World Standard – Le Train Musical

Polystar PSCR 5916/7
1985 (rereleased 2000)

Wow, I never expected this, it’s like Penguin Cafe Orchestra or some other more acoustic Editions EG record from the early ’80s.
I thought, being on the Non-Standard label, the music would some burpy electronica. No, this is happy little miniatures of acoustic guitar, punchy barrelhouse piano, a few minimal effects, a gong or two, and Meredith Monk-like vocals. Completely charming, working out a few simple chord progressions. Adding to the effect is the low-fi, recorded at home feel. “Music Train” is a a cheerful number with “la laaa la” vocals and a drum that reminds me of the There’s bits of Harold Budd and Saboten in here too.
Very few things date this: there’s a bell sound that comes straight out of a Yamaha, but for the most part this could have been recorded anytime. There’s nothing very “Japanese” about the group either.
I’m listening to this as I read a very long unpublished Lester Bangs interview with Brian Eno just posted on Perfect Sound Forever. And the Eno theories are coloring my experience of listening to it (of course, it helps that they are coming from some similar places). The minimalism of World Standard reminds me of some of Eno’s Music for Films pieces.
And then there’s the live track, tucked away at the end as “Ishi no hana”, where the arrangement is exactly the same as the studio version, but now the whole thing is bathed in echo (real echo, too), and the audience (sounding like about 20 people–I’m thinking it’s one of those ultra-cramped Tokyo basement clubs, full of smoke) gets processed along with everything else, their murmurings turning into a little black stream of sound. Majestic.
Bangs’ interview (it seems to be around 1981) ends with the author’s anxiety about Eno’s comfort of working with machines:

There is something just a little too comforting about this insistence that this stuff takes place totally outside of the world’s arena. Music stirs people, in one way or another; it can be used for evil purposes, it can make evil things happen. One thinks of the stories of Jews in World War II who reported finding themselves excited by Nazi songs even as they knew there were the anthems of their own destruction. Rock is a form of music, let it be admitted, particularly susceptible to the creation of mass states of pointless rage and destructiveness, although Eno’s music, if it ultimately has any social consequences at all, points in the opposite direction: towards pacification. His stance makes you sometimes wonder if he couldn’t go merrily along creating his pleasant little ambient tapes under the most totalitarian regime, which leads you to further speculate that it might have been amoral in the first place.

Of course, Eno’s outspoken essays against the Iraq invasion, his criticism of more modern technology (CD-ROMs, synthesizers and software made by programmers for programmers–not artists), have put those anxieties to rest. How threatening those analog machines must have sounded back then, how warm they sound now.
Addendum: Actually, the above description above applies to “Youthful Standard,” the 2-CD of bonus tracks and demos that came with the 2000 reissue of this album. Because of various factors, I wound up listening to it first about five times before I even put on the studio version. And I can say I like some of these demos better! The studio versions do indeed have lots of synths and are exceedingly clean and airy, and “Coconut Fruit” reminds me of the first Pizzicato Five ep. In fact, Konishi appears on tracks 1 and 4, singing chorus. The album is produced by YMO’s Harry Hosono (as was the P5 e.p.) and is a chirpy thing and good in its own way. But I’d rather put the second disc on first!

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