Aspidistrafly: A Little Fable
Janis Crunch & Haruka Nakamura: 12 & 1 Song
Kitchen. sets the bar ever higher with two beautiful releases by Janis Crunch & Haruka Nakamura and Aspidistrafly. Each has much to recommend itself musically—no surprise there—but as striking is their presentation: the former's CD is packaged within a large-format customized box set that also includes a fold-out information sheet and four poster-sized collages by Sakura Sato; Aspidistrafly's A Little Fable is presented in a forty-eight-page art-book edition sporting a die-cut cover and featuring photographs and collages (by April Lee and Miu Nozaka) and lyrics.
Pitched as “12 songs for the peaceful winters of the world, and 1 song for your soul,” 12 & 1 Song actually came into being rather surreptitiously. During the winter of 2007, Crunch and Nakamura were working on material for his solo album Grace when, in the spirit of the season, they decided to try their hand at composing a Christmas carol, the lovely result eventually appearing as the last song on this winter-themed album. Nakamura's artistry has been showcased before, in particular on his solo albums Grace (Schole, 2008) and Twilight (Kitchen., 2010), while Crunch is a singer, composer, and classically trained pianist who has collaborated with Akira Kosemura and Aspidistrafly in addition to Nakamura. Of the two, it's Crunch who's the more prominent presence on the album, given that her singing and piano playing form the primary core of the duo's sound, with Nakamura's classical guitar and soundscape contributions acting more subliminally.
The album generally alternates between vocal songs and instrumentals, and its heartfelt tone is established immediately by Crunch's solo piano piece “Solitude,” which exudes a classical character that's equally stately and forlorn. The piano settings are typically elegant classical miniatures of melancholy and wistful character, whether it be the slow waltz “Foret” or “Requiem,” in which Crunch pays homage to Ravel. Her warm vocals grace a number of songs, including “Winter Story of Henry” and the stirring “Hymn,” where her choir-like voice appears amidst a field recording-based backdrop. As affecting are those songs where she sings in Japanese, in large part due to the songs' entrancing melodies. One of the few uptempo numbers is the high-spirited “Nuit,” where her multi-tracked voice glides over stop-start rhythms provided by Nakamura's acoustic guitar and percussive accents. Some songs play like those one might hear in a children's nursery (e.g., “Forche” with its sing-song electric piano melodies), whereas others exude an appealing innocence (the folk ballad “Insincere Love,” which accompanies Crunch's singing with Araki Shin's flute playing).
Appropriately enough, A Little Fable is not only presented in book-like form but also includes a Table of Contents and a wondrous, fairy tale-like narrative (involving a secluded hilltop cottage, an autumn forest, and rocky seashores) that stitches together its twelve songs. The second album by Aspidistrafly duo (and Kitchen. founders) April Lee and Ricks Ang is something special indeed, and not just because their contributions are enhanced by the talents of others, including Nakamura, Kosemura, and Crunch. It's a long-form serenade of delicate, organic sounds, primarily featuring whispered vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and strings, and complemented by an array of time-worn textural detail.
Following a brief overture of mournful cello playing accompanied by harmonium and glockenspiel (“A Black-Necked Swan”), the mesmerizing “Landscape With a Fairy” appears, with Lee's delicate voice riding a graceful wave of piano sparkle (by Junya Yanagidaira) and soothing string figures. The magic and mystery of the forest fully blossoms during “Homeward Waltz” when nocturnal sounds of animals appear alongside her hushed vocal (“So where do you go / When the day is closed / Only the forest knows”), violins, and Seigen Tokuzawa's cello strokes. We move inside for “Cocina” where the clatter of coffee cups, spoons, and other kitchen noise accompanies vocal musings, tinkling piano (by Honagayoko), and flute, before Angs transports us to the outdoors for the solo setting “Sea of Glass,” a panoramic moodscape of reverberant guitar shadings and strums.
Especially stirring are serene vocal settings like “Countless White Moons,” where Lee's angelic singing is paired with Kosemura's graceful piano playing, and the ballad “Gensei,” which focuses primarily on Lee's tender vocal and Crunch's understated piano and chorus vocals. That the album ends with a lovely variation on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (here called “Twinkling Fall”) is fitting, given the lullaby-like nature of the recording's contents. As is often the case with such projects, one can give one's full attention to the story-line and absorb the narrative as the songs play, or one can simply let the music wash over one and let it work its magic that way. Even if one were to opt for the latter and set aside the somewhat surreal story, A Little Fable would still have a powerful impact.