[21 May 2012]
The best spot-the-influence albums don’t just work obvious reference points into new shape via synthesis—they match or better those influences on their home turf. On his debut solo album, K Ishibashi (aka Kishi Bashi) doesn’t bother ducking the Andrew Bird and Owen Pallett comparisons that are bound to dog him as a solo pop violinist/multi-instrumentalist, and he seemingly makes no bones about his admiration for Animal Collective. That Ishibashi occasionally slips into Japanese in his songs is indicative of his overall approach; on 151a: He proves himself conversant in many languages without sacrificing his own idiosyncratic vision.
Ishibashi, also the singer-guitarist for New York pop outfit Jupiter One, has spent the last few years playing live solo shows, looping layers of sound on top of each other to create a compact orchestral sound. 151a reflects this approach in the interlocking repetitive lines underlying many of the compositions. But it’s the strong central melodies and a lyrical flood of romantic sentiment, bonkers imagery, and pop culture debris that propel these tunes along.
On the early album high point “Manchester”, he tracks the potential of a burgeoning love affair through literary metaphor from first page to novel to sequel to happy-sad ending: “My favorite part’s when I die / In your arms like a movie / It’s tragic, but now the story has its proper end”. Ishibashi juxtaposes these long-term aspirations with gently spoken overtures (“Oh hello / Will you be mine? / I haven’t felt this alive in a long time”), building both the fantasy and reality of the relationship from delicately plucked violin to sweeping strings. By the end of “Manchester”, it’s impossible to separate hope for the future from excitement of the present, and equally impossible to not get caught up in the song’s bliss.
The dramatic and romantic particularly suit Ishibashi. Another highlight, “Bright Whites”, immediately follows “Manchester”, and it’s even bigger and brighter in approach but with darker ambiguities embedded throughout. Over a folky, “Cecilia”-esque stomp, Ishibashi sketches another smitten lover, but this one’s a little more unhinged, a little less like long-term boyfriend material: “After you said that you liked Big Red / I opened up my mind and skipped a beat / Cufflinks and hands in wrong places and faces / and creepy little movies made me weep”. With dips into social commentary and doubts about the present (“We’re living in a land that went astray from history”) and a sweetly-sung, falsetto Japanese refrain that translates partially into “can’t take it anymore”, there’s quite a bit more going on here than suggested by the relaxed McCartney-esque vocal delivery in the verses. This hints at some of the grim romantic impulses that crop up in the later part of the album. “Atticus, in the Desert” pairs cinematic strings with campfire whistling to accompany the slow fade of love, although the lyric sheet suggests he can’t resist the odd music nerd pun (“What began as an epic / Ended a Partched pathetic / Arid and valid like our attachments”). On “I Am the Antichrist to You”, Ishibashi sets an ambiguous, falsetto-sung love story with a backdrop of fallen angels and burned souls to echo-drenched plinking.
When not preoccupied with the upsides and downsides of big romance, Ishibashi keeps things playfully varied and weird, affecting hyperactive Animal Collective on “It All Began With a Burst” and “Chester’s Burst Over the Hamptons” and dropping references to Wonder Woman, Highlander, and The Fast and the Furious elsewhere.
Perhaps it’s this exciting restlessness, combined with obvious instrumental talents, that explains why Kevin Barnes tapped Ishibashi to collaborate on Of Montreal’s recent Paralytic Stalks. There’s a similar mutability of styles at play on 151a, although they’re at peace with each other, far less tortured and schizophrenic than Barnes’ psychodrama. With his influences unabashedly on display — but never used as a crutch — and a sentimental streak that never comes across as mushy, Ishibashi’s lack of self-consciousness turns out to be 151a‘s most appealing quality.