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V/A - International Sad Hits, Volume One: Altaic Language Group

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Artist: V/A

Album: International Sad Hits, Volume One: Altaic Language Group

Label: 20|20|20

Review date: Dec. 4, 2006

On its face, it would seem that the conceit driving International Sad Hits, Volume One: Altaic Language Group is an anthropological one. It’s a compilation, after all, that draws on the back catalogs of four artists spanning Asia, artists who borrow from (indigenous and ‘global’) folk and pop music traditions, yet can’t really be identified with either genre. Parsing the tiers of irony in both the collection’s title and packaging would call for its own essay; suffice it to say, for the purposes of this review, that its mock-admiring attitude towards ‘world music’ series both embodies and cringes from the pop-ethnomusicology’s lust for categorization. Though the compilation certainly embodies, on one level, the diffuse violence of globalization, its main concern is effect. Curators Damon & Naomi say as much in their liner notes, where they debunk the notion that having translated lyrics might make the music accessible to Western audiences: “if you feel it from the singing, it’s probably in the words, too.” Our concern here, they suggest, is not getting a full transcript of what’s going on, but in getting turned onto a form of poetry that, strangely, is only marginally dependent on the ability to make sense of what’s being said.

On a certain level, Anglophones can’t but listen to these singer-songwriters through the voices of Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan; the revelation here is that we can’t tell where our culture ends and theirs begins. The artists featured are Fikret Kizilok from Turkey, Kim Doo Soo from Korea, Tomokawa Kazuki and Mikami Kan, both from Japan. Attempting to read these points of reference too literally, however, brings to mind critics’ fascination with Keiji Haino’s love for Jim Morrison and Blind Lemon Jefferson — these somehow seem to be both the most illogical and accurate connections one could make between two musical cultures (or is it within one musical culture?). The hypothesis follows that music is both lost and captured in translation due to an almost alchemical transmutation, one in which culturally inscribed ways of listening and subjective interpretation interact according to an undisclosed formula. But, again, trying to approach this compilation anthropologically seems like a bit of a lost cause: the album’s genesis derives from Damon & Naomi’s discoveries while touring, songs that, as they describe in the liner notes, gave them access to moments of ‘presence.’

No less a nomad than Momus has noted that the truest sense of a place one gets is in the first moments of being there, in those overwhelming, oversized and evasive sensations. International Sad Hits draws on albums from the extensive discographies of each artist (all of whom, with the exception of Kizliok, who died in 2001, are still active musically), but the album’s structure seems designed to prevent us from mapping correspondences too directly. Sad Hits presents a non-chronological quadruple portrait whose careful sequencing manages to not call attention to itself even when juxtaposing Kan’s frantic, ridiculous “At the Harbor in My Shorts” with the ambivalent symbolism of Kazuki’s “My Boy.” The compilation’s track sequence bears the imprint of travel, eschewing legible chronology in favor of an intuitive set of linkages. These tracks hold up fairly well on their own, but the non-systematic treatment they receive here — biographical notes from Alan Cummings, James Hakan Dedeoglu, and Yuna Bae sketch their career trajectories — give them a peculiar impact that’s largely lost when the songs are listened to out of album sequence. This is due largely to the fact that authorial voice imposed over these musicians’ work brings their particularities into relief while also working, over the whole of the album, to create a remarkably unified sense of place. And, while the excellently translated lyrics are a bonus, they’re by no means indispensable. The album’s greatest quality lies in its ability to make the listener actively forget to distinguish one artist or track from another — the listener descends from the queasy summit of Doo Soo’s “Mountain” to find themselves thigh-deep in Kan’s elliptical “Why Stop If You Like It?” whose pivoting, dreamy guitar gives a sensation not unlike being in a hall of mirrors in the dark. If these songs remain disorienting on further listens, it’s because of the strange familiarity of the spaces they inhabit and project, and not because of linguistic barriers. From one end of the album, to the other, this mood of displaced nostalgia and sensations barely grasped doesn’t end — and it’s both strangely familiar and wholly other.

By Brandon Bussolini

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