Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense begins with lead singer David Byrne walking onto an empty stage carrying only an acoustic guitar and a boom box. “Hi, got a tape I wanna play,” David says to the audience just before he presses play on a cassette recorder and begins to strum his guitar and sing “Psycho Killer” to a simple beat. As the live set progresses, Byrne is first joined by his core band, then additional musicians and backup singers, song after song, until the stage is practically overflowing with talent. Kishi Bashi’s recording String Quartet Live! utilizes a similar technique in its structure. Musically, the album starts simply before building to include additional instrumentation and backing vocalists. That String Quartet Live! includes a cover of the Talking Heads’ song “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” is no coincidence.
Kaoru Ishibashi has been performing and releasing music under his pseudonym Kishi Bashi since 2011. You may know him best for his work with Athens, Georgia’s Elephant Six collective band of Montreal or his own group Jupiter One. If the name Kishi Bashi does not ring a bell, however, you may be familiar with his music and not even know it, as three songs from his 2012 debut solo album 151a have been used to market products in America. Microsoft licensed “Bright Whites” for use in a commercial for Windows 8, “It All Began with a Burst” was featured in a spot for Sony’s Xperia tablet, and “Chester’s Burst Over the Hamptons” was used by the automotive company Smart. These ubiquitous tracks were wisely left off of String Quartet Live!
What String Quartet Live! does include are nine gorgeous pop songs performed with an immaculately recorded string ensemble. This is absolutely elegant music that wouldn’t sound out of place if it was coming from the speakers of your grandfather’s Oldsmobile. That’s not to say this is music for cotton tops exclusively. Kishi Bashi’s songs range from smartly penned indie pop numbers that expertly utilize Ishibashi’s strong, full, smooth, and confident-sounding vocal range, to fun, upbeat tracks that at times employ a banjo or subtle electronic elements to flesh things out.
“Manchester” introduces the album with rich strings accompanying Ishibashi singing anecdotal lyrics that swell to bursting by the time the song has reached its glorious, climactic ending. “Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her” follows, and is similar to the first track. By the time we reach the third song, “Atticus, In the Desert”, the band has grown to include minimal percussive elements as well as vocal accompaniment. The progressive instrumental building, song upon song, continues until the aforementioned Talking Heads cover is reached. It’s at this point the instrumentation is rolled back to just Ishibashi and the string ensemble, concluding the record’s first side.
The second half of String Quartet Live! begins with Kishi Bashi gleefully ripping into the magnificent “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” which has Ishibashi literally encouraging his audience to dance. The album is concluded with two longer pieces. The first, “Conversations at the End of the World”, is a moody ballad that finds Ishibashi pouring his heart out while the string quartet intermingles with a plaintively picked banjo. The over seven-minute-long album ender, “In Fantasia”, somberly closes the live set with a violin solo mournfully crying out its final notes, satisfyingly concluding the album without leaving the listener cold.
Kishi Bashi’s focus on thoughtful, conversational lyrics, emotive vocals, and expertly performed instrumentation combine to create a successful recipe for a strong live performance. It’s no wonder that after barely only five years and two full-length studio albums Ishibashi decided a live album would be his next move. String Quartet Live! is an impressive achievement that, much like the accompanying soundtrack to Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, will stand up well over time to serve as a lasting live document and a solid introduction to the artist’s beautiful music.