Stereotypes of video games and technology might be crude, but they’re not baseless – Japan is rich in culture and heritage. But for the tenth most populous country in the world, its contribution to music can seem slight. There are many reasons for this: there’s the obvious cultural and language differences, but in 2017 with better understanding only a phonetap away, there’s a far more direct barrier – limited access. The portion of Japanese music available to Western ears on streaming services is minor, thanks to complicated licensing agreements and laws. Even with the world at our literal fingertips on Spotify, Japanese music remains a fairly specific interest. Light In The Attic, the wonderful label behind acclaimed reissues of music by acts from Lewis to Lizzy Mercier Descloux, attempts to fix it with a trilogy of archival compilations exploring specific Japanese scenes. The series’ first entry, Even A Tree… tackles a specific period of Japanese folk tradition, but the results feel more familiar than expected.
Fair warning: nearly all of this compilation is performed in Japanese. So if lyrical comprehension is vital to your experience of folk and rock, the charms of this selection might pass you by. Given how we experience our folk heroes like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, listening to music like this in a different way – not for its personal candour or political rousings but instead its sense of texture and melody – can be a strange experience.
But if you can get past that, the results are rewarding. At nineteen tracks, there’s a lot to pick from, but there’s plenty of highlights: Akai Tori‘s fingerpicked ‘Takeda No Komori Uta‘ marries ghostly Kate Bush vocals to droning cello tones; Sachiko Kanenobu daydreams through cooed “ba ba ba” vocals on ‘Anata Kara Toku E;‘ and Takashi Nishioaka‘s ‘Man-in No Ki‘ is a psychedelic spiral of proto-shoegaze guitar. The most familiar name here is probably Yellow Magic Orchestra member Haroumi Hosono, who unexpectedly dabbles in country guitar on ‘Boku Wa Chotto‘, but there’s only one dud and that comes from Fumio Nunoya, whose strained bellow jars on the thankfully-short ‘Mizu Tamari.’
What makes Even A Tree… so fascinating isn’t how different it sounds to Western tradition, but how similar. The voices are different and the melodies come from Eastern pentatonic scales, but a well-written song can transcend its era and culture, and most of this compilation manages to do that. There is so much out there – a cursory scan of Discogs re-issues or visit to cult blog Listen To This will only confirm how deep this alternative canon of music goes. To mine through it could only be an impossible task, yet Even A Tree… finds moments of neglected brilliance, showcasing obvious appeal from a cult niche.
Even A Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973 is out on October 20th through Light In The Attic.