Thursday, December 1, 2011

JAM DESHO: Kahimi Karie - Journey to the Center of Me

By Steve Jones.

For me, Japanese music in the '90s was all about Shibuya-kei, the genre in which lounge, bossa nova, French pop, and other ingredients were filtered through the modern and/or foreign perspective of a new era of pop artists.  One of the giants of this movement was Kahimi Karie, who achieved quite a bit of mainstream success with her precious synth pop and innocently whispery delivery of sexually charged lyrics.  While she continues to make music (including one of the best contributions to the We ♥ Katamari soundtrack), her earlier collaborations with Scottish pop artist Momus are my preferred form of Kahimi, and my favorite of those is their last collaboration, this Journey to the Center of Me EP.

Momus explains his experience recording the music better than I could, but suffice to say, he and Kahimi had plenty of money and creative freedom given their previous successes, so they decided to indulge in a grandoise set of Elizabethan prog-pop.   They even hired an authentic ensemble of Renaissance era instruments and musicians (well, as authentic as the year 2000 could achieve):

The result is one of the most interesting albums I have in my collection.  Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of progressive rock inspired by and infused with the sounds of early British folk music (Gryphon, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Renaissance, Strawbs, etc.), so being able to hear this kind of style in a different way was a perfect set-up for me.  The unique and wonderful arrangements are complemented by Momus' songwriting, which is at its strongest both in terms of catchiness and lyricism.

The opener, "The Seventh Wife of Henry VIII," is my personal favorite, full of bombastic organ, impressive keyboard playing, "Greensleeves" quotes, and amusing lyrics from a girl madly in love with King Henry.  His penchant for beheading doesn't worry her, as she was not too keen on his previous wives:
Catherine of Aragon could only bear daughters
Anne Boleyn she went in like a heiffer to the slaughter
Anne of Cleves was a German bore
Catherine Howard a total whore
He had a son with Jane Seymour
You're history, Catherine Parr
You've all had your time
Heads off, he's mine!
"Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan" and "The Lady of Shalott" are darker pieces, but still driven by the fantastic arrangements.  This is some pre-baroque pop!  There's even some hints of metal in "The Lady of Shalott."  Admittedly, Kahimi's voice can be an acquired taste, particularly with how she can deliver a line like "I see masturbating monks on 42nd street" with the sweetest of whispers.  It's not for everybody, but I find her delivery to be a perfectly strange counterpart to the arrangements and lyrcs.

"Pygmalism" might be the best song Momus has written in his nearly 30-year career; it is certainly one of his best.  It tells the story of Pygmalion through the perspective of the woman/android brought to life and her eventual rebellion against her creator.  The lyrics are allusion-heavy, but in a good and appropriate way, and the music reaches desperate highs that match the emotions of our heroine.  I think, however, I prefer the version on Momus' solo album Folktronic.  While it lacks the authentic instrumentation of this version, I actually like Momus' performance as the protagonist better than Kahimi's.  Being female, Kahimi is probably the more appropriate singer, but she lacks some of the expressiveness and range that would have made the performance perfect.

"Journey to the Center of Me" closes the album with an upbeat jig about sex.  It's awesome.

Ultimately, this EP was probably too ambitious, and it failed to sell well.  Shibuya-kei as a movement was more or less exhausted by 2000 anyway.  But as far as failures go, this is one of the most interesting you'll hear.  You aren't going to find anything else like Journey to the Center of Me.

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