t’s always something of a surprise to put an Otomo Yoshihide album in the CD player—he’s had a long and varied career that’s spanned everything from noisy turntable experimentalism, to low-key guitar-based improvisation, to jazz. His New Jazz Quintet (and its slightly expanded “Ensemble” line-up, featuring Sachiko M on sine waves and Masuko Tatsuki’s electronics) has largely explored the latter vein, living up to the promise of its name by infusing the pop-jazz idiom with exciting new life.
On Dreams, Yoshihide leads his players through a tight set of covers that are inventive and unique without ever becoming inaccessible. The bright, clean tones of Yoshihide’s guitar open the album with Asa-Chang & Junray’s “Preach,” before the female vocals (all sung in Japanese) enter the mix. Throughout the record, the group leader’s guitar is characteristically understated, and he’s matched by the subdued—but subtly passionate—vocal performances. This subtlety is the record’s greatest strength. The band never goes for easy kitsch or over-the-top arrangements, instead always bringing out the emotional core of the material they’re tackling.
Both vocalists, Phew and Togawa Jun, help bring this emotional engagement to the album. On “Teinen Pushigang,” Phew’s strident, almost-chanted vocals, alternately harsh and tranquil, are matched by a menacing rhythmic base and a discordant midway sax solo. “Yume” and the Yoshihide original “Good Morning” (the album’s only non-cover) are excellent showcases for this group’s calmer side, providing long arenas for slow, moody build-ups of tension and atmospheric horn solos on the bridges. On songs like this, the band achieves their peak, sounding like a slightly quirky late-night lounge act—soothing but somewhat off-kilter and certainly original.
Sachiko M’s sine waves add a surprising amount to these tracks, too. They’re present for most of the album as a low background tone, drifting through the songs’ periphery and weaving around the more complex instrumentation. These tones—like many of this music’s finer points—can easily slip into the subconscious range, but their presence adds a warmth and depth to the recordings that might have otherwise been lacking.
This illustrates an interesting point about this album, in that every element is equally important to the final result. The gorgeous, expressive sax and trumpet, the passionate vocals, the stately, restrained percussion, and the clearly-defined guitar all merge and meld to create a beautiful whole.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on a 16-minute cover of Jim O’Rourke’s “Eureka” which serves as Dreams’ heart. Taking their time to build up the elements of O’Rourke’s sparse ballad, the Ensemble completely outdoes the original. A minimal introduction consists mainly of saxophone, trumpet, and guitar wandering around the melancholy melody as the two vocalists croon, before giving way to field recordings and a sine wave-intensive second half featuring some nice bass work. This slowly builds with tumbling drums and more absolutely stunning horns, culminating in an absolute skronk explosion towards the end. It certainly helps that this is one of O’Rourke’s most well-written and beautiful songs, but this band completely transcends the source with their impassioned interpretation.
For the entire album, this transcendence is simply par for the course. The group only disappoints on the over-the-top closer, “Hanen Fukei,” which unfortunately forsakes the subtlety of the rest of Dreams in favor of explosive, pummeling noise and screamed vocals. The track is partially redeemed by another great sax solo, but otherwise seems very much out-of-place and closes the album on a sour note. Still, the preceding six excellent songs are more than enough reason to call this a fantastic album. It’s everything a covers album should be (and rarely is): inventive, uncompromising, and most importantly, always enjoyable. These songs are so thoroughly transformed by the group’s touch that it never seems like they’re playing covers; they’ve organically incorporated this material into their unique aesthetic, and the greatest success on here is how they manage to improve nearly everything they get their hands on.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01