity opened up in an elegant and enlightening way. This wonderful Light in the Attic collection does just that. It illuminates sounds of the Japanese underground from the start of the 1970s, and for anyone who has been having fun investigating recordings by the likes of Donovan, Heron, Keith Christmas, Bill Fay, Mr Fox, Shelagh McDonald, and so on, this compilation will be well worth exploring.
The collection is billed as the first of its kind to be released legitimately in the West, and that may well be the case. What is surprising is that it has taken so long to emerge. What is not a surprise is that there was so much great music, in the (loosely) folk rock field, created in Japan at the time. For in a similar timeframe there was incredible music being made around the world by young people inspired by what was happening in the UK/USA, but who were intent on creating something of their own, drawing often on their own folk music forms and rhythms.
It is easy enough then to find incredible folk rock sounds coming out of, say, France, Greece, Chile, Uruguay, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Cuba, Romania, Latvia, and so forth, where sometimes the traditional folk song aspects were a way of beating censors or antagonising purists. So, yes, it makes sense that there should also be fantastic folk rock music coming out of Japan as the 1970s got underway. The real question is: where has it been hiding?
The story is that this collection of sounds from the underground (or angura) draws on scenes that were active in the Dogenzaka district of Tokyo and in the Kansai region, neatly reflecting what was going on in the States with the activity of Bob Dylan and The Band in the hills of Woodstock, New York, and what was happening over on the West Coast with the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield family tree. Those names are not mentioned accidentally, for they often sound very much like the main influences on the musicians active on this compilation.
One name on the compilation may be familiar, and that is Maki Asakawa, whose remarkable and often gloriously unsettling deep voice was showcased superbly on an Honest Jon’s CD a couple of years ago. Her ‘Konna Fu Ni Sugite Iku No Nara’ recurs here, but anyone looking for more of the blues-in-the-night, bottom-of-the-glass saloon bar jazz ballads Maki excelled in will be frustrated.
Another name that might be known – or will be – is Sachiko Kanenobu, who somehow steals the show from the mostly male cast with her track ‘Anata Kara Toku E’, a gorgeous, jazzy, light and flighty affair which it is easy to become obsessed with, and which sounds similar to what Linda Lewis was doing around the same time. It comes from Sachiko’s incredible Misora LP, which was released in Japan in 1972 and is now very much a cult favourite. And her story is quite something too. It’s worth looking up.
It is easy enough to pick other outstanding tracks from this collection, but what is really striking is how it flows as a whole, and how it creates a mood of its own which is sustained impressively. Said mood is a rather wistful, reflective, meditative, melancholic one, with an autumnal feel, suggesting lingering mists, leaves falling, heating being turned on, and warmer clothes being unpacked affectionately.
There is no easy way of knowing if this compilation accurately reflects what was going on in Japan at the start of the 1970s, and frankly it hardly seems to matter. If, however, you are the sort of person who leans heavily towards the broken ballads of Rod and the Faces rather than the raw rockers, and who prefers the torch ballads of Bob Dylan to his cast iron talkin’ blues, then this is very much a collection that will appeal.
Credit must also go to Yosuke Kitazawa for the introductory notes to this collection, which strike just the right tone, being informative without seeming patronising. The notes are accompanied by English translations of the lyrics. Often part of the appeal of recordings in languages we cannot easily follow is that the vocals become another instrument, and the listener is free to play with ideas of what the songs may be about. So the risk is that including the words in translation may shatter some mystique. But that most definitely is not the case here.‘Mizu Tamari’ by Fumio Nunoya is delivered at times in a deep soul growl wracked with pain, with supportive ‘Albatross’ twangs (which suggest some of the Major Force guys’ work back in the heyday of Mo’Wax and Pussyfoot). And, beautifully, the words in English are ‘The fallen sunset / The whisper of the city / Are all reflected in the puddles / In the city’. Then there is Tetsuo Saito’s ‘Ware Ware Wa’, which sounds like a New Morning session where, mid-song, Bob decides to cut loose and howl at the moon and talk in tongues. Tetsuo sings words which translate as: ‘Now is the time to understand the sadness of life / The sadness of life / The anger of life / Caught in the spiral of the changing times / We’ll die in a world full of lies’. It is a quite remarkable performance.
But then this is a remarkable and often oddly beautiful collection – and one which is a timely reminder of how much music there still is to be discovered, thankfully.
Even A Tree Can Shed Tears is out now on CD and vinyl, and is available to buy here.