Willie Reviews Rima Kato’s “Sing-Song”

Willie Reviews Rima Kato’s “Sing-Song”

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A dreamed delight
And sing-song walk
Rest quiet, signifying bright.
As do Kato and Rossetti too,
Who prompt these words in
RPM’s review:

I cannot for certain measure Victorian poet Christina Rossetti’s influence and lyrical popularity in the twee scene, but the joining of the two was inevitable. Rossetti’s sentimentality is good-natured, but melancholic still. Her writing recognizes the standard-bearers of poetic beauty (flowers, little birds, etc.), but a cold wind blows over it all the same. Japanese singer-songwriter Rima Kato’s Sing-Song is based around ten of Rossetti’s short poems, and it stirs them into action. Kato’s empathetic playing and singing joins the formal brilliance and brevity of Rossetti in a pairing 150 years in the making.

Rima Kato, photo from FLAU

Kato’s tendency is to blow right through the poems from start to end without repeats. The interpretation is faithful because the poems don’t often need work to pull them apart. There is always a tension, but it is a kind of solvable tension. Often by speaking the poem, the sea parts and we are left with a sincere, but unsettling feeling. “If the sun could tell us half” recalls the birds in the trees and the “cruel boys who take / Birds that cannot fly.” In this eight-line poem, Kato’s version lasts just over a minute and descends from peak positivity into a questioning sadness, and finally an instrumental conclusion that the sun’s truth is all the truth that is out there in the world. Both the original and the album interpretation are open to the possibility that the ways of the world will persist despite our feelings on their rightness or wrongness. And so, the album continues on and never drops into pity.

One of Kato’s great strengths is the way she draws out the lyricism of the written word. Of course, that’s the thing that sparks poetry, but it’s especially important with Rossetti because her most popular criticism during her lifetime was that her poems privileged formal perfection and mouth sound over thematic sophistication. Yes, modern critics have reevaluated her poetry and blown her works open in every direction of interpretation, but the fact remains that her poems are incredibly fine-tuned and sanded with a fine grain. “A ring upon her finger” is more of a straightforward lullaby with a narrative, but Kato makes it one of the most compelling songs. The lagging gallop upward in her voice is a reading worthy of Rossetti’s words.

The tracks on the album were taken from a songbook from 1893, and whatever the story of their inclusion was, they are lullabies based largely around winter and winter’s love. Sing-Song was released in the dead of summer, but the necessary solitude of winter permeates the tone of the album. The first track, “I dug and dug amongst the snow,” is probably the best setting overall. It insists on the futility of some actions (planting in the snow eventually yields results, but not sand). “Dead in the cold, a song-singing thrush” is exactly as it sounds. The intimate account of its death is a sacred and private thing.

 

Rima Kato on ferris wheel singing "Love Me, I Love You"

 

The album cover is faithful to the songbook’s art, which is full of lush greenery and pastoral icons. A songbook has a responsibility to retain anonymity, so its symbols are multi-purpose and open. It must be a populist tool for bringing songs into your household and anyone else’s too. Kato’s album, however, ends up being a much more personal statement. It doesn’t want replication. Hers is a once-only interpretation style. Sing-Song is the tale of one interaction with Victorian sentiments long after their time, and we’re lucky to hear it.

Score: A pile of dried flowers.

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