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+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
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+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
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Kahimi Karie

It's getting hard to see it as simply coincidental that, as Kahimi Karie gets exponentially more interesting as an artist, she's conspicuously absent from the Western pop-cultural consciousness. Back when she was cooing through that Lolita-pop phase as Cornelius' ingenue, Karie fitted in with how the men of the West like their Japanese girls: girlie, cute, coquettish. And so, she was easily sold as yet another glossy product of Japanese consumer culture. As the years have progressed, and Karie has shed her ingenue's ties, first from Cornelius, and then from Momus, she's forged into a period that could easily be called her "maturation": living in Paris, collaborating with the Olivia Tremor Control, Add N to (X), and Arto Lindsay, and, finally, returning to Tokyo to cultivate ongoing collaborative unions with Tomoki Kanda and Koki Takai. It was this pair of studio-boffins, and their dexterous editing skills, that helped Karie fully fling herself to wildly artistic heights on her last album, 2003's Trapéziste, which found the former Shibuya-kei queen soaring gracefully over a musical net cast far and wide. Taking diverse sounds and influences — opera, free-jazz, dissonant static, tropicalism, electro-pop, spoken-word — and bringing them together through careful editing and profound juxtaposition, Karie and her collaborateurs authored a collagist masterpiece whose rightful place in the pop-cultural canon would be as one of the most daring, dazzling, pretty and profound commercially-viable pop records ever fashioned. Yet, falling victim to that tree-falling-in-the-woods axiom, her genius symphony fell short of even falling on deaf ears, virtually unheard outside Japan as Karie's cross-cultural star faded from "novelty" all the way to "obscurity."

A year on, and she's returned with another amazing album, one curiously called Montage. Again finding Karie working with Kanda and Takai, it's actually less of a "montage" than Trapéziste, tonally working with a fairly consistent electronic palette, with Kanda, Takai, and even Cornelius (who turns up, in a dramatic return, on the eight-minute new-age-synth-sound electro-prog opus "Making Our World) working with sounds that Karie, as the album's producer, keeps from straying too far from its basical tonal brief. The album largely lolls along at a languid pace, tempo-wise, doing so even though its programmed beats and fragments of ersatz electro-tone are in a constant state of half-broken motion, the teasing fragments that're assembled into rhythm tracks often being truncated zips and zaps glued into place at a pace that belies the "busyness" of the edits. The most extreme example of such assembly comes with "Pancartes," a dizzying distillation of often incongruous elements shattered into fragments and then glued back together to form a distorted picture. Here, Karie has Takai play a whole array of largely-unidentifiable traditional instruments, with bangings of both Gamelan-ish and Pekinese Opera-esque percussion, plus brief moments of thrumming east-Asian strings, littered through an array of aggressive sounds more familiar to the cut-up palette: distorted beats, static, radio-samples, street sounds, rain, atonal keyboard squeaks, human beatboxing. Broken down into the sharpest of snippets and striking with the same agitated agitato of the shower-scene from "Psycho," the song finds Karie, hushed as ever, delivering a deadpan recitation of spoken-word in French, her voice the calm amidst a raging musical storm. In contrast to the harried and harrowing barrage of percussive edits — which, on repeated listening, cultivate a fraught feeling — Karie's French text details an idle afternoon in a Parisienne café, in which surrealist daydreams frolic in her mind amidst the familiar sidewalk-café imagery of coffee, milk, ice, fruit, and ants on the ground.

The silly surrealism of her spoken-word (in both French and English, with her singing tending to be in Japanese) and the wantonly avant-gardist nature of her "pop"-music mean that Karie is, at the moment, certainly comparable to Björk in the sort of artistic ideas she is bringing to bear on her albums. Montage is even draped in a kind of Björkian cover, in which a black-and-white Karie — whose discographical back-catalogue features some of the most beautiful compact-disc art ever (check Tilt as a prime example) — blossoms from floral bouquets, and is digitally draped in lurid splashes of vivid computer-color. But, where the force of Björk's persona and the stature of her celebrity have forced the world to accept the grown-up, intelligent, stylistically-courageous icon that has arisen since 1997's Homogenic, Karie is at enough of a cultural distance that her artistic womanhood can be ignored, that she can still be reduced to being a cute little girl remembered from that moment when J-Pop briefly crossed-over as cross-cultural pop-cultural oddity. But, perhaps, this divergence in appreciation also comes down to the literal — and not artistic — voice of each artist. Where Björk's wail is unrelenting, Karie is, over a decade on from her debutante days, still whispering in the same hushed tones, her literal voice still barely audible on these latest albums — albums where her artistic voice is screaming at the top of its lungs.

by Anthony Carew

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