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Varicoloured Violin Pop

Julia Mahncke

Kishi Bashi
Lighght
Joyful Noise Recordings

Watching Kishi Bashi recreate one of his songs live on stage resembles witnessing a magic trick. All we see is one man with his violin, but within seconds after the bow hit the instrument, a growing wall of sound fills the room—big enough to suggest a handful of musicians are playing. Kaoru Ishibashi, the classical trained musician behind the name Kishi Bashi, has perfected the art form of looping. His feet move swiftly between the looper pedal’s footswitches, more commonly used by guitar players, while he piles one musical part on top of another.

The intro of the song “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!”, which Kishi Bashi recently performed during his very first visit to the Late Show with David Letterman, showcases the technique. The first melody is followed by staccato notes that provide rhythm; with a twist of a knob Kishi Bashi speeds everything up, adds background vocals right there and then, and the base for the rest of the song is complete. Many musicians lack the necessary precision to incorporate live looping into their performance. Every newly added part could potentially ruin the song instead of adding to it. Kishi Bashi manages to tie the recorded bits and pieces almost effortlessly into a live performance alongside other musicians.

For his recent tour through the US, the Seattle-born musician arranged songs from his second album Lighght and older songs for a string quartet and invited the banjo player Mike Savino as well as the singer from Elizabeth & the Catapult to join him on stage. The new arrangements added up to a more cohesive sound that was easier to digest compared to what we hear on the album. Following his debut 151a, Lighght, which was released in May 2014, features Kishi Bashi as an acoustic singer-songwriter on the duet “Q&A”, we hear him wailing on the 80’s synth number “Carry on Phenomenon” that incorporates a long violin solo, and “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” comes in the form of a dance number, complete with electronic beats.

Because Lighght is such a mixed bag, there is something new to discover in every song, but it does not lend itself to being listened to in one go. It is rather an album to pick and choose from for the occasion, be it a dance party, a playlist for the daily commute or background music while cooking. Even though the lyrics are interesting and cover much more than the typical falling in and out of love, they can be hard to understand. Partly because the vocals tend to sit in the back of the mix and partly because of a curious distribution of syllables. The string quartet arrangements, to a certain extent, clean up this musical mess. Kishi Bashi’s playful approach to using string instruments for pop music is kept alive, the quirky melodies and lyrics are a joy to listen to, and he still makes his audience dance.

Julia Mahncke is a journalist and instructor at the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon.