Monday, May 14, 2012

The Secret Museum: 
Maher Shalal Hash Baz
-  Be Quick if You Steal!

    Maher Shalal Hash Baz started in 1984 as a noise/punk rock group in Japan before eventually heading out into more conceptual waters. Band leader Tori Kudo is the visionary force behind their music, and is joined by his wife Reiko and a rotating cast of fellow musicians for their projects( some ex -members have formed the group Tenniscoats). They very quickly dropped the “constraints” of writing three minute rock songs, for the “liberating” effect of even shorter pieces. The music falls somewhere between psych – folk, and pop, with helpings of experimental and purely improvised group interplay added to the mix.
What would you say if I told you this band have released a two cd set that has 177 songs on it, with most between thirty to sixty seconds long! We might debate over what actually constitutes a “song”, but there is no denying the audacity of their 2009 release titled “C’est La Dernier Chanson” (English translation from my almost 24 yr. old daughter Mackenzie who majored in French  from The University of New Mexico is : “This is the Last Song”). Mr. Kudo has likened listening to this music as if you are visiting an art museum. The general public normally spends a couple of hours walking through a museum, stopping at various paintings briefly before moving on to the next offering. Most people will find this 2 cd set from Maher Shalal Hash Baz: A) their most enjoyable, or B) their most maddening. I think you already know without listening to a note of it what side you’ll be on. When I first read it was 177 songs on 2cds, with most under a minute in length (some only five to fifteen seconds!), I had to have it. Others might recall a painful trip to the dentist when reading about such brief snippets of arrangements and melodies. I think you will find it very likeable, as long as you accept the brevity of the music. Some might call this simple music, and that wouldn’t be an inaccurate comment, but it is very difficult to know what exactly should be simplified to make great art, or music.
The Velvet Underground, for one example, derived great power from their less is more approach to rock n’roll, and understood the hypnotic effect of well placed repetition in their songs (“Sister Ray”, “Heroin”). Kudo also knows how to strip down the unnecessary parts of a song to make great music. He has been involved with pottery for a long time, being taught the basics of that craft by his father, and knows how to strip clay, and now music, down to its most essential core. After many years of practice and discipline in cutting away the unneeded parts to his songs, what’s left is a beautiful simplicity to his music that is rarely attained by others. While the band’s primitive sound and lyrics that express real emotion may not be for everyone, it comes from their heart, and isn’t that all you could ever ask for from musicians?
 They have infrequently performed live through the years, and it’s also hard to find their music since they have been on a number of smaller independent labels (Geographic, Yik Yak, and K Records). You can pick up a handful of Tori and Reiko’s solo releases from the Japanese label PSF Records, but some of the band's titles are getting impossible to find and are quite collectable (3 cd Return Visit to Rock Mass, 1996).  If the 2 cd “Chanson” seems too daunting to start with, you might try “Blues de Jour”, or “Maher on Water”, both of those releases have more of a pop/guitar oriented sound. The instrumental/group improvisational stuff is featured more on“Faux Depart”, and “Live Aoiheya”, but any of the releases will have their trademark minimalism, and abrupt writing style. Their name Maher Shalal Hash Baz comes from a biblical passage from the book of Isaiah, and band leader Tori Kudo’s translation of the phrase is, “Be quick if you steal”.  I don’t know about Maher Shalal Hash Baz being thieves, but there is no doubt that they are very fast indeed!

         Jim Webb

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