H. Usui – Sings the Blues

2 out of 5

Label: VHF

Produced by: H. Usui (?)

Out of the references mentioned for what H. Usui’s ‘Sings the Blues’ sounds like, the only artist with which I’d had experience was Loren Mazzacane Connors. Even then, my experience is minimal, so I don’t know if what I’d heard was similar, but I did appreciate Connors’ minimalist, emotive guitar playing, and for the first couple of tracks or so of Usui’s album, I could hear some echoes of that, mixed with a very raw and loose DIY sound. Heading into the first of the “blues” tracks, though – The Westernized Blues – I started to lose the thread a bit. Usui incorporates some vocals (their rough, atonal-ness matching the in-and-out of timing guitar plucking), and it starts to move toward a more experimental and ambient territory, starting and stopping. Enjoyable, but an adjustment in how I was listening.

…And then with the further blues tracks, we start to hear some chord progressions that are more reminiscent of the title’s suggestive style, but it’s still another adjustment – banjo; a lighter playing approach; these tracks relatively poppy in comparison, and fun, and upbeat.

…And then it’s back to experimental work towards the end of this cycle (Bear Blues, The Thief), and then back to more spread out, LMC-like work on The Fool and World.

Now there is, of course, nothing wrong with working in several different styles on a single album, and there’s no rule that says that by calling something ‘sings the blues’ you are required to feature only blues tracks. However, even once knowing what changeups to expect on Usui’s release, and the pacing switches that came along with that, it doesn’t feel like the album – like Usui – really knows how he wants the music to be heard. Track times, on the average, are pretty short for this kind of fare – about three minutes – resulting in the music only just carving out its sound, or space, by the time it moves on. The title can maybe be seen as somewhat sarcastic in this sense, as “Sings the Blues” is often used on the type of releases where some noted crooner covers various singles, at 2 to 3 minutes a pop, and H. Usui’s version of this is rather poppy and fleeting – the section where the tracks become comparatively upbeat flows together well. But it’s that it also applies this formula to its experimental stuff where it feels weird; only the 6-minute World gets it full due and arrives with the kind of emotional impact I guess I was kind of hoping for. I’ve seen other reviews talking about the imparted coldness or loneliness of the music, but this is the only song where that comes across to me, as elsewhere it feels more like sketches of thoughts, and then a temporary dip into happier climes.

So it’s an experience that’s somewhat at odds with itself, dotted with some very interesting sounds – and I quite love the production, definitely worth listening to on vinyl, and appreciating the warm way Usui enhances the atonal front layer with bass and other sounds – but ultimately a struggle in terms of figuring out “how” to listen to the thing.