Sunday, April 2, 2017

Harumi - 1968 - Harumi


01. Talk About It 4:10
02. First Impressions 3:10
03. Don't Know What I'm Gonna Do 3:09
04. Hello 4:02
05. Sugar In Your Tea 3:22
06. Caravan 3:05
07. Hunters Of Heaven 2:52
08. Hurry Up Now 3:51
09. What A Day For Me 2:47
10. We Love 2:17
11. Fire By The River 3:35
12. Samurai Memories 19:15
13. Twice Told Tales Of The Pomegranate Forest 24:00

There are many albums by  unknown artists that deserve to be dug up and reexamined (or perhaps examined for the first time). Then there are the very few that reach up and grab you by the ears, making you wonder why they were ever forgotten in the first place.  Harumi falls into the second category.

Somehow an unknown from Japan (with feminine name) managed to locate one of the most renowned producers of the day to record his self titled debut record for Verve in 1968. Tom Wilson, the impresario behind both Dylan and Nico’s best loved albums heard something special in Harumi’s psyched out English-penned originals and we are still reaping the benefits of that union today.

Comparisons don’t give this music its due. Easy references like mid period Byrds or Jefferson Airplane might be obvious because of the relatively familiar aesthetic (for the time period) , but there is much to this record that greatly sets it apart from the more successful contemporary acts.

The main draw here is Harumi’s exceptional original songs and the way his drugged out voice navigates them. “First Impressions” begins with a Zombie-esque guitar and organ lick before catapulting into full pop mode with strings and brass. Harumi sounds haunting here, especially when he glides back in after the baroque instrumental break in the middle. This track drips with an endless summer vibe that spills over on the rest of the record.

Organ and jazzy vibraphone (along with assorted Japanese instruments) are present on nearly every track, filling out an already tight rhythm section. Little subtleties, like the phase effect on Harumi’s vocals on “Sugar in Your Tea”, or the Eastern sounding guitar on “We Love” crawl to the fore on repeat listens. The latter song is one of the best here- it grooves steadily through the haze and features some lyrical highlights like “Would you like to say hello to everyone that you have ever known?” and “You are me and I am you- there is no comparison for two”.

From start to finish (including the 2 extended cuts that make up the second half of this double album), Harumi is a remarkable listen that sets a very persistent vibe.

Harumi was a Japanese ex-pat (with a woman's name) who jumped across the ocean and had the fortune to under the guiding hand of legendary producer Tom Wilson. This self titled disc is a double album that deserves to be as such as it functions basically as two completely different sets: one a set of blue eyed soul and AM pop sounds thrown through a psychedelic pop prism, while the other consists of two side long experimental freak outs.

The first eleven songs are pretty solid psychedelic pop that usually ends up echoing another artist. "Hunters Of Heaven" recalls the Grass Roots a little too much for my tastes, while "Don't Know What I'm Gonna Do" is like a psychedelicized Righteous Brothers. "Hurry Up Now" and "What A Day For Me" channel a little bit of the Stax Records sound. Tom Wilson throws some production curveballs by slathering on the phasing and adding some occasional orchestration and oddball instrumentation. Then we have Harumi himself. Although going for a pop sound that generally harbours powerful vocalists, he often sounds more like a stoned cosmonaut. I think this makes this more charming than it would be otherwise.

Fortunately, there are several home run tracks hanging in the grooves. "Talk About It" blasts through with it's phasing, screeching strings and horn charts as a pretty wacked out soul number. "First Impressions" trades in the soul (but keeps the horns), for a great track that mixes British style whimsy with the lighter side of San Fran acid rock. Plus it has vibraphone, which as you may know, is always a plus for me. "Hello" is an awesome psych groover (with more vibraphone!) that was awesome enough to get sampled on the first track of Edan's Beauty And The Beat. Later we find "We Love," which is a fun raga-rock song which kind of recalls the better songs on the soundtracks of 60's psychedelic exploitation films.

Then we get to the second disc, which is a much stranger set of stream-of-consciousness ramblings, traditional Japanese instrumentation, and the ambience of a blue-smoke filled club at 5am when only the most freaked out heads are still hanging around. "Twice Told Tales Of The Pomegranate Forest" inhabits the first side, and is by far the lesser of the two. Resting mostly on koto and strange spoken word, it takes some effort to make it through the whole 24 minutes. Much better is side two's "Samurai Memories," which is supported by a churning band. On top of this are lots of muttering in Japanese, warped sound effects, and orchestration invading the aural space in strange and unexpected ways. The 20 minute track feels like a missing link between the stranger part of Frank Zappa's Freak Out and the long, driving sonic journeys of Acid Mothers Temple.

With what basically amounts to two albums present here, you're bound to find a couple tracks that hit a bulls-eye on Harumi. It's underground music, but with the steady hand of a pro at the helm.

