If By Yes
Salt On Sea Glass

(Chimera Music)

"Waiting for the CD to be released."

These were the last words of my review of the concert by the Yuka Honda Group that I attended about four years ago. And I was the first to be surprised of my very favourable opinion of said concert, given the fact that I had decided to attend it out of sheer curiosity - factor #1, I have to admit, being the possibility to catch Petra Haden singing the lead parts of this repertory, which I expected to be for the most part pretty unfamiliar to me. Yes, I had a passable knowledge of the music of Cibo Matto, but those solo Yuka Honda albums that followed... well, I didn't know the first thing about them.

But seeing the Bill Frisell/Petra Haden duo live had been a pleasure, the singer making a good job of singing those quite disparate songs with ease and feeling. Which can sound as a given, right?, except for the fact that that night an icy wind - in summer! - had blown incessantly, making life miserable for both musicians and audience. Chill factor notwithstanding, Petra Haden had managed to maintain her believability - and sense of pitch.

Quite diverse in style and mood, the concert by the Yuka Honda Group had offered many quality moments. And so - provided I had understood this spoken part correctly - I hoped that the announced Honda/Haden album that appeared to be in the works could become reality.

And here it is: Salt On Sea Glass (with a play on words, I think, on Californian Salton Sea), by If By Yes: a quartet where two musicians I'm not really familiar with, but who I'm told are held in high esteem, and widely known - Yuro Araki, on drums and percussion; and Hirotaka Shimizu, on guitars - are featured members alongside Honda's many keyboards and Haden's multiple vocals.

Salt On Sea Glass is not an easy album to present, due to its apparent "user-friendliness". It's an album that can filed under "Pop", and rightly so (just adding, if one so wishes, words such as "evolved", "complex", "intelligent", and so on). But things are made even more complicated by the fact that today "Pop" is a category even more vague and diverse than "Rock" ever was in its heyday.

"Hidden complexity": These words - which I'd rather not use - are the ones that in my opinion best describe this album. An album that features "special guests" (Cornelius, David Byrne), "usual suspects" (Sean Lennon, Trevor Dunn), a few nice surprises (Nels Cline, Douglas Wieselman), and a couple of names I'm not so familiar with (Jeff Hill, Pamelia Kurstin).

This is not music intended to highlight "solos". It's the parts that matter, and the final result. I'm glad I can say that both the parts and the whole are clearly audible, though most pieces offer a full spectrum that reminded me of an orchestra. It has to be said that the whole sounds all of a piece, even if the album - conceived and realized in the course of about ten years - was recorded in different sessions, in different studios, using different instrumentation, musicians, and engineers. Of course, there are two unifying elements at work here: Yuka Honda's production (and let's not undervalue her keyboard - and string - work) and Haden's voice(s).

(I tried to determine how many - and which - tracks I had already listened to, on the night of that concert. I believe I already listened to Imagino, and to something quite similar to the "rock piece with vocals" which ends the album. I almost believe I've already listened to I'm Still Breathing and Lightning In Your Mind. Maybe.)

For this writer, the album's first two tracks work as an introduction of sorts. You Feel Right is a bossa where drums, bass, and keyboards are played by Keigo Oyamada/Cornelius, who remixed the track; a multi-vocal bossa, some vocals being treated with effects, "shimmering" cymbals, some bass/percussion accents occurring in places where we would not expect them to be. Eliza sounds very "Bollywood" - just check those strings, and the vocal melody; acoustic guitars come to the foreground, Byrne vocals are appropriate, there's a fine use of lap steel (by Nels Cline), a nice close.

This, in my opinion, is where the album really starts. Three As Four (Sean Lennon on basses) opens with guitar harmonics; it's a ballad with accented backing, which "opens up" in the chorus; fine use of cymbals, and a "space interlude" for guitar and synth. Imagino - a Wurlitzer and a Theremin being added to the mixture - has a liquid mood; a tenor sax reminded me for a minute of the old Wayne Horvitz album Dinner At Eight: I checked, and it's really Doug (now Douglas) Wieselman playing here. The only track produced by Keigo Oyamada/Cornelius, I'm Still Breathing has some subtle time shifts, and subtle touches (just check the electric guitars played arpeggio at the start of the piece); there's an excellent layered vocal performance by Petra Haden. In My Dreams is the last track of what I imagine to be "Side 1" (there's an LP of this album, but I have never seen it - or listened to it; however, when it comes to recording and mastering, this CD sounds great); an "eastern" melody that changes in the chorus, an acoustic bass, tenor sax, the Theremin again, and a very good snare, played rimshot.

"Side 2" starts - quite a surprise, this - with a funky rhythm, la Steely Dan, circa Gaucho: Shadow Blind features a very "bluesy" Haden, an excellent performance by Yuro Araki, "thin" guitars and a "fat" bass, plus Rhodes and Tenorion (I had to do a Web search for this), played by Yuka Honda. The only track I didn't like, You're Something Else, is a "funky/trip-hop" mix.

Then it's time for what to me are the best tracks on the album. Out Of View, featuring very fine keyboards and strings by Honda, is almost a lullaby; tiny bells, a Rhodes, nice guitar arpeggios, a fine snare. Lightning In Your Mind is the album's high point, a true "handkerchief moment": snare drum played brushes, then the "orchestra", a superlative performance by Petra Haden, an excellent vocal close. This is the real close of the album.

Featuring bass, guitar, drums, and vocals, Adrift is a strange mixture of Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground: a descending guitar arpeggio, fine bass drum, cymbals, then a martial snare, close.

I'll add a few words at the end. The fact of the album having a US release at the end of March, with the European release scheduled for the end of April, made it possible for me to read a few reviews. All matters of taste aside, I was very puzzled by what I perceived to be a certain superficiality of judgment on the part of a few of my colleagues, who did not bother to look beneath the album's shiny surface. So I'll openly invite readers to listen to this album with great care.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011

CloudsandClocks.net | May 12, 2011