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Japanator review: Yoshida Brothers - Prism

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If you ever wondered if there was still a place for traditional folk music in our modern culture, you need look no further than the Yoshida Brothers.

The two young men have been playing the tsugau-shamisen for most of their lives. Over the years, they've released several albums, incorporating their chosen instrument into just about ever genre you can image. If you needed any more proof of their modern flair, they have also provided music for the Nintendo Wii commercials.

The duo's newest album Prism was just released by Domo Music Group, heralding the band's arrival on American soil. Hit the jump for a full run-down of the album.

The album opens with a huge and stomping version of Radiohead's “The National Anthem.” While it's a passable effort, it's a very unusual choice to kick start an album otherwise saturated with virtuoso shamisen performances. For “Anthem,” the Brothers play a two bar loop through the entire song, while the rest of the band provides all of the noise and chaos.

This one odd anomaly out of the way, Prism seems to get off to a more proper pace with "Seven". Another song featuring a full band, it at times seems to channel the spirit of James Brown, before then shifting down into folk and new-age inspired textures, then into blues territory. This is a song that truly showcases the Brothers' breadth of musical understanding, not to mention the ease with which they can slip from one genre into another seamlessly. It's everything that the previous awkward cover isn't, namely solid, intricate and well thought out. It's easy to forget that this is basically an album set up to showcase two shamisen players, since their parts are downplayed greatly.

“One Long River” sits in stark counterpoint, being much more shami-centric, though this time with the wordless female vocals courtesy of Jesca Hoop accompanying it. If Lord of the Rings was set in Japan instead of Britain (via New Zealand), it might have sounded something like “One Long River.” “Red Bird” is, again, one step closer to a more traditional folk tune. It is down-tempo and has a very nostalgic melody that would fit well in a soundtrack for a rosy romance film.

“Mr. Nagano's Foolish Proposal” is another very soundtracky song, written by David Baerwald. It's more atmospheric and almost fantastical in tone, celestial maybe. The heavy use of piano and pizzicato strings lies in stark contrast to the equally staccato shamisen and flute. It's one of the more straight-up new-age tracks on the album.

“Hujin” arrives in the middle of the album as the first track that's just the two Brothers and their instruments. It's almost the equivalent of “Dueling Banjos” in that the notes come fast and furious, with one Brother taking the lead while the other provides the galloping rhythm, then both playing together in perfect synchronicity. Oddly enough, it also has one of the most memorable melodies on the album. “Akita Obako” is another one that highlights the Brothers, though this time a bluesy band accompanies them. All it needs is some old geezer shouting about how his woman done did him wrong and it would be a perfect fit in any smoke-filled juke-joint in Chicago.

“Summer Day” is again a bit of a fusion between big-screen-strings, a heavy, shambling beat and rather ominous sounding twangs from the Brothers. “Michi” keeps the tone low and brooding with muted synths and guitars behind the stark shamisen. Like “Hujin,” “Aiya” is another more traditional Yoshida showcase with them playing mostly solo, along with a few shouts and some call-and-response with a flute. “End of the World” brings this back to the spirit of “Seven” with another round of genre shifting, featuring a full band that overtakes the Brothers for most of its run, leaving them to simply add just a bit of Eastern spice to the otherwise cinematic song. This one was indeed used in the film We Own the Night, so that might have something to do with it.

Overall, Prism has a lot to offer listeners who aren't afraid to open themselves up to new ideas and sounds. It is certainly not just two guys playing traditional Japanese folk tunes. Far from it. It's more like a light rock album that just happens to have a few Eastern flourishes. Far from obtuse or intimidating, it is extremely accessible while still providing a few essential twist to keep listeners guessing.

The Yoshida Brothers are touring both America and Canada through May. You can get the full list of dates here.

You can buy the album from Domo Music, Amazon and CDJapan.

Some previous Yoshida Brothers releases:


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reviewed by Zac Bentz

 

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Zac Bentz
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Filed under... #music #reviews

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