Blues Du Jour, the magnificent new album by the Japanese band Maher Shalal Hash Baz, contains 41 songs.
I don't know why. I look for reasons. The best I can come up with is that 41 is the sum of 23 (the magick number in the writings of Robert Anton Wilson and several other barmy conspiracy theorists) and 18 (as in '18 With A Bullet' by Pete Wingfield and '18 And Life' by, uh, Skid Row). Then I look at the press release and note that MSHB's Return Visit To Rock Mass album had 83 tracks. So, I presume, they've just halved 83. Almost. Maybe the press release counts as half a track. The album lasts 48 minutes and 46 seconds, by the way.
As I listen to the album I'm sitting in a shopping mall, waiting for my brother-in-law, and watching a bank of TV screens all displaying the same wildlife documentary. It's about orang-utans. I love orang-utans. In pretentious moments, I even pronounce the word correctly, just like David Attenborough does.
MSHB leader Tori Kudo has put each of his songs under one of two headings: they are either 'masterpiece' or 'rubbishy little song'.
Of course, 69 (as in 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields) and 31 (as in 31 Songs by Nick Hornby) adds up to 100. But Hornby does not include anything by The Magnetic Fields (or The 6ths, or The Gothic Archies, or The Future Bible Heroes, or any other manifestation of the dizzy genius that is Stephin Merritt) in his list of songs. Indeed, he shows no indication of having heard, or even heard of, The Magnetic Fields. And he sure as hell doesn't mention Maher Shalal Hash Baz. He does admire 'I'm Like A Bird' by Nelly Furtado, though.
I realise that I don't know how Stephin Merritt pronounces his first name. Is it a fanciful variant on 'Stephen' or on 'Stefan?' Or some other peculiar hybrid? I met a German guy called Stefan a few weeks ago, but he introduced himself as Steve. I don't know why.
Track 7 of Blues Du Jour is called 'Post Office'. It's like Nancy and Lee, or maybe Astrud and Joao, if either pair had been on Cherry Red in about 1983, and it's ravishing and makes me sigh.
The orang-utans on the TV screens are replaced by chimpanzees. I quite like chimps as well, but I think they're a little bit overrated. You can possibly guess people's musical tastes by asking them to name their favourite higher primate. People who like chimpanzees probably like boy bands, or Dido. People who like orang-utans probably like indie guitar music. People who like gorillas probably like Van Halen (with Sammy Hagar).
But I don't know what animal we can associate with Maher Shalal Hash Baz, which is part of their wonky charm. Do their fans like moles, perhaps? Or seahorses?
Track 10 is called 'Good Morning', and it's cute girl-group/avant-surf and it makes me grin like a doofus.
I've got it. Maher Shalal Hash Baz fans like axolotls.
I interviewed MSHB last year, for Careless Talk Costs Lives, which is coming to the end of its natural life, which is sad, but dignified. Go to www.carelesstalkcostslives.com for details. Maybe buy a copy, if you haven't done so before. If you're really interested, the MSHB interview is in Issue 8.
Track 13 is called 'What's Your Business Here Elijah?' On this album, Kudo seems to be more open and explicit about his religious beliefs (See also tracks 18 and 32). Did I mention that he's a Jehovah's Witness? I hear that Prince, a fellow JW, has been doing the Watchtower cold-calling thing among his Minneapolis neighbours. Kudo sings 'Go, return, on your way to Inverness,' which I don't remember being in the Bible, or any Prince album that I've heard. I play the track again, and realise that he's actually singing 'on your way to wilderness'. Which is only slightly different, but I still think my version's better. See the First Book of Kings, and maybe the underrated Around The World In A Day.
Of course, when I first started listening to MSHB, they sang in Japanese. So they could have been singing about religion and the Bible and Jehovah's Witnessing all the time. I don't know.
Track 15 is called 'From A Summer To Another Summer', which is the title of a Maher compilation. (Well, almost. The full title is From A Summer To Another Summer (An Egypt To Another Egypt), but that's close enough.) Tom Waits did something like this, didn't he? He had a song with the same title as an album, but it was on another album. More confusingly, the track 'From A Summer To Another Summer' keeps threatening to turn into 'Great Gothic Country Song', which actually does appear on From A Summer To Another Summer (An Egypt To Another Egypt). The album, that is.
In the doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses, 144,000 people have been pre-ordained for eternal life after Armageddon. Maybe MSHB will release a 144,000-track album at the time.
Of course, the Jehovah's Witnesses have previously announced that Armageddon will come in 1914, and in 1975.
Track 18 is called 'Peter Says', and concerns the apostle's denial of Jesus (see Luke, chapter 22). It's a scene that's beautifully reworked in the film of Whistle Down The Wind, with Hayley Mills and Alan Bates. This was in turn made into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but let's not go there. The trick that Andrew, Hayley and Luke all missed was to introduce a squeaky toy at 0:20, as MSHB do.
Oh good, the orang-utans are back.
Thinks: would 'The Jehovah's Witnesses' be a good name for a new Stephin Merritt band?
