Tokafi reviews Small Color’s Berlin performance…
Due to their refined sound palette and warm acoustic timbres, the nature-related imagery of their latest full-length’s album-cover and Rie Yoshihara’s out-of-this-world vocals, one could easily be tempted to brand Yokohama-based duo Small Color as „cute“. But beware: The band have paid their dues. On this, their first European tour, they have already visited a total of five different countries, braved volcanic ashes, sailed from England to Sweden and played in front of the most diverse audiences. Visiting the old continent on the strenght of a slew of gigs at home, Yoshihara and her congenial stage-partner Yusuke Onishi have developed into an indestructible live force who can wrap an audience around their finger right from the very first note. And down in the tiny and claustrophobically overcrowded basement of Madame Claude’s, a Twin Peaks style cafe with chairs and tables both standing on its concrete floor and hanging from the ceiling, they are bravely recreating the notion of chambermusic from an urban Folk-perspective.
Thanks must therefore go out to Midori Hirano for bringing the formation to what feels like an entirely natural habitat. Acting not just as the organiser for tonight’s show but as an artist in her own right, Hirano opens the evening with a fantasy of mellowly mushrooming instrumentals and long, meditative songs. Hiding behind a laptop and a midi keyboard, her pieces are composed of a multitude of consoling Piano-runs and mysterious Vibe-loops, rhythmically crackling static, percussive thumps and the occasional field recording. While most pieces begin with a hypnotic, classically-tinged chord cycle, they quickly increase in complexity, with major and minor harmonies colliding and steady metrums shattering into broken, polylayered structures. Which means that you can either listen to the music as a dense web of shifting melodic constellations or direct your focus on a single line. This is music drawing its borders in a perplexing hyperspace and, depending on your preferences and personal perspective, it either causes a gentle irritation or conjures up surreal dream-states beyond the realms of earthly metaphors.
It doesn’t take long for Old Splendifolia to take over the baton. Guitarist Frank Schültze Blumm (better known under his FS Blumm persona) will occasionally add a few loops, overdubs and meditative bell-sounds to the songs, making this a performance very much in tune with the current interest in blending acoustic sounds with reflective processing. But the band’s true calling lies in continuing the long lineage of traditional Folk duos. These are, effectively, straight-forward tunes with soul-bearing lyrics and a kind of secret-diary-feeling, vocalist Jana putting herself both in the seat of a bard and a poet. With this kind of emotional frankness, the music is probably at its most commanding when the emotional outspokenness of the lyrics is counterpointed by more introvert arrangements. Such as when Jana sings along to faraway tunes caught on a nostalgic memo recorder or when she relives the same situation twice – once with childlike enthusiasm and then as as a sentimental memory returning to her in a pensive sleepwaking night and the outcome is a plaintive still-life of transience and the unavoidable loss of innocence.
After this quiet and stripped-down performance, Small Color are using a strikingly similar instrumentation to create a rich, deep and utterly immersive experience. The simple but deadly effective video loop at the back takes listeners to overflowing fields of yellow flowers and kittens playing in the grass, the subtle use of electronica creates a hazy sense of psychedelia and the combination of live-Guitar-loops and spacey sound effects culled from the body of the instrument results in a richly associative sonic quilt quickly transcending diverse influences ranging from Pop and Folk to Drones and Sound Art – clearly, this is cinematic music in an arthouse vein. In the centre of attention is the tight and telepathic communication between the project’s protagonists. While Yoshihara puts her accordeon to highly effective use in order to both add melodic accents and harmonically humming adornements, Onishi jumps from lower case Rock-riffs to bittersweet Blues-solos and even, on one occasion, noisy abstractions. Rather than sounding like a hotpot of various styles and genres, however, the result is coherent and entirely their own, of a brittle melancholy and equipped with a kind of melodic pull that feels natural without being naive. And it incorporates some of the finest moments from both their albums into a carefully developed narrative.
While „In Light“ essentially fed from its small forms, sonic softness and summerly flow, Small Color are a far more sweeping and powerful proposition on stage. Here, their sound is more immediate and, surprisingly perhaps, in your face. What sounded hushed and shy on record now feels completely confident and the band are freely sharing some of their most private thoughts with their audience. ‘‘Hikari no Hana’‘, a song about a lost friend and about traveling with the memories of those left behind, turns into a programmatic anthem driven by the realisation that everything we experience, be it good or bad, is part of a process of learning. Transformation is turning into the key theme of the gig, as sadness and joy are sublimated into an uplifting journey which eventually culminates in a blissfully repeated chorus unstoppably spiralling upwards.
It would be hard to believe that anyone would object to so much beauty. And yet, a Guitar amplifier stubbornly refuses to join in the celebration, continually disconnecting Onishi at some of the most uplifting moments of the entire performance. Other bands would fatalistically surrender to these troubles, but Small Color are taking it with astounding grace. With an elegant movement of her hand and a smile, Rie will correct the error before launching herself passionately into a new round of accordion breaths merging with Onishi’s heavenly licks. There is nothing cute about their performance tonight at all. But the upbeat energy with which they are countering these technical adversities is certainly charming to say the least.
By Tobias Fischer