Highs and lows with no middles to be found in gorgeous neo-folk/bluegrass EP
“One, two, one, two, take 5,” Kaoru Ishibashi, better known as Kishi Bashi, begins the procession of banjo and acoustic finger-picking and speaks a sentence or two with his violin. “Hey you, there’s a fire upon the mountain, but the smoke is also silent, is it making you afraid?” the verse then comes, in a cadence attuned to The Beach Boys but better, before “Nagasareru”—the Japanese word meaning “to be washed away”—is sung in overlaps. It’s a sensation that is emblematic of Kaoru Ishibashi’s bicultural identity as a Japanese-American immigrant, an aspect of himself he explores in travel and song in his latest EP, Emigrant.
While touring around the west in a camper RV, Ishibashi ended up in the EP’s namesake town in Montana about 30 minutes from Yellowstone, where he began recording the demos of the six-track roots music project of covers and originals, armed only with guitar and amp. But he doesn’t customarily recast the traditional sounds—he builds upon it. Starting with bluegrass as the base, it sporadically blends elements of lounge, sixties pop and folk: all seemingly incommensurable worlds which makes the record all the more pleasantly surprising and unexpectedly welcome. All culminate in the sweetly-sung first track “Cascades,” an original song that uses a Wurlitzer alongside Bashi’s fiddle, Mike Savino’s banjo and Emily Hope Price’s cello and vocals, sounding both indoors and outdoors at once, analog and digital, on the sofa and out by the riverside.
The natural imagery that surrounds Emigrant blossoms in “Wait for Springtime,” a folk tune in the vein of Donovan as Bashi waits for the magic of springtime and its flora in the dead of winter, singing in clipped baroque phonetics. The chirpy duo of banjo and acoustic guitar picks up with the cello in a resplendent, woodsy chorus. “Early Morning Breeze,” a Dolly Parton cover, continues in the same syrupy romanticism of springtime abundance, this time detailing a vivid morning stroll that’s paused to “catch a multi-colored butterfly perched upon the petals of flowers growing wild” in a meadow of “rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun.” But those idyllic visions are offset by a faithfully uber-sad rendition of Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With,” the singer-songwriter Bashi had played with in her live band as a young musician. Hitting all the highs and lows in a mastery deserving of Spektor’s applause, the depressing lyrics hold a newfound relevance to the current state of the world.
Still down and out, and though broken up by the lighter tunes of the EP, the narrative-centric original “Town of Pray” is equally forlorn, a gentle heartbreaker. It tells the tale of a pastoral man that’s suddenly separated from his kidnapped newlywed who then returns a year later with an illegitimate child he loved as if his own. One night he awoke to discover the child dead: “my son had died of cold, an angel of six years old.” In exquisite grief, he quietly sings to the body of the boy, “run away, son, from the pain. I will bury you in the town of pray, town of pray.” His vocals are strangely reminiscent of the Kinks’ Ray Davies both in timbre and melody—another possibly inadvertent nod to the ‘60s. He softly wails among traditional Oriental melodies on guitar and violin as a more Americana style interjects throughout in a sort of musical denouement of his own diaspora.
The emotional spectrum Kishi Bashi covers in Emigrant is just as vast as the western landscape from which it was conceptualized. It can shoot anyone up into soaring highs and floor them into abject lows—nothing really in between.