Music Reviews

Kishi Bashi 151a

(Joyful Noise) Rating - 6/10

151a begins with the sort of lush sweep of harmonic joy that can only precede a work of deft skill and ambition. Kishi Bashi whirls around a string section and choir before you even hear his voice. The giddy confidence of opening an album so decadently certainly sets this up as something to get excited about, even though this is actually a rather modest 34-minute Kickstarter-funded full-length from the touring violinist for of Montreal and Regina Spektor, K. Ishibashi.

Although Ishibashi hasn’t spent much time as an arranger, his style closely resembles in-demand violinist Owen Pallett, whose string arrangements have surely graced the ears of every indie rock fan of the last ten years, having worked with everyone from The Mountain Goats to Snow Patrol. Both Ishibashi and Pallett are primarily violinists, but play loop-pedal-driven multi-instrumental live shows – and as with Pallett’s Final Fantasy project and cult classic 2010 record Heartland, Ishibashi has used his studio to move beyond the limitations of his loop pedal and work with a vast array of instrumentation.

It is difficult to disagree how rich it sounds, but the problem is how obvious Ishibashi’s influences are. It’s impossible to describe music this elaborate and expansive as derivative, but there are echoes of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Sigur Rós, Beirut, M83, and indeed just about every comparably epic indie chamber-pop darling, at every corner. It takes a tremendously skilled arranger to reach these heights; the problem is that Ishibashi isn’t idiosyncratic enough to make this a memorable record. (It doesn’t help that his vocals are indistinguishable from James Mercer of The Shins).

That said, he gets it so right on Manchester it’s unbelievable: the production at first zooms in on every detail of his vocals, and it’s this intimacy that lets the song’s big crescendo give you goosebumps, blossoming as he sings ‘I haven’t felt this alive in a long time’. Bright Whites is another finely-crafted indie pop gem, but perhaps it’s telling that these two highlights are remasters of tracks from last year’s debut EP Room For Dream.

The second half veers into less welcoming territory - but unfortunately, the introduction of themes of heartbreak and insecurity feels like an imposition. On Atticus, In the Desert, it’s as if he can’t sustain a darker aesthetic without (literally) breaking out into joyful whistling melodies. I Am the Antichrist to You continues to suffer from a sort of semantic dissonance, mostly because, contrary to the song’s title, Ishibashi comes across as the least antagonistic person in the world. Fair enough, he doesn’t want to make the straight-up summery pop record that the first few songs shape up towards, but he can’t disguise his charm enough to convince me of all these moody overtones.

That Ishibashi is better at style than substance won’t spoil the album for a lot of people. As a demonstration of the possibilities of Kishi Bashi’s scope and talent, it’s exemplary; I would not be surprised if, in a year or two, he creates something really special.