Ho Hum, Just Another Ambient Dub Masterpiece. From Japan This Time
Come on, people, we’ve been over this: ambient dub doesn’t need any more masterpieces. We’ve already had Dubchek’s Down Memory Gap Lane and the Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and a few others, and they’re all very lovely and psychedelic and expansive, and they’re enough already. (Not to mention my whole drunken argument thing about dub being the ultimate expression of ambient music, and about how Eno and his ilk were already influenced by dub anyway. I’ll save that for some other time.) The last thing we need is for some Japanese dude to come along and try to create some kind of beautiful thing full of echoes and synths and muted trumpet and lovely melodies.
But of course that’s what Kazufumi Kodama A.K.A. “Echo” from Dub Station has done here. (I’ll just call him Kodama from here on in, but that whole long moniker is what he’s credited as, on the disc. So you know.) As a pioneer in Japanese dub—yeah, it’s a scene, what of it?—with Dub Station, he’s got the pedigree, he’s put in the hours. So here, on this solo disc (originally released in Japan in 2000), he has constructed a loose concept album (don’t worry, only two tracks have vocals) about space, and made it swing. Kodama has built a hell of a soundtrack for the sci-fi movie in his head, and it’s a good thing that it’s available here for the first time.
He opens with the street-cred move of “Gate of Planet (Introduction)”: you know a brother’s serious when he busts out the kalimba. But this is just an opening trifle, and stuff gets serious on “Earth”. This is a bass-heavy concerto for Kodama’s jazz trumpet against his own synth-string arrangement. It’s like a lot of ambient dub, with unobtrusively pretty melodies that don’t try too hard and deceptively simple rhythm figures. If “Earth” sounds too facile on first listen, try it again; you’ll notice the depth of the sonic layering and whisper “wow”. Then you’ll get how hip-hop the percussion line runs and say “dude”, and then you’ll dig the Miles Davisisms of the muted trumpet and be all like “yeahhhhhh” like a damned hippie raver punk rasta or something.
Let’s just say here that Kodama is a really amazing trumpet player. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t try to impress anyone with the sheer volume of his notes-to-bar ratio, but he’s great nonetheless because all he’s trying to do is paint the corners with that trumpet. “Funky Planet” is the centerpiece of the LP, and it comes to life largely because Kodama plays that thang like he’s muttering a love poem to the Queen of Sheba. Never loud, rarely blistering, always on point, Kodama nails moody Rastafari (“Stars”) and smooth Caribbean lovers’ rock (“Romance” with its steel drum sounds) while still sounding like himself.
Since Kodama is responsible for every single sound on this record except one vocal (UA’s turn on “Moonlight Waltz”), he gets to get all playful. “Mars” finds him trading fours with himself in both piano-man and trumpet-jock modes; it sounds natural and cool, especially when the piano guy starts to do little free-jazz freakouts—because in comes trumpet-jock to save the day with soft cadences and honeyed tones. He’d be good if he was just a trumpeter but he isn’t just an anything, and therein lies his power.
Actually, I think the aspect of this disc that I didn’t get until the third or fourth listen is just what a great drum programmer he is. “Herb Yard” has a crazy forward drive based entirely on hi-hat and rimshot sounds, framing the horn flourishes the way they should be framed. “Romance” is all vibes and steel drums until you whip out the ol’ headphones, at which point it comes alive with found footsteps and wind noises and fake vinyl crackles, and some really kickin’ down tempo cymbal sounds. And “Waveless Wave (Dub Station Philharmonic Version)” is the slowest damned thing that you’ll ever fall in love with, especially with all those faux-cellos and not-quite-oboes and I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-harp sounds echoing all around the mix.
Okay, so you’ll hate this if you need speed and shifting textures and Loudness! in your music. (Uh, except for “45F”, which brings in a humongous hip-hop beat and crashing cymbals, only to disappear after just 92 seconds.) And okay, if you’re not down with the idea of a Japanese trumpeter making a truly wonderful ambient dub record, then . . . well, in that case, you’re too far gone for me.