Friday, September 14, 2012

JAM DESHO: Yoeko Kurahashi (倉橋ヨエコ) - Fujin-Yo (婦人用)

 By Steve Jones.

(JAM Desho is our regular feature highlighting the best in independent, experimental, or otherwise good music from Japan and beyond.)

Yoeko Kurahashi is an enigma, even by the standards of an artist who lives across the globe from me. She came onto the scene in 2000, produced a large number of albums and singles, and then suddenly retired in 2008. Her English-speaking audience is predictably small (although it is responsible for a great fansite), but from what I can glean she was also somewhat of a cult figure over in Japan. Her unique and, frankly, weird music attracted a small but loyal following, and I count myself happy to be within their ranks.

Kurahashi benefited from a style she could call her own. Her early albums in particular showcased a proficiency at pulling depth and range out of a bare-bones jazz ensemble (usually just her at the piano) and her wildly theatrical voice. She had a knack for matching the aggressive eccentricity of her performance with good, grounded songwriting, similar to the way an artist like Fiona Apple operates. Her music was also evocative of oldie pop from Showa-era Japan, which she matched with what I'm told are often self-deprecating lyrics (not too surprising, considering she named her farewell tour the "Kanshateki Kaitai Yoeko Tour" or "Thankful Dismantling Yoeko Tour").

Fujin-Yo was her first full album, released in 2002 after a string of shorter EPs. It was also the first release where she assembled a full backing band to support her piano playing. It's more drums than anything, but you'll hear bass and guitar in some songs, as well as the occasional cheap synth sound that tickles my music bone in just the right way. It's obvious the production for the album was done on a shoestring budget, but it's all the more charming for it, and Kurahashi's voice and songwriting shine throughout. It's a prime example of music that sounds weird and fun simply by virtue of the composition and performance, without the need or aid of studio wizardry.

Please do watch the above video for the song "Yona Yona Yona," because it's the best two minute introduction to Yoeko Kurahashi that I can give you (not to mention it's the way I found out about her). I don't believe the video is official--likely done by a fan in Flash--but the images and music are a perfect marriage of strangeness, and it exemplifies Kurahashi's proficiency at drafting catchy and slightly unsettling jazzy pop tunes. The sinister piano rolls and beautifully discordant harmonies ride that fine and interesting line between creepy and attractive. Her music is a bit like having a really gorgeous insect climb around your arm. Your instinct may be to shake it off, but you also don't want to let it fly away and disappear forever.

Eventually, Kurahashi signed a major label deal in 2005, and she followed the normal piano-playing-singer-songwriter trajectory of releasing albums which, despite better and denser production, somehow don't sound as illustrious as their early material. Don't get me wrong; she never released a bad record, and even her last album Kaitai Piano retained much of her off-beat appeal, but tempered with more straightforward rock and pop tunes. I can play any of her records and be happy, and I think that's precisely because she called it quits. Maybe she recognized that she had run out of songs to write, and nobody can begrudge her for releasing enough material in 8 years to last other artists about two decades.

In addition to Fujin-Yo, I highly recommend the compilation SHUUGAKUSHOU COMPLETE BEST 2000~2008 to anybody who wants a taste of her career. I don't tend to recommend compilations, but her material is hard enough to find, and this one is a really competent collection of a lot of my favorites. It'll paint you a picture of an artist who, much like the visionary Shiina Ringo, stands out as a singular and powerful voice of her own creation.

(Steve Jones wants to dismantle some pianos. You can stalk his exploits on his Twitter @vestenet. Thanks for reading!)

1 comment:

  1. Beatiful article about Yoeko! I had discovered her since last year and it's a pitty that not so much people know her music here were I live. Anyways, I'm grateful yo know that AM not the only one. Greetings from México!