New York, 1967. Tom Wilson, man behind the mixing desk for such legendary artists as Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, The Velvet Underground, and Simon and Garfunkel, has persuaded Verve Records to sign and fund his newest project for distribution on their Forecast imprint. Unlike the other acts that Wilson helped shape into the defining sounds of an era, this artist will barely make a mark on history. His name is Harumi, he's from Japan, and he creates a psychedelic pop album that would eventually be heralded as everything from lost classic to hopelessly frazzled to Holy Grail among squares and psych-heads decades later, but not before he manages to completely disappear from the music industry and into the void of complete and total obscurity.

There is very little known about the man named Harumi, if that's even his real name (and it's debatable, as "Harumi" has female connotations in Japanese). Virtually every source-every blog, every website-has the exact same information on him: He came from Japan to New York to record an album, and disappeared. Did he remain in America to take part in the flower power movement? Could he have returned to Japan, sealing the fate on his obscurity by becoming a salaryman? Presumably, nobody outside his family knows. He could be anywhere in the world. He could be dead.

The actual album itself only adds to the mystery. Recorded between 1967 and 1968, it was a product of its time: a psychedelic gem released at the height and in the heyday of the genre's popularity and ubiquity. A double LP with a gatefold sleeve, its richly colored artwork (courtesy of "Sherri Berri") stands out even considering the acid-and-sun soaked milieu of the time. Inside, though, there is little information regarding its musicians. Harumi does indeed seem to be the singer's name (as evidenced by the strange side story written on the back end of the sleeve), but aside from the usual professional credits such as Producer (Tom Wilson), Arranger (Larry Fallon, Harvey Vinson, and Harumi), and Engineer (Val Valentin), there is nothing regarding who played the actual music.

Which, of course, is the most mysterious and intriguing part of all, akin to coming to the center of a maze only to find a completed puzzle with the center piece missing, nowhere to be found. Opener "Talk About It" sounds like Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles trying to play classic Motown as Harumi searches for his mind instead of his girl. "First Impressions" switches between spidery guitar lines and blaring horn calls. The gently trippy "Don't Know What I'm Gonna Do" (apparently known as "Love Song" on the original album sleeve) adds sweet strings and subtle vibraphone (there's tons of both on the record) to an already irresistible "La la la laa" refrain. Acidic hippie anthem "Hello" was sampled by hip hopper Edan on his Beauty and the Beat album and "Sugar in Your Tea" has a great drumbeat and phased vocals (One of Wilson's favorite tricks on the album, there's liberal amounts of phase everywhere), ending with an almost holy organ solo. "Caravan" (once again seemingly under a different title on the original sleeve, as "I Took a Ride (in Your Caravan))" has got some smooth guitar lines and prominent organ following its slow, heavily phased intro. "Hunters of Heaven" brings back the string and horn sections, rushing and sudden, and features spooky echoing vocals in the middle. "Hurry Up Now" and "What a Day For Me" are both laid back jams, the former with a vibraphone solo towards the end and the latter a thinly veiled tribute to a day trip on acid; our hero even seems to forget a line or two. Rounding out the first LP is "We Love," an idealistic semi raga, and "Fire by the River," another great organ and guitar tune with a catchy, wordless chorus.

While the first LP is all accessible, colorful pop, the second disc consists of only two songs, each a side long. The first, "Twice Told Tales of the Pomegranate Forest," is a strange meditative piece that consists of Harumi and "Rosko" (by some accounts Wilson himself, by others a prominent New York DJ) engaging in what would be a stretch to call a conversation. Harumi is almost certainly out of his mind (you can tell by his giggles) while Rosko/Wilson/whoever is completely trapped inside his (you can tell by his woah-dude narrative). Beyond that, there is a the constant beat of a tabla and the wandering notes of a koto, a vibraphone, and possibly a cello. Atmosphere is everything for the track, and it's perfect for a late night listen. The other song is "Samurai Memories," a full out acid jam where Wilson turns a blind eye to the proceedings and lets anything go, even spoken appearances from Harumi's parents and sister. Both tracks are quite long and usually warrant overlooking in favor of the great pop songs, but both are worth it and make for a great complete listen in context with the rest of the album.

Harumi isn't perfect, but in its imperfections it creates a certain charm and allure completely unique to itself. Harumi sounds like Your Friendly Neighborhood Acid-Head (though psychedelic blogger/uberenthusiast Dr. Schluss likened him to "a stoned cosmonaut," which actually seems to work pretty well as a compliment, I guess) and the album itself plays out as such; innocent rock, folk, or soul filtered through the lysergic brain of a Japanese expatriate and the adventurous producer willing to capture it all on tape.

Harumi does deserve the praise and cult following its gathered over the years, and the title of "lost classic" is well earned. In fact, if it hadn't been for Fallout Records, it might truly be lost; copies of the original double LP are rare and go for upwards of 50 dollars, and that's considering someone is even willing to part with their treasure. As we'll see, though, Fallout was deserving of its name, and in bringing it back, they ultimately only contributed to the murkiness surrounding the album.

And the search hasn't even begun..



  2. A grand album! An interesting fact: The Residents sample the ending of Harumi's "Hunters of Heaven" on "Explosion" from their 1972 "Santa Dog" EP