We’re not even halfway through 2016, but it’s already been a highly-exciting year. Releases by major artists like Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai and Cult of Luna, as well as adept newcomers such as Pinegrove and Sioux Falls have garnered much attention. Previously fringe-dwelling artists like Poly-math and Ranges have emerged and served notice that they are ready to make a serious impact. Even an obscure artist, the Mircea Laslo-lauded Jeremy Flower, has come out of nowhere to garner a perfect score on this site. Add Naia Izumi to the list of enticing artists in 2016. Like fellow California-based songstress Yvette Young of Covet, Izumi has come forth to show listeners that math rock is no boys’ club. Or, to put it in her terms, she is just doing her thing, and if you are of the mind to define it, well, that’s your deal. Having said that, it is kind of hard to write a review of an artist’s music without attempting in some way to define it, so here’s what I will say: her style is one that I can’t claim to have ever heard before – math-rock/blues/R&B fusion is certainly not a tag we have readily available to us at the moment, but it may be the most apt description. Izumi’s debut EP, “Soft-Spoken Woman,” was released this past January, followed quickly in March by “Never Let Them Tame You,” strictly speaking, her sophomore effort, but more of a companion piece, considering its proximity to her initial release. As such, I will be tackling both releases below.
RELEASE DATE: 17 January 2016 LABEL: Self-released
“Soft-Spoken Woman” begins with the title track, immediately laying out the template for this unique brew. Math-rock fans will be drawn in immediately by the pleasingly-familiar and properly catchy guitar lick, but what comes soon after will keep listeners coming back for more. Izumi stresses a reluctance on her behalf to fit into any categorization, as that can potentially restrict the experience for the listener. This dedication to crafting her own unique path results in a strikingly-confident collection of songs. Although technically her debut, “Soft-Spoken Woman” is the result of over 25 years of experience composing and producing. Though only 32, Izumi says she first began experimenting musically at age 5 after watching her mother use two tape recorders to overdub her voice as a method of working out choir parts for their church. Essentially, this EP is the culmination of a lifetime of listening, observing, and composing. Her guitar playing reveals a fiery heart of blues, shredded through the clear, distinctive tones of a Fender Jazzmaster; her voice, though certainly tending towards being soft-spoken, has a sultry quality, and demonstrates the kind of melodic sensibilities necessary to craft memorable hooks. By the time the title track reaches the silky guitar solo, listeners may have forgotten that they arrived here via math-rock interests.
What is so enticing about Izumi’s sound is how it can just as easily appeal to fans of Gary Clark Jr.’s power-blues guitar playing, or the empowering rhythm and blues of Beyonce, as it would to listeners gleaned on a steady diet of CHON or TTNG. At this juncture, Izumi functions as a one-woman band, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist playing before the backdrop of programmed drums. The idea of her playing alongside a full band, with the added nuance that suggests, is certainly alluring, though the sound she is able to achieve belies its solitary origins. There is a distinct richness to tracks like “Morphine,” with its smooth, pillowy jazziness that is punctuated by a math-rock bridge that plays alongside seemingly disparate influences, blending almost imperceptibly rather than standing apart awkwardly, as it may have in less adroit hands. Overall, this highly enjoyable EP serves notice of its idiosyncrasies without displaying them too conspicuously. At its core, it works because it rocks, it has soul, and it has a deep sense of groove.
RELEASE DATE: 17 March 2016 LABEL: Self-released
“Never Let Them Tame You” eschews much of the raw bluesiness of “Soft Spoken Woman,” moving more towards a crisp blend of math, jazz and R&B. Again it begins with the title-track, a standout reminiscent of Enemies focused through a lens of American soul music. This track acts as an anchor for the album, which moves in a more experimental direction with the next song, “Daylight.” Featuring more pronounced production with its breakbeat-tinged rhythms and effects-laden guitar line, this track reveals an adventurous spirit. However, it also lacks the kinds of hooks that make “Soft-Spoken Woman” stand above it as a superior record, a tendency that plays out through the third track, “Run,” as well.
“Hush” concludes the album on a wholly satisfying and exciting note, though. Izumi’s intrepid spirit shines brightly on this track, which sounds like a crossroads of Tera Melos’ joyous math, John Spencer’s gritty post-blues, and Bjork’s vocal bombast. It would be reasonable to expect such influences to clash violently and unsuccessfully, but once you realize the opposite is true, you really begin to grasp the potential that this artist possesses.
Although “Never Let Them Tame You” doesn’t match the overall power of “Soft-Spoken Woman,” it does add important layers to Naia Izumi’s repertoire. That she is able to be bold and unpredictable while still rendering a sound that holds the possibility of wide appeal should be enough to plant her firmly on the radars of music lovers everywhere.