Saturday, August 08, 2009

Rain Tree Crow

When erstwhile new-wave outfit Japan got back together in 1990, frontman David Sylvian was insistent that the band not call themselves by their former moniker. Instead, Sylvian had the rest of the group adopt the rather oblique name of Rain Tree Crow, and he also contended that it was more tenable for them to go in a different musical direction. So, instead of the pop-funk and New Romantic textures that were their former stock in trade, the reformation album, also called ‘Rain Tree Crow’, was a seemingly randomised collection of atmospheric ballads and tonal instrumental sketches that was about as far removed from their previous sound as possible.

The album itself was released in 1991, and while it netted considerable critical acclaim, it fared rather averagely on the charts, just making it into the top 25 in Britain (previous Japan albums all landed in the top ten). The group disbanded shortly after, perhaps because of the record’s inadequate showing, but definitely mostly because of Sylvian’s supposed dictatorial control of the project, which in effect left the other members as mere sessionists for what is essentially another Sylvian album. Not surprising then that it was reported that large amounts of intra-band strife and general disgruntlement marked the moods of the recording sessions.

However, notwithstanding any charges that ‘Rain Tree Crow’ comprises the fruits of a highly contentious recording experience, and the fact that it sounds absolutely nothing like Japan, there are a few artistic merits to be found on it, as proven on this remastered reissue. Evocative instrumentals like ‘New Moon at Red Deer Wallow’, ‘Red Earth’ and ‘A Reassuringly Dull Sunday’ have titles that describe their contents to a tee, all ethnic-fusion percussion and woodwinds, modulated guitars and atmospheric synth tones. Meanwhile, things like ‘Black Crow Hits Shoe Shine City’ and ‘Big Wheels in Shanty Town’ are elegant interpretations of the sort of streamlined worldbeat that art-rock stalwart Peter Gabriel excelled at. There are also a handful of stately, finely sculpted ballads that are highly reminiscent of Sylvian’s solo work, like the meditative, pastoral ‘Blackwater’, the desolate-sounding ‘Cries and Whispers’ and the elegantly edgy ‘Every Colour You Are’.

So, while ‘Rain Tree Crow’ is not quite the proper Japan reformation record that old-school diehards were hoping for, it is nonetheless a crafted collection that updates the collective's basic sonics for a new decade, and also holds up to repeated listenings. It might not have the resonance of classic Japan albums like ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ possess, but it’s still a well-rounded and highly artistic listening experience that thankfully doesn’t fall into new age-influenced self-indulgence. A sound artistic progression for Japan, and a solid indicator of the shape of things to come for the reconstituted group, had they decided to continue.