Track 21 is called 'For A Recorder And A Euphonium', and it really is. Of course, it's compulsory to mention in any discussion of Maher Shalal Hash Baz that one of the key reasons for their quirky, fragile charm is the euphonium of Hiroo Nakazaki. But the funny thing is that the euphonium works within MSHB in the way that percussion sometimes works with other bands: think of Mickey Finn's bongo-slaps, or of the tambourine on any number of Motown tracks, usually played by Jack Ashford. I only know this last nugget off the top of my head because I've just been to a screening of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, the documentary about the Funk Brothers, the label's house band. This is the reason I was watching the orang-utans while waiting for my brother-in-law. We were going to see the film together. It's great. See it if you get the choice.
A better idea: Stephin Merritt to collaborate with Maher Shalal Hash Baz.
And an orang-utan or two?
Rather losing the thread here, sorry. Maybe I should stick to a track-by-track analysis, as if I'm writing for Mojo.
Track 25 is called 'Muddy Water'. Which in lesser hands would be a naff blues namecheck, but here is probably about water that's got mud in it.
Track 26 is called 'Hang Around The Mall'. Which is what I'm doing. Hanging around the mall. Waiting for my brother-in-law and watching orang-utans and listening to the new Maher Shalal Hash Baz album. I will not insult your intelligence by indulging in a tuneless rendition of the theme from The Twilight Zone.
Track 27 is called 'Highway' and it's the entire second Velvet Underground album compressed into under two minutes. With knobs on, but discreet ones.
Alert readers will have spotted a lapse in chronology. In paragraph 21, I discuss the movie Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, so at that point, presumably, I've already seen it. But in paragraph 26, I'm still waiting for my brother-in-law, before we go in to see the movie. Sorry.
Track 29 is called 'No Sheep'. I'm reminded of the opening pages of A Wild Sheep Chase, by MSHB's equally cool, dry and charming compatriate, the writer Haruki Murakami. He discusses the rarity of sheep in Japan. I contemplate mutton sashimi, and go a pale shade of grey. I don't think MSHB fans like sheep particularly. If you want to explore Murakami, I suggest starting with the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes, or the underrated novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.
Track 30 is called 'Apple Glazed Vase', and I remember that Kudo is also a ceramicist.
In a weak, bored moment, I complete one of those terribly ironic questionnaires in, of all things, Esquire magazine. The title is 'Are You A Music Snob?' I score 83, which translates in the upside-down how-did-you-do' bit as 'If only you could make a living from this?. This only makes me feel weaker and boreder.
Track 32 is called 'Psalm 136'. It's just 10 seconds long, and it's not even the shortest track on the album. 'O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good,' begins the psalm, and goes on to discuss Og the king of Bashan. Of course, they should have flipped over the page to Psalm 137, which begins 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down?' Perhaps Stephin Merritt can collaborate with Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Boney M. In the old days that's what they used to call a supergroup.
The questionnaire in Esquire magazine has no questions about Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Stephin Merritt, or Boney M. Or indeed, orang-utans. Or axolotls. But Christina Aguilera's on the cover. So that's OK.
Track 34 is called 'Apple Glazed Vase II'. Bit of a theme going on. Just noticed that track 23 is called 'Molecular Structure Of Clay'. A whole new genre emerges ' POT ROCK!
Blues Du Jour was recorded in two sessions in the East Kilbride Arts Centre. This is a good thing.
Track 37 is called 'Blues Du Jour Cm 5.02' and is sublime, and, by the standards of the album, is also exceedingly long. It makes me think of Gerry Mulligan jamming with Canned Heat, while a mad woman mumbles into a broken payphone. Perhaps I should have explained earlier that Kudo describes his concept of 'Blues Du Jour' as 'like a soup of the day', which doesn't help much. But I don't think it's meant to help. Apparently Kudo once told a journalist that there were only two permanent members of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and that they were both dead.
Track 38 is called 'Yagi Otalaryngologist', which is just a fantastic title. It has feedback, but not the Mary Chain kind. More the kind of feedback you get when you're talking on your mobile and you walk too close to the microwave. Or maybe when one of the connections to your video recorder is a bit iffy. Domestic, friendly feedback.
Track 39 is called 'I Have Run The Course To The Finish', but it isn't the last track, which in lesser hands would be an annoying expression of whimsical perversity, but here it seems utterly logical.
Track 40 is called 'Bus' and it sounds a little like something by Philip Glass. Who used to drive a taxi, not a bus. I suppose by this stage I should be fully into Mojo or Uncut or Q mode, and telling the reader exactly what the record sounds like, with stars out of five, and an if-you-like-this-try-this box, and perhaps a killer quote that they'll put on stickers that go on CDs in megastores. The greatest album for axolotl-lovers ever made. Something like that? Oh just buy the bloody thing, it's quite extraordinary. And buy their back catalogue as well. Then go out to Japan and stuff a dozen orchids and your entire life savings and your mum down the bell of Nakazaki's euphonium. This band is worth nothing less than such a display of slightly peculiar devotion. Put that on the sticker.
No, not axolotls. Ladybirds.
© 2003Tim Footman