Review Summary: All adrift in time and space...
Some albums have a way of emerging the undergrowth at exactly the right moment. I think all of us must have stumbled upon at least some of our favourite music with little to no context; we all have unlikely finds that are all the more memorable for their unlikeliness. I bought two of my all-time favourite albums at record stores without ever having heard a full song from their respective artists, and the impressions they left on me are all the fiercer as a result. Doing away with preconceptions and letting music have its way with your synapses is an unreliable way to encounter new sounds, but at its best there’s nothing like it.
This is entirely relevant to Mikkou
, and not just from a personal perspective. As I understand it, Yoshiko Sai had a short run of somewhat obscure albums in the mid/late 70s before stepping off the scene until 2001 and later being retroactively discovered and acclaimed on YouTube (this review is, of course, one such discovery). Unlike some other similar cases, Sai is not to be mistaken for a blast-from-the-past meme in the vein of Plastic Love
; her work has aged well and has a somewhat timeless quality to it, occasional psychedelic overtones aside. There's a sense that no matter where and when any particular listener happened to be, this album could have washed up on them and found a way to play out its rich weave of visions regardless; it has a strong enough sense of the remote to create its own space.
Its spaciousness is in large thanks to a reserve in composition that comes out distinctly and quite accessibly: the album is almost
relaxed; it evokes a deeply mellow, exotic atmosphere but it’s performed with just the right edge of palpable concertion to maintain a note of suspense and (if you will) mystique. In this sense the artwork is perfectly matched; there’s a slightly decadent yet unextravagant sense of the imaginary at work here. A familiar point of comparison for many would be Taeko Onuki’s Sunshower
, but while that album married pop with jazz and drew its inspiration from the bustle of the city, Mikkou
finds its counterparts in folk and psychedelia and lets its scope drift whimsically to more remote quarters. It’s rarely minimal, but it is certainly sparse.
The sparseness in question owes much to the mix and arrangement; Sai's vocals are always centre stage and accompanied by a maximum of one or two non-rhythm instruments at any given time. These instruments are drawn from a healthy mix; flute, dulcimer, sitar, tabla, vibraphone and cello all jump out in the credits, and the presence of each is marked on its occasion. The arrangement never leans towards an ensemble effect and deploys each sound in a way that draws maximally from its individual character without overplay it. This is exemplified by the sprinking of vibraphone in Kagami Jigoku
or the occasional well-placed pluck of the dulcimer in Hito no Inai Shima
. The sitar, however is mainly used to frame and accent tracks such as the opener and Kinu no Michi
rather than to drive them throughout.
This an appropriate reflection of the psychedelic influences here; Mikkou
is fundamentally a folk album steered in a pop direction by its vocal performance and further characterised by a psychedelic overtone. It rarely explores this full-on, but it does give the psych-oriented instrumentation freedom to colour the sound accordingly thanks to the clean, immediate mix. The exceptions to this are the opener and closer, which embraces psychedelic grooves complete with distorted guitar and wah-laden keyboards; these tracks are striking in their own right (particularly the dramatic closer/title-track) and they complement the mellower central portion of the album effectively.
At the centre of everything is Sai’s voice, which merits its own analysis. Her mid-range, full-toned croon falls just on the clean side of huskiness and is the album’s most immediate source of appeal. Tracks like Haru
and Nemuri no Kuni
seem to float and drift around the gentle yet firm force of her performance, equal parts personal and performative but always competent and entirely in command of the balance of attention. Her voice is especially welcome given how contemporary Japanese music leans overwhelmingly to higher voices and has a preference for thinner timbres, which is not always to the detriment of its artists, but it does immediately give Sai the benefit of contrast and also adds to this album’s feeling of timelessness.
Timelessness is key here, I suppose; from its texture to its title (trans. ‘stowaway’) Mikkou
has the feeling of a lost treasure. The feeling of unearthing a past classic is now part of the album’s heritage and its sense of atmosphere is more than strong enough to withstand the concession that the unearthing in question was the result of a means as prosaic as YouTube; this is a striking and deeply captivating album that has only gained weight through its long history of obscurity.