If By Yes
Salt On Sea Glass
"Waiting for the CD to be released."
These were the last words of my review of the concert by the Yuka Honda Group
that I attended about four years ago. And I was the first to be surprised
of my very favourable opinion of said concert, given the fact that I had
decided to attend it out of sheer curiosity - factor #1, I have to admit,
being the possibility to catch Petra Haden singing the lead parts of this
repertory, which I expected to be for the most part pretty unfamiliar to
me. Yes, I had a passable knowledge of the music of Cibo Matto, but those
solo Yuka Honda albums that followed... well, I didn't know the first thing
But seeing the Bill Frisell/Petra Haden duo live had been a pleasure, the singer
making a good job of singing those quite disparate songs with ease and
feeling. Which can sound as a given, right?, except for the fact that that
night an icy wind - in summer! - had blown incessantly, making life miserable
for both musicians and audience. Chill factor notwithstanding, Petra Haden
had managed to maintain her believability - and sense of pitch.
Quite diverse in style and mood, the concert by the Yuka Honda Group had offered
many quality moments. And so - provided I had understood this spoken part
correctly - I hoped that the announced Honda/Haden album that appeared
to be in the works could become reality.
And here it is: Salt On Sea Glass (with a play on words, I think, on Californian
Salton Sea), by If By Yes: a quartet where two musicians I'm not really
familiar with, but who I'm told are held in high esteem, and widely known
- Yuro Araki, on drums and percussion; and Hirotaka Shimizu, on guitars
- are featured members alongside Honda's many keyboards and Haden's multiple
Salt On Sea Glass is not an easy album to present, due to its apparent "user-friendliness".
It's an album that can filed under "Pop", and rightly so (just
adding, if one so wishes, words such as "evolved", "complex", "intelligent",
and so on). But things are made even more complicated by the fact that
"Pop" is a category even more vague and diverse than "Rock"
ever was in its heyday.
"Hidden complexity": These words - which I'd rather not use - are
the ones that in my opinion best describe this album. An album that features "special
guests" (Cornelius, David Byrne),
"usual suspects" (Sean Lennon, Trevor Dunn), a few nice surprises
(Nels Cline, Douglas Wieselman), and a couple of names I'm not so familiar
with (Jeff Hill, Pamelia Kurstin).
This is not music intended to highlight
"solos". It's the parts that matter, and the final result. I'm
glad I can say that both the parts and the whole are clearly audible, though
most pieces offer a full spectrum that reminded me of an orchestra. It has
to be said that the whole sounds all of a piece, even if the album - conceived
and realized in the course of about ten years - was recorded in different
sessions, in different studios, using different instrumentation, musicians,
and engineers. Of course, there are two unifying elements at work here: Yuka
Honda's production (and let's not undervalue her keyboard - and string -
work) and Haden's voice(s).
(I tried to determine how many - and which - tracks I had already listened
to, on the night of that concert. I believe I already listened to Imagino,
and to something quite similar to the "rock piece with vocals" which
ends the album. I almost believe I've already listened to I'm Still Breathing
and Lightning In Your Mind. Maybe.)
For this writer, the album's first two tracks work as an introduction of sorts.
You Feel Right is a bossa where drums, bass, and keyboards are played by
Keigo Oyamada/Cornelius, who remixed the track; a multi-vocal bossa, some
vocals being treated with effects,
"shimmering" cymbals, some bass/percussion accents occurring in
places where we would not expect them to be. Eliza sounds very
"Bollywood" - just check those strings, and the vocal melody; acoustic
guitars come to the foreground, Byrne vocals are appropriate, there's a fine
use of lap steel (by Nels Cline), a nice close.
This, in my opinion, is where the album really starts. Three As Four (Sean
Lennon on basses) opens with guitar harmonics; it's a ballad with accented
backing, which "opens up" in the chorus; fine use of cymbals,
and a "space interlude" for guitar and synth. Imagino - a Wurlitzer
and a Theremin being added to the mixture - has a liquid mood; a tenor
sax reminded me for a minute of the old Wayne Horvitz album Dinner At Eight:
I checked, and it's really Doug (now Douglas) Wieselman playing here. The
only track produced by Keigo Oyamada/Cornelius, I'm Still Breathing has
some subtle time shifts, and subtle touches (just check the electric guitars
played arpeggio at the start of the piece); there's an excellent layered
vocal performance by Petra Haden. In My Dreams is the last track of what
I imagine to be "Side 1" (there's an LP of this album, but I
have never seen it - or listened to it; however, when it comes to recording
and mastering, this CD sounds great); an "eastern" melody that
changes in the chorus, an acoustic bass, tenor sax, the Theremin again,
and a very good snare, played rimshot.
"Side 2" starts - quite a surprise, this - with a funky rhythm, à
la Steely Dan, circa Gaucho: Shadow Blind features a very "bluesy" Haden,
an excellent performance by Yuro Araki,
"thin" guitars and a "fat" bass, plus Rhodes and Tenorion
(I had to do a Web search for this), played by Yuka Honda. The only track
I didn't like, You're Something Else, is a "funky/trip-hop" mix.
Then it's time for what to me are the best tracks on the album. Out Of View,
featuring very fine keyboards and strings by Honda, is almost a lullaby;
tiny bells, a Rhodes, nice guitar arpeggios, a fine snare. Lightning In
Your Mind is the album's high point, a true "handkerchief moment":
snare drum played brushes, then the "orchestra", a superlative
performance by Petra Haden, an excellent vocal close. This is the real
close of the album.
Featuring bass, guitar, drums, and vocals, Adrift is a strange mixture of Pink
Floyd and Velvet Underground: a descending guitar arpeggio, fine bass drum,
cymbals, then a martial snare, close.
I'll add a few words at the end. The fact of the album having a US release
at the end of March, with the European release scheduled for the end of
April, made it possible for me to read a few reviews. All matters of taste
aside, I was very puzzled by what I perceived to be a certain superficiality
of judgment on the part of a few of my colleagues, who did not bother to
look beneath the album's shiny surface. So I'll openly invite readers to
listen to this album with great care.
© Beppe Colli 2011
CloudsandClocks.net | May 12, 2011