Sonderlust by Kishi Bashi

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I often worry a bit when someone local hits their third album. It’s a tricky point for any artist when they’ve found an audience and tapped into an approachable sound but they need to grow on their own terms. Will your audience follow or will you fall out of favor?  Sonderlust proves that Kishi Bashi has ambitions beyond what he’s done with the past two albums. Gone (mostly) are the trademark violin and looping station, a bold move for someone whose most popular songs are instantly recognizable because of them. But is this a good move for making a good album? Let’s take it track by track.

m’lover – This is about as “classic” a Kishi Bashi sound as you’re going to get on this album. If anything, the song is the culmination of years of honing the perfect blend of sampled looping, meant to be performed bombastically live, much like “Bright Whites.” A solid choice for the opening single, especially since the album begins to veer into new territory later. I had my doubts on first listen but I woke up with the tune in my head this weekend and it’s since grown on me.

Hey Big Star – The of Montreal roots are showing more here. The backing vocals hit on those familiar beats (usually punctuating the end of a phrase). But instead of ramping up and up, the song stays relatively flat in both volume and production. The mix needs a mention here as nothing is pushed to far forward or tucked too far in back, probably attributing to that “flatness” vibe I keep getting. There’s a decent groove going on at least.

Say Yeah -Here we’re getting into the new stuff. Think disco beat, washed away piano and vocals. It’s lower key than previous works but man, it’ll make for a good dance remix. Oh, and there’s a flute solo. But this is the song that if you listen close enough to the lyrics, you’ll pick up on the sadness and anger running through the record. I’m picturing drinking a martini watching people run past on the beach, all in washed out late 70s coloring.

Can’t Let Go, Juno – Hopefully by now it’s sunk in that Kishi Bashi’s signature violin is not the star of this record. You’ll hear it in the background but we’re now journeying into more of a tech infused pure 70s sound. This is also my least favorite song on the record. It never goes anywhere, remaining in that flat space once again. There’s little dynamic here to make it a must-hear.

Ode to My Next Life – This one took me a few listens, I’ll admit. At first I had it pegged as “space disco keyboard” in my notes but I appreciate the tonal changes that happen throughout. There are vamps that throw you off groove, something I was hoping more of the album would incorporate.

Who’d You Kill – One of the key phrases in the press materials is “ELO inspired.” You’ll find this whole record very late 70’s inspired as well.  Although you can substitute some of the lyrics with the ones from “Last Dance with Mary Jane” and it’ll work fine. There’s a good swing in the background and the keyboards are solid.

Statues in a Gallery – Classic Bashi plus here. There’s energy and that beloved “indie sing-along” portion that they do so well. Definitely high up in my favorites list for this album. The song ends a bit abruptly, which is the point, but leads straight into …

Why Don’t You Answer Me – I think this is the heart of what Sonderlust is getting at. The lyrics here are almost uncomfortable to hear, paired with a driving beat and almost piteous piano, angrily asking and accusing both the subject and the singer.

Flame on Flame ( A Slow Dirge)– not much to mention here. It’s not as slow as the title would have you believe but it’s in the same vein as the song before. The melody lingers around your brain for a while, refusing to leave. It would’ve made an amazing, if downer, ending to Sonderlust.

Honeybody – After such a heavy line of songs, Honeybody is almost jarring in its lightness. I’m a sucker for harmonies and boy does this song have ’em. Clap sounds? They’re in there too. Keys are a light touch as is the violin. It’s the “Q & A” of the album but showcases more of the jazz elements that the album has been using. A nice ending.

BONUS: THE LIVE SHOW

I held off on reviewing Sonderlust until I got to see Kishi Bashi’s new live show. The Georgia Theatre show was the first of the tour so a bit of fiddling about was done before launching fully into the new material.

The new setlist has K seated at his keys for a decent portion of the show, picking up his violin from time to time. If you’re expecting the Athfest treatment, you may be in for a bit of shock. There’s an acoustic portion now that contains some of Kishi Bashi’s most beloved singles. I’ll admit it was a bit jarring to realize we weren’t going to get that rushing, crowd-filled release that we do when the band is in full fight. Instead, we had an intimate sing-along; after the required shushing of the ever-noisy Athens crowd, of course. Man, this town does not know how to be quiet during a show.

Most of the “jump up and down and dance together” parts of the show come during the encore (Mr. Steak makes an appearance of course!). Overall, I enjoyed seeing the band start stretching into a new area. The production itself has been upgraded to include a starburst/spaceship lighting design around the drum kit and a background that looks stunning in full light and partial shadow.

FINAL THOUGHTS

For me, progressive jazz pop is incredibly hard to get to know. Remember Sea Level? Parts of Sonderlust remind me of Sea Level. It took several listens for me to understand that I’m not going to find the Kishi Bashi album I want here. The uplifting, happy loops and semi-nonsensical lyrics are missing. Serious subject: serious album.

I have no complaints about skill here. Kishi Bashi’s just as much at home behind the keys as he ever was stomping pedals while playing violin. But as a full album, Sonderlust doesn’t always work as well as one would hope. The production (done by Chris Taylor/Grizzly Bear) is a bit too polished and flat for the amount of sound being produced. It means to evoke the ELO sound but doesn’t fully capture the full range that K and the gang are capable of reaching. And before anyone quibbles about versions or whatever, I listened to this album no less than twelve times via shitty headphones, a Sonos, a record player, my car, the works!

Some of the songs sound as if they could’ve been on Lighght. Kishi Bashi doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to the uptempo pop songs we know. But when we get to what Sonderlust is trying to be, progressive jazz pop and introspection, there’s uncertainty of how far to go. I found myself wanting them to push even further into that jazz improv feel, make it more dramatic.

If anything, Sonderlust is a record about hesitation and questions. You think you’re about to get a soaring chorus and then the song drops back into the verse’s musical pattern. The lyrics are a different beast, reflecting the turmoil of a mind and heart being beaten and challenged with every beat of the drum. Sonderlust is the necessary evolution for an artist who is facing the question: What next? It won’t be for everyone but if you give it some time, there’s some good stuff here. I’ll be interested to see what happens next, that’s for sure.

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