Review Summary: Q X P = masterclass in how to make your sound accessible while fleshing out its fundaments in new depth
Ichiko Aoba has a unique knack for crafting familiar components of folk music into a sound entirely of her own. Her work is immediately recognisable thanks to its distinctive balance between a disarmingly intimate tone and a fragile, sparse atmosphere achieved through compositional minimalism (it’s very rare that you’ll hear a sound other than her voice or guitar in any of her songs). However, while many folk singer-songwriters across the world would kill for this craft in and of itself, Ichiko has never been content to lean too far into the fundaments; as I discussed in my review for 0
, the only thing more striking about this clear talent is how resolutely uncomplacent she has been in her songwriting. On 0
, tracks like Kikaijikake No Uchuu
and Imperial Smoke Town
thrived on unpredictable, sprawling structures and stylistic fusions, while 2016’s Mahoroboshiya
doubled down on the most insular aspects of her sound in a solemn contemplation that concentrated the majority of its experimentation (all of which was to do with arrangement and production rather than structure) into the opening minute and final stretch of songs. The latter album’s true sense of boldness lay more in Ichiko’s willingness to take her music into such sober territory in the first place; it was as though she had already fleshed out the expansive scope of her craft on 0
and wanted to go to an opposite extreme; while 0
had its own share of starchy, minimal moments, Mahoroboshiya
reinvented them with a further sense of sobriety that made it a less inviting, but ultimately rewarding listen for altogether different reasons. Expediently put, a lose alignment can be drawn up wherein 0
offered us a relatable emotional palette within challenging songwriting, whereas Mahoroboshiya
opted for comparatively simplistic song structures to carry a far more veiled sense of affect.
This sets the scene nicely for qp
because the now-established trope of the Bold Step Between Ichiko Aoba Albums here is, well…that she seems to be done with bold steps. For the time being, anyway. Once more expediently, qp
’s immediacy of sentiment with Mahoroboshiya
’s unextravagent songwriting and ends up as Ichiko’s most accessible album to date; it’s less an adventurous step forwards and more a palatable streamlining of the fundaments of her craft. It’s not so much upbeat and cheerful (though it’s certainly a raise on Mahoroboshiya
’s dourness) as it is inviting and, for want of a better word, charming. Tsuki no Oka
is the spotlight song in this respect; its warm tone and simple melodies are instantly likeable and beautifully performed, but they also feel concisely substantial in a way that we haven’t heard before from Ichiko. Imagine 0
’s short palette cleanser Uta no Kehai
with all the weight of its opener Ikinokori Bokura
packed into it, or maybe a cheerier, less whimsical take on Mahoroboshiya
’s Kamisama no Takurami
. ‘Catchy’ isn’t really a word that belongs in Ichiko’s universe, but if it did, it would certainly apply to Tsuki no Oka
, which plays out as one of her very few tracks that could be a standalone single. More than anything else, it’s remarkable how much it sounds like a conventional folk song without losing any of its quintessentially Ichiko Aoba qualities; it’s not so much ambitious in its scope as it is ultra-focused on a fat-free sound both melodically bright and emotionally inviting. This, in turn, is very much the shape of qp
The album’s first half in particular demonstrates in no uncertain terms that its focus on accessible songwriting over expansive ambition is no disadvantage; Ichiko doesn’t waste a single second on tracks like Terifuriame
and Minashigo no Ame
. These are wound tightly round their rigid structures, every cyclical arpeggio and vocal inflection sounding absolutely integral to the song in question; Ichiko has always had a talent for getting her listeners to hang onto every note, and this translates as well across the relatively predictable melodies and structures here as it did to her past work. However, the reasons for this are subtly different to those in the past. While it was full of heart 0
was engaging first and foremost because of its endless array of dynamic permutations and structural diversity; the secret to qp
’s success, and the reason it plays out as comparatively accessible, is much more to do with its melodic subtleties and emotional interpolation. Its a subtle difference because Ichiko’s dynamic mastery still accentuates these songs (see my 0
review for much more on this), but these songs thrive off an emotional counterpoint that never seemed quite as nuanced before.
Please feel free to skip the following paragraph if you have no interest in music theory
, for instance: the bulk of the song is based around a series of arpeggios stating from Ab major 6th, but rather than indulging in that chord’s warmth and tranquility, she shifts arpeggios over the course of the verse into chords with increasing degrees of melodic tension. Taking the piece to be in Ab, her vocal melody initially orbits around the 6th, then shifts its focus to the 4th, and then the 3rd; each of these intervals brings more melancholy than the one before and near the end of the verse she brings this to a peak with the major3rd/low 7th/tonic phrasing that is used as a motif for unhappiness or, at the least, emotional restlessness in a vast range of pieces. The final phrase of the verse builds towards a resolution but, as it repeats before it gets there so on first iteration, the verse is essentially resolved by its own opening. On its second repeat, transitions into a bright, upbeat bridge starting on Eb major that, if heard in isolation, would seem somewhat uplifting and perky; artists often bring in the dominant major in this way when they want to sound especially triumphant (think the “all through the night
” at the end of the chorus in Teenage Kicks
). In Ichiko Aoba’s case, the shift only accentuates the song’s emotional imbalance; the bridge is full of a lopsided optimism that feels more like an evasion of the verses’ tension and restlessness than a real refutation of it. This is compounded by the way the song slips back into that exact same verse pattern, but the chords’ restlessness is drawn out even further by an unexpectedly violent rasguando voicing on the third repeat of the initial Ab major 6th. At this point, the song’s composition seems to acknowledge that it’s going through the same phrase without any hope of a resolution; Ichiko ditches her lyrics and opts for a fragile, wordless cooing that approximates but often deviates from the original vocal melody, for instance turning the already-bleak Db/C/Bb phrase from the original into an even bleaker Db/C/B chromatic run. This carries the song through to its end in a fairly mournful fashion, without ever letting her chord choices give way to minor-key territory. It’s not a revolution in music theory, but it is clever, subtle and responsible for the song’s sense of a very fine emotional balance.
