Speedstar Int’l – 2013
Ichiko Aoba’s fourth album is a minimalistic beauty: a near-masterpiece that matches Aoba’s remarkable sense of composition with her arrestingly intimate vocal and acoustic guitar performances.
After reviewing one of my favorite late-night albums (Julie Is Her Name) for “Mid-Century Kitsch Month,” it got me thinking about other more contemporary “torch singers”; that is, singers who pine melancholic longings for a distant and absent love. To be fair, I’m not 100% sure Ichiko Aoba fits the mantle of a torch singer precisely, but her 2013 album, 0, is firmly entrenched on the short list of my go-to “light a candle at the end of a long day and soak in the tub” albums.
Is Aoba a torch singer? I don’t know. I don’t speak Japanese. But I will say this: if there is an auditory profile of what a torch singer sounds like, this is it. There’s something about Aoba’s minimalist acoustic guitar stylings and soft vocals that embody the tone of sadness and introspection. Simply, that label of a “torch singer” might link Aoba to the vein of artists like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, but Aoba’s virtuosic classic guitar playing is perhaps more akin to the spirit of Nina Simone. However, in all truth, Aoba’s styling is arguably more along the lines of a Joni Mitchell, whose 1971 folk masterpiece Blue carries some of those same torch singer sensibilities with an added layer of artistic poetry, which Aoba’s certainly encompasses in full measure.
Beyond the genre labels and descriptors, Aoba’s beautifully minimalistic performances on 0 are in a world of their own, and must be experienced with a sense of immersion to be understood and appreciated. And I’ll preface this once again: all of that is within the understanding that the melodic composition, performance, and tonal landscapes stand on their own merit; able to be appreciated by listeners without any understanding of the language, and the potential poetic contributions that Aoba’s songwriting has to offer. In fact, I almost don’t want to know the lyrics of these songs, simply because there is a bit of a mystical, dreamlike experience; one akin to taking in a Sigur Ros album of unintelligible lyrics that can still stand alone as part of the sonic landscape.
To that point, “いりぐちでぐち” is one of the lowest rated tracks from the album on RateYourMusic; presumably because listeners have a hard time getting past a twelve-minute song consisting of field recordings and Aoba seemingly improvising over two chords. Yet, for me, it’s one of the most mesmerizing experiences of the album; one that finds Aoba literally walking through a countryside tunnel, like a subway busker whose audience is a nature scape of birds and the occasional passing car, for which she seemingly delays and vamps as if to make room for the accompaniment of the passersby. The track ebbs and flows, with Aoba scampering about through the other end of the tunnel and into a cacophony of wildlife, as if to imply the hope dwelling at the other end. It’s all symbolic of an album that undoubtedly delivers a soul rejuvenating experience.
I did eventually poke around to find some translations of Aoba’s lyrics, but I didn’t want to look too closely. I saw something about a dream of a bird carrying human flesh over a ravine and figured, ‘that’s enough.’ That’s another well of haunting imagery that I’ll save for when I want to peel back another layer of Aoba’s artistry. For now, the impeccably sweet nylon guitar and Aoba’s captivating vocal performances are enough to make this a must listen.