Shimada Aiko’s Blue Marble has a lot of downtown New York muscle behind it.
There’s Evyind Kang twiddling the recording console knobs as producer. There’s fellow Seattle-ite Bill Frisell popping in for a track. There’s John Zorn putting the album out on his Tzadik label.
Shimada’s angular, haunting melodies lend themselves well to the catholic interests of a downtown aesthetic, and as a result, Blue Marble is one of the most strangely beautiful recordings of the year.
Shimada’s clear alto never obscures her melodies, which sometimes stray a half-step here and there from their tonal center. And while she sings entirely in Japanese — not even including a throw-away English word as is common practice in Japanese pop music — listeners don’t need a lyric sheet to feel the longing in her voice.
And while Shimada could have felt at home with more traditional instrumentation — say, an acoustic guitar and a brush drum kit — her songs take on a larger sense of proportion with the unconventional approach she and Kang employs.
Toy pianos mimic a gamelan ensemble on “Busy Rabbit,” the closest thing to a single on the album. A string quartet that could have come from Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 backs Shimada on “Toki Wa Sugi”, while Björk-like drum patterns drive “Wakare”.
Every track offers something distinct — an Enya-meets-Meredith Monk chorale on “Hikari (Morning Part II)”; no vocals and all strings on “Silent”; Frisell’s chiming tones on “Song for Mark.”
But the overall mood of Blue Marble is introspective and disturbing. Shimada isn’t content to produce music that’s calm and soothing. Blue Marble looks inward but is never afraid to peek into the dark corner of the mind’s ear.
The 41-minute album concludes with the 10-minute “Asa (Morning Part 3)”, a piece that combines all the techniques introduced in the preceding tracks, even reprising the opening guitar lick.
Blue Marble is a quiet, unsettling collection of songs propelled by a singular vision. It’s a challenging listening experience that doesn’t leave a person worn down.