American Ear, Omni Ear

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the recent line-up for Light in the Attic‘s 16th birthday doo at the Barbican was eclectic. In the end, to its credit, it didn’t really feel that way.

Willie Thrasher & Linda Saddleback, Haruomi Hosono and a reunited Acetone functioned as an evening of ears for America rather than the disparate mix you might otherwise expect.

Each were representative of new releases from the enormous reissue label which has made its name over the years shooting niche collector’s favourites to hipster stardom.

They first came on my radar with their much-appreciated Karen Dalton reissues a few years back. Since then, they’ve balanced big blockbuster reissues with more nuanced re-releases, bringing many a forgotten oddity and out-of-print modern classic back to popular attention.

It’s easy to be cynical about some of their releases. Searching for Sugar Man or Lewis were hugely overhyped records, setting an industry precedent for irritating levels of overt romanticising and mythologising, each story given the corporate hard sell via a template that will now be familiar to anyone keeping an eye on reissue cultures.

And yet, at the same time, they are perhaps one of the best curators of compilations in the business. I Am The Center is the first to come to mind: one of my favourite compilations of all time.

Last night at the Barbican felt like a showcase for a new spate of releases for the label. Thrasher and Saddleback were first on the stage, having flown over from Vancouver, Canada, and they could not have been happier to be there. Representing the label’s recent compilation Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, the pair played a short but excitable and endearing set, with Thrasher repeatedly thanking the label for the invitation and for hosting him in London.

As easy as it might be to be cynical about the reissue record business, it was lovely to hear an unknown artist be so vocal in his indebtedness to their efforts to shine a light on his culture.

Next, Haruomi Hosono: the blockbuster of the night (and a surprising choice for the second slot). The forthcoming set of reissues that Light in the Attic are putting out is mixed, encompassing his incredibly diverse career.

I’m personally very excited to finally get my hands on a vinyl copy of Omni Sight Seeing, its closing number being perhaps my favourite Hosono song. It’s a masterpiece of mastering and mixing. I’d argue it’s one of the best sounding records I’ve ever heard.

How necessary these reissues are is another story, however. I bought a copy of Hosono’s first album, with its imbecile grooves, just a few years ago. Making such a fanfare about bringing some of these albums to vinyl for the first time is too typical of this industry.

What can be applauded is their success in bringing Hosono to the UK for the first time in his career, but if the audience was expecting some sort of career-spanning “best of”, they would be wrong but surely not disappointed.

The set consisted for a mix of Hosono songs and American classics, all played in a “boogie woogie” style.

The most striking part of the show was surely Hosono’s brief but sombre reflection on the earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukashima disaster in 2011. After playing a sample from Japan’s smart phone earthquake warning system, his band slid into a fascinating cover of Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity.

He then played a cover of the Dale Hawkins’ rockabilly classic “Susie-Q”: “I used to like techno, now I just play boogie.” Hosono continued, explaining that he was born just two years following America’s bombing of the Japan at the end of the Second World War. When Japan became increasingly Americanised following the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, boogie woogie was the first music he remembered hearing and now, aged 70, it was the music he had adoringly come back to.

The set did not consist of boogie covers entirely. Another highlight was a boogie version of Hosono classic “Sportsmen” from the album Philharmony.

His set came to an end when Hosono asked for the house lights to be raised, then asking if his “friend” was in the audience tonight. Craning necks and crowd muttering meant I could not hear who exactly Hosono was looking for. As the unmistakable trilby of Yukihiro Takahashi emerged from his seat and walked towards the stage, the crowd went wild.


Taking his place behind the drum kit, he was closely followed by the likewise unmistakable lightning white curtains of Ryuichi Sakamoto, his arms wrapped around Hosono’s keyboardist, the expanded group ending the set with a tremendous jam session.

The crowd was noticeably thinner following a short interval when Acetone took to the stage.

Representing the “necessarily rescued classic” of the evening, Acetone were a band I had never heard of before buying my ticket for the night but over the last two months I have listened to the label’s beautiful “best of” constantly, becoming the centrepiece of the records on rotation in our kitchen at present.

Following the suicide of band member Richie Lee in 2001, the band came to an end, and this reunion show with patched-up lineup was mournful and sedated, their songs feeling far too fragile for the cavernous space on the Barbican’s main hall.

This is a band made to be heard in a garage, blissfully casual, tones warbling in concrete heat. Here, at times, the band would swell and fill the space, with Moog organ giving the band an ambient canvas, more appropriate to the location, on which to build.


They couldn’t compete with the disjointed momentum of the night, however, which is down to strange programming rather than their performance.

As my mind wandered over Acetone’s slack grooves, I couldn’t help but try to fit together these different ears on America. From the indigenous folk of Canada’s aptly-named Thrasher, his mantras barely contained by his vigorously strummed chords, native expression aggressively stunted by the primitivism of frontier form.

Acetone are instead the perfect distillation of various free-roaming, late-century forms: slowcore garage band surfer rock.

Light in the Attic‘s website notes how the band got their big break in the aftermath of Nirvana’s unprecedented success as many labels looked for a similar goldmine.

I remember something being said of Low, the anti-Nirvana, playing as slow as possible, rejecting the energy that the grunge hype was making ubiquitous. Whilst no Nirvana, their innovations are rightly lauded when it counts.

Acetone seem to exist somewhere in between the two, opting for heat-fucked bliss rather than glacial dread.

Hosono, literally placed between the two, as far as the night’s lineup was concerned, makes for an unusual and alien experience here. Thinking again about Omni Sight Seeing, an album which takes in musical forms from around the world, which he bends effortlessly to his will, here instead we have Hosono’s omni ear embracing its inherent and underacknowledged Americanisation.

On paper, this was a night of “world music”. In reality, the audience were presented with an expanded Panamericanism: the disparate fruits of a fragmented ear that nonetheless share a core DNA which takes in the world and which the world itself takes in in turn. It is an ethnographic feedback loop of maligned insiders, celebrated outsiders and something in between.

Too often, perhaps, on this label, we are presented with the oddest forms of American cultural appropriation to be committed to wax: the strange and forgotten mutant offspring birthed by a culture that so often fetishes that which is beyond itself, bringing the outside in and monetising it cynically.

Tonight, the tables felt somewhat turned. Here the artists looked back, presenting London with an unfamiliar America as seen through a succession of unusual lenses.

Recent posts on the weird American psyche:

New West 1; New West 2; Herzog; New West 3


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