hey feed this kind of stuff to babies now. On the scale of virtual babysitters for new parents on the go, things like Baby Mozart and Baby Bach don't seem so bad. They're still mindlessly passive entertainment, but it's tough to argue with those guys. Will Barney or Mr. Rogers ever show a kid beauty? Could they even conceivably, in any way, shape, or form, prepare a kid for a lifetime of band camp and AP Calculus? I think not. I'm not saying it actually does that—that's sort of like saying The Unit teaches you all about the inner workings of Special Forces—but a door opened is an opened door, right? Get to them before MTV does.
Aki Tsuyuko doesn't make music for children, per se, though you could mistake much of Hokane for a kids' TV theme at first blush. She's a long-studied player on, and composer for, the electronic organ, which means canned instruments and bright, primary-color sounds in the same general area as, say, Sesame Street or a Super Nintendo. But that sort of music is a cog in a larger system geared toward a certain kind of functionality. The former is built to appeal to kids, generally frightened by anything too loud or unusual, and abet some kind of passive learning, and the latter should prepare you for button-mashing battles; either way, things like complexity or oddness simply won't fit. And while Ms. Tsuyuko is playing with some of the same fundamental ideas (if perhaps unintentionally) and basically the same sound palette, she's fully aware that she isn't so similarly hindered; in a way, it’s kids music for adults.
Thus Hokane ends up being something like contemporary Baroque: an old form recast in light of newer ones (Serialism, aleatoric music). Canons, sonatas, fugues in up to four parts; Bach, but switched on, turned on, and progged out. Multi-part semi-symphonic epics, improvisations on three pseudo-instruments at once. Fake marimbas. Very, very twee singing. Old JSB would roll in his grave if he weren’t deaf by the end. But even when she’s at her all-out weirdest—“Dune and Clarinet” and its slingshot register changes, whiplash stops and starts, and those “marimbas” like the blinking eyes of a cute li’l cartoon animal—she’s always quite… well, for lack of a better word, pleasant.
But when Hokane is on, given a close ear for such things, the puppy-cute front is at its best a cover for at least a few vertiginous compositions. The gigue at the end of “Coma Suite” goes at its fugal theme like it’s tripping over itself, short passages bracketed by sudden half-rests that pick right back up, piled on with faux-violin glissandi and just a hint of somberness. “Aquilo” floats by in a drowsy sway, wafting in one voice after another; with five in total, the presets are pulled, one after another, like leaves on a breeze. It contains Tsuyuko’s stickiest organ sounds, puffed-up little pink and blue fuzz-balls—halos of amp-hum.
Much of the album is lent a touch more character by its amateurish recording; a faint hiss, like old dust, covers everything. But sometimes she tries her hand at proper songwriting, and it doesn’t do her too many favors. “Owlet Hymn” swirls in some lovely harmonies and melodic percussion, but then there is singing. It’s sweet enough, but wildly unnecessary, even cloying at times. Tsuyuko lives in ethereal drift; her hooks just escape and float away.
Hokane is the first in a forthcoming series of book-album combos by Thrill Jockey, and the one here hews perhaps a little too close to its source. Imagine if Jad Fair started mucking around in Photoshop, letting his minimalist inner-child loose with the elliptical marquee tool. It’s thin and sort of lunk-headed, especially when the track in question is among the more meaty and heady (a few pages at a time represent each song, and some come with sheet music, so you’d have to imagine Jad knows something about that too). It’s a fun idea though, with a lot of potential, but it’s an unnecessary accoutrement in this case; Hokane speaks its own language clear enough, and Tsuyuko, if she finds a way, could be a talent to watch. And bring the kids.