Sunday, June 10, 2012

JAM DESHO: Aiko Shimada - Blue Marble

By Steve Jones.

(JAM Desho is our regular feature telling you about the best from the Far East.)

I'm cheating a bit by talking about this album here, as Aiko Shimada, despite being born in Japan, actually wrote and recorded this album while she lived in Seattle. But you know, this is a criminally underheard album and a simply lovely collection of music, and that's really why I write this column. It's not about nationalities. It's about the music. So let's hop in.

Aiko Shimada has written several albums, but her 2001 effort Blue Marble is the easiest to find, by virtue of it having been released through Tzadik's New Japan label. In fact, allow me to use this space to unabashedly recommend everything from New Japan, through which I've found some of my favorite underground experimental and avant-garde releases. Of course, this includes Blue Marble, whose accessibility and beauty make it a great place to start if you're unfamiliar with the label.

I don't get to say this too often, but the album art is a perfect match for the album proper. Blue Marble is quintessential nighttime music, calming and meditative, yet also bright and playful in a way that fits the story of the rabbit in the moon. On the surface, I hear a lot of similarities to Espers in that the music is evocative of the older world, and there also is definitely the presence of English folk buried in many of the tracks. The opener "Mezame (Morning, Part 1)" surrounds the listener with a round of guitars and Shimada's haunting voice, and it sounds like it should be introducing some fable from the oral history. But the following track "Toki wa Sugi" (literally "time has passed" I think) finds Shimada backed by a chamber string ensemble, whose melody moves steadily downward in a somber reflection of the past. I wish I could comment on Shimada's lyrics directly, but elementary Japanese only gets me so far. However, her voice and her arrangements do such a good job of establishing mood that the listener can understand these songs, even if they cannot understand Shimada.

"Wakare" ("Farewell") introduces percussion and minimal electronic humming in such a way that is slightly reminiscent of the darkness of some of late-'90s Björk. This isn't a reductionist comparison, however, as one of my favorite parts of this song is the acoustic string bass that occasionally pops into the mix. It's subtle, but it really speaks to Shimada's unique sound and musical personality that comes through in this album. It's also one of the reasons I can so clearly picture this album performed with a small ensemble in some church somewhere. This music has intimacy as well as eccentricity, which is where I like music to sit. So as to continue her pattern of varying song styles, "Busy Rabbit" is the poppiest thing on the album, effortlessly combining the folk, chamber, and electronic aspects of the prior three tracks into a fun piece which nonetheless feels at home in this relatively subdued album.

The "Morning" series can be taken as one piece split into three movements--the 1st, 5th, and 9th tracks--which provides a structural symmetry to the record that just makes me further impressed with its composition. It's especially cool because the tracks are related both in music and theme, not just in name. For instance, the track titles translate roughly to "Awakening" ("Mezame"), "Sunlight" ("Hikari"), and finally "Morning" ("Asa"). "Awakening," as previously discussed, accurately captures that feeling of introduction as well as the feeling of being trapped between two worlds, not quite grounded in either yet. Not quite asleep or awake. "Sunlight" is just Shimada's voice harmonizing with itself to create an ethereal choir. As the conclusion of the album and of the piece, "Morning" is an appropriate combination of both "Awakening" and "Sunlight," combining the words and melody (and eventually instrumentation) of the former with the imperceptibly beautiful voices of the latter, and expanding them into a ten minute trip. Despite the recapitulation of prior sounds, it's actually not something that's easy to pick up on without listening to the tracks in succession, which speaks to how well the album as a whole is constructed.

To expand upon the tracks I haven't talked about yet, "Blue Marble" is a slow, smoky song that evolves from the jazz bar seductiveness of upright bass and voice into a folksy mix of woodwinds, guitar and violin. It sounds in writing like an odd progression, but it sounds completely natural in the song itself. "Silent" is the incidental instrumental track, featuring the chamber string ensemble playing a short, classically-congruous piece. It's nice in context, but nothing particularly rewarding when taken outside of the record. Finally, "Song for Mark," despite its name, is also completely instrumental, but it feels more improvisational. The electric guitar and strings play off of each other in a fashion that should soundtrack a walk through a dark forest.

I can't think of too many other albums remotely like Blue Marble. Aiko Shimada draws upon classical, folk, and popular influences in a strange, twisted manner. Yet she produces a gorgeous and mystifying album that belies the complexity of its composition by drawing the listener irrevocably into her world. It's a world that exists in that early morning haze between dreams and reality, between night and day, and Shimada makes it sound absolutely intoxicating.

Since Blue Marble has had a recent stateside release, this Samsonite Samurai feature is unusual in that it is easy to find this album and support the artist, which I suggest you do.

(Steve Jones wants to play with some moon rabbits. If you know any, send him a clue via his Twitter @vestenet.)


  1. What a beautiful review. I've been familiar with the tzadik label for a while now, but just recently decided to check out Blue Marble. A captivating album indeed. "Song For Mark" is out of this world.

  2. Yeah, Blue Marble is criminally underheard, but it's very nice to hear about other people enjoying it.