If that seemed like a mouthful (or you skipped ahead), the gist here is that the songs play with tension and resolution in a way that instills them with a nuanced emotional ambivalence. qp
has been described as springlike and blissful, but that doesn’t do justice to the melancholy undercurrent that defines this album compositionally and makes it so rewarding. qp
is often lovely
, but it always stops itself before it gets carefree or blissful. Even the cheeriest songs here are more mixed than they seem: at its very end, Tsuki no Oka
deliberately avoids the chord required for a resolved cadence, and the high end of Yousei no Temaneki
’s guitar melody flitters around the tonic with trepidation rather than stabilising itself. Terifuriame
’s title is translated/defined by Ichiko herself as “an unstable weather that rains of[f] and on [but] sometimes shines”, and honestly I can’t think of a better metaphor for the album as a whole. It occupies a constantly shifting space between melancholy and extremely understated exuberance and is beautifully restless in its unwillingness to dwell for long in either camp.
As a result, it’s tempting to pigeonhole the entire album into the tried-and-tested category of ‘bittersweet’. In this case, however, I think that terms of emotional ambiguity do a greater service to the music. There’s a good reason for this and the subtle wavering of the album’s tone on the aforementioned melancholy/exuberant spectrum foregrounds one of Ichiko Aoba’s key traits in quite a valuable way. As mentioned, her sound is strongly based on the transformation of the everyday and pastoral into something strange and beautiful, but this is accompanied by a deep association within her music and image with nature. This is all over her lyrics and the beautiful simplicity of her compositions, but when one factors in her shy manner as a performer, it evokes a fairy-like presence; a positive force of nature that engages mankind through a shared physical and emotional connection to the Earth while also occupying a special proximity to that connection that we cannot share to the same extent. The traditional fairy presence is as alien and disarming as it is intimate and familiar, and these qualities perfectly encapsulate Ichiko Aoba* in general and on qp
in particular*. By virtue of doubling down on the simplistic aspects of her sound, qp
also casts the spotlight on how remarkable it is that she can make such seemingly unambitious tracks sound so distinct, and so her fay strangeness-in-familiarity qualities have rarely been so pronounced.
Conveniently enough, there is a song here that engages with this lyrically (to some extent, anyway). Yousei no Temaneki
(Enchantment of the Fairy) is a short, upbeat pastoral folk outing that invokes many of the best sounds of Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree
(although this comes off as pure and unadulterated compared to that album’s crafty pastiche). From what I can make out from a photocopy of Aoba’s adorable handwritten English translation, it’s as much about dreaming as it is magic, and grounded in mundane imagery all the while (an air conditioner, a ceiling), so there you go: the familiar made fantastical, with added soporific value. Or something. In any case, it’s the album’s brightest moment and breaks up the two Yamada Anmi covers that weigh over the its second half. These covers are good and suit Aoba’s style well, but they lack the compositional nuance of her original tracks and don’t lend her voice as much emotional weight, meaning that while the second half of the album holds up a decent standard, it’s the opening run of tracks that steal the show here.
But that’s not quite the whole picture. While the melancholy/exuberant spectrum is an accurate for the majority of the album, closer Umibe no Soretsu
is its one anomaly, veering into abject melancholy and bringing the album to a close in the most sobering manner imaginable. It’s also one of the most bleakly beautiful pieces I’ve heard from any artist. On the whole I avoid singling out Ichiko Aoba songs unless strictly necessary because they aren’t as relevant to her albums as they way she brings her own distinctive environment to life throughout their runtimes, but this one is so masterful that I would be hard pressed not to bring it up even if it weren’t slightly at odds with the rest of its album. Three verses over six-and-a-half minutes of the most simple chord patterns on the album; the song maps out all your need to know about it musically within the first minute, before Ichiko’s voice carries it away in a mesmerising dirge full of regret and longing. Aptly enough, the title translates as ‘Funeral Procession at the Seashore’ and the lyrics are a beautifully poetic ode to the transience of both natural and urban life; true to form, Ichiko’s portrayal of the natural world is too beautiful and full of life for the song to be outright depressing, but it comes as close as anything you’ll hear from her. It’s a fitting reflection of qp
that it’s most inspiring highlight is also its most devastatingly bleak nadir, but after interpolating between polarities so adroitly for the rest of the its runtime, it feels appropriate for the album to play to extremes in its closing moments. And, what do you know, even after seemingly distilling the album’s melancholic tone to its fullest extent, the album’s final song still insists on an imperfect final cadence. Well played, Ichiko.
*encapsulate her as an artist, at any rate. Both out of respect for her having met her in person and out of general caution for exoticising Asian artists from a Western perspective, I’m reticent to view this image as anything other than a useful insight into her craft and aesthetic.