DAVID SHEPPARD: In a world saturated as never before with records, downloads, soundtracks, games accompaniments and all manner of incidental music, it’s perhaps no surprise that increasing numbers of excellent new recordings get overlooked, obscured by the sheer weight of the musical torrent like tiny, exquisite fish in a white water rapid.
Of course one person’s sonic epiphany is another’s fingernails down a blackboard, and that the appreciation of music is a chronically subjective business is hardly news, yet it still feels excessively unjust that great swathes of banal, predictable genre recordings - of all stripes - get continually churned out like sausage meat, to be inexorably thrust into the gluttonous maw of mainstream radio, TV and digital outlets, while many highly original, genre-crossing (or just plain gorgeous) musical nuggets get completely passed over. By the same token, I have long maintained that if apocalyptic Japanese junk art noise merchants Merzbow were on heavy rotation at Radio 1, mugging with Adrian Chiles on The One Show and closing out Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, even they could be marquee hitmakers. Probably.
The imbalance was ever thus, of course, which is why there’s an ‘underground’, sweeping up the flotsam and jetsam that falls between the hegemonistic cracks, setting the overlooked treasures in a gleaming alternative infrastructure. Or should I say, why there used to be an ‘underground’. It might have worked like that twenty years ago, but it seems we don’t live in a neatly prescribed musical Kansas any more, Toto.
That fact was made all too clear this very morning when I was party to the unveiling of the candidates for the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Prize (just stop for a moment and contemplate the queasily ironic implications of that particular sponsorship branding in the midst of an avaricious bank-engendered recession - one which is biting chunks out of an already hobbled music biz…). Its habitual parade of established cash cow acts, token genre representatives and there-to-make-up-the-numbers leftfield lesser-knowns (who never win, naturally), once again offers the most desultory slice through music’s most boringly predictable rump as determined by the proverbial white, middle class, ‘fifty quid man’. ‘Underground’, it seems, has become just another genre demarcation, neutered of any substantive cultural resonance.
While politicians and musical establishment suits continue to preen themselves, apparently convinced that Britain is a world-leading hotbed of musical innovation (overseen by revered pioneering radicals like, er, Simon Cowell…), occasions like this make a mockery of such hubris. Not for the first time, I was left contemplating the chasm which separates the dispiriting diktats of ‘the music industry’ from the sentient human pleasure that is listening to music.
For all the showcase junkets and corporate backslapping, nowadays only a tiny minority of records (if we can countenance that increasingly anachronistic term) actually sell in huge quantities, which means the once immutable division between corporate major labels and the cottage industry independents - between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘underground’ in other words - has been wildly denuded. In fact those contextual, commercial definitions need radically recalibrating. For one thing, younger consumers of music generally only deal in individual tracks - singular pink pricks in a vast constellation of self-curated (and increasingly self-created) music, making for a convoluted economic model from which income streams are tricky to extract and befuddling to monitor (hence the current irrelevance, if not redundancy of ‘the charts’). The demotic universality of the internet, meanwhile, means that all music is now potentially available to everyone. But what ought to be a great, democratizing tool has become simply another unfiltered outlet for the relentless effluent of new music. If there are diamonds floating among the swill, few of us have the time or willpower to pick them out.
This all sounds unnecessarily depressing, for despite all of the above, a tranche of talented musicians is still out there making great music, just as they always have - even if some of them are working in underserved anonymity. All of which is by way of circuitous introduction to a great album (yes, a proper album) that I want to recommend to you all - for a diamond among the swill it most certainly is. The record (hey!) is by a Japanese artist, Soichiro Suzuki who goes by the alias World Standard and is called Canon. It’s released on the Tokyo-based label Daisyworld Discs. It’s a beautiful, almost naïve sounding instrumental record (although there are some lovely, wordless female ‘oohs’ and ‘la la las’ here and there), made with nylon string guitars, melodicas, xylophones, violins, flutes and double bass. There are no drums. It’s full of sublime melodies that often sound more East European than Oriental. It’s truly lovely stuff. Of course its not available in the UK, and very pricey on import, but perhaps those of you who are internet savvy can find away to access it. Here’s a link that might be useful: http://columbia.jp/artist-info/worldstandard/COCP-35205.html
I think World Standard (who’s actually been making records for over twenty years and is closely associated with the wonderful Yellow Magic Orchestra, for those who know their Japanese electronic music history) is something close to a genius. I bet Simon Cowell, or the dullards on the Barclaycard Mercury Prize panel, have never heard of him. Even if he were British they’d find a way of ignoring him.
I wonder if I can get a copy to Adrian Chiles?