“Everyone who hears Maher should say ‘I could do it!’”, Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s Tori Kudo once said. That anyone-can-do-it attitude, the common thread between a child’s impulsive drawing of a dog and a born-of-the-basement band of punk-rock amateurs, has driven all of the Japanese band’s music. It’s perhaps one thing they have in common with the Scottish indie-pop band the Pastels, with whom they’ve toured, collaborated, and shared a record label, Geographic, which Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels co-founded. That Scottish label essentially brought Maher to the attention of Western audiences earlier this decade, with the 2000 compilation of previously released music A Summer to Another Summer (An Egypt to Another Egypt) and the 2003 album Blues du Jour, a 41-track epic that ran through a lo-fi audio kaleidoscope of intuitive rock, pop, folk, jazz, and what-have-you.
It’d be fair to say that a decent number of the indie-rock kids that learned of Maher from those releases would be surprised to learn that the band was around all the way back in 1984. Kunitachi Kibun: Live 1984-85 goes back to that time; back, in fact, to the band’s very first performance, in December of ‘84 at Kid Ailack Hall in Tokyo. It takes a recording of that performance and pairs it with one from six months later, June of 1985. Each live set is presented as one track on the CD, making each listenable only as one solid piece, despite the song titles listed out in the liner notes.
A few years back I read a quote from a concertgoer saying that Maher Shalal Hash Baz sounded like they’d only been playing their instruments for a few weeks. They sound that way as well on the two performances collected on Kunitachi Kibun: Live 1984-85. It’d be tempting to say that in this case they had only been playing their instruments a short time, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Even then Tori Kudo was skilled at playing music, though his music didn’t put skill itself on a pedestal. Sounding like they have no business playing music is central to the whole endeavor of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Often fittingly described as a naivist, Kudo is trying to get to some core of magic by choosing to make music that sounds rough and intuitive instead of polished and practiced.
Kunitachi Kibun sounds especially rudimentary because of the sound quality. This is a bootleg-quality recording, akin to the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City minus the conversations between audience members. Actually, it might not even be that good. On that Velvets album I can hear the vocals and their melodies without having to put on headphones and concentrate so hard that my temples hurt. In its own way, though, the muddled sound plays right into Maher’s aesthetic. It makes this album feel like some kind of holy grail, like its long been buried in the ground. And it makes what’s going on musically sound all the more mysterious and confusing. That’s all an intellectual defense I suppose. The sound quality might fit right in with the creative vision of Kudo, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t sacrifice it for a hi-fi copy in a heartbeat.
The Kunitachi Kibun cover art is a drawing by Kudo that served as a poster advertising the Ailack Hall show, a triple bill of High Rise, Kosokuya, and Maher. The simple sketch is of a guitar side by side with a horn. That in its essence is what the music inside is about. The dominant instruments during the first set are a guitar and a euphonium – a brass horn that in the West is often inaccurately described as a small tuba. The story goes that the euphonium was the key impetus to the formation of Maher, that Kudo started the band with euphoniumist Hiro Nakazaki after hearing a Mayo Thompson track (off his 1969 album Corky’s Debt to His Father) with a euphonium. The two guitars, dark and slanted off the beaten path, mix in an interesting way with the bright, yet equally slanted horn. With the vocals buried so far in the mix, that collision between sounds gives this recording much of its creative spark.
That’s especially true of the 1985 set, where the addition of alto sax, soprano sax, and cello flesh out that dark/light dynamic, pushing the balance a bit toward the latter mood and in the process keeping the atmosphere particularly lively. That set feels overall much more fully formed and together than the ‘84 set. That initial set for the band begins with a joyful version of “Unknown Happiness”, but soon sounds so meandering and muddled that it’s hard to draw much feeling from it. Of course, meandering is key to Kudo’s artistic path, but in this case it can be difficult to break through the barrier imposed by the sound quality to really grasp the inner feeling (or at times even the outer surfaces) of the music.
The second set is no less rough on the surface, but is somehow easier to enjoy. It’s just as discordant as the first half, just as purposely off-key, and just as muffled, yet the fuller sound brings to life Kudo’s uniquely fractured pop songs in a more vivid way. There’s a striking creative car-crash feeling, like a marching band, a free jazz trio, and a folk-song choir all collided, with a pop crooner buried somewhere at the bottom of the pile. With such willfully elusive music, what strikes a listener as magic versus mess is quite subjective. Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s bold achievement is to create an interesting mess which sometimes feels like magic. That shines through here even if the recording quality seems to stack the deck against the music.