Published Jun 03, 2019To make sense of the modern American fixation on illegal immigration, the rise of white supremacy, and the endless diatribes about border walls, Kaoru Ishibashi (aka Kishi Bashi) looked to the past. As a child of Japanese immigrants, Ishibashi could not ignore the parallels between anxiety around Japanese-American immigrants during WWII and anxiety around immigrants, writ large, in the United States today. In his mission, Ishibashi employed Omoiyari — a Japanese term roughly translated to mean "altruistic empathy" — for the over 100,000 Japanese Americans confined to assimilationist internment camps in the 1940s. What emerged is Kishi Bashi's most enthralling album to date.
Diverging from the electronic tapestries of 2016's Sonderlust and the youthful exuberance of his breakout record, 151A, Omoiyari feels more sober, more mature. Relying almost entirely on acoustic instruments — most notably lush string arrangements — Kishi Bashi's latest juxtaposes bouncy indie-pop tracks ("A Song for You") with mournful meditations (the instrumental "A Meal for Leaves").
Ishibashi channels Sufjan Stevens' vocal delicacy on the album opener, "Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear," soaring into his powerful falsetto over a fantastical string arrangement. "F Delano" is possibly the most playful condemnation of a former president ever written, and frenetic pizzicato plucks continue the faux-celebration into "Marigolds."
However, it is on Side B of Omoiyari that Ishibashi truly succeeds in his empathetic mission. "Summer of '42," the album's centrepiece, travels from a punch of immense, insistent strings (think Owen Pallett at his most intense) to flute swells and percussive burst that could pass as the work of Nico Muhly. Ishibashi sings of love's ability to persist in spite of the walls of the internment camp, as he sings with earnest passion: "the days were long and open, 'cause I had a view of you / The Summer of '42 / When I was in love with you." Banjo, piano, and strings intersect on the cinematic "Theme From Jerome (Forgotten Words)," and "Violin Tsunami" lives up to its tempestuous title.
While Omoiyari's folk-pop jams recounting tales of xenophobia are often playful for the right reasons — spurring a sense of much-needed optimism — it feels as though Kishi Bashi is occasionally defaulting to danceability. This is particularly true on "Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea," an Appalachian folk hootenanny seemingly tagged on to the end of the album.
In spite of minor missteps, Omoiyari manages to condense its political themes and historical scope into an impactful experience. (Joyful Noise)