Since 1978, a man who might be named Sterling R. Smith has released nearly 100 albums as Jandek. Images of the man, only confirmed to be him when he began playing shows in 2004, graced the cover of many Jandek releases.
The enigmatic Houston-based project occasionally features other musicians and often dabbles in a variety of styles, most often folks and blues. But, each release always includes an atmosphere of emotional despondency and atonal songwriting.
The founder of an unofficial Jandek website, Seth Tisue, said, “Everybody knows one thing about Jandek, that nobody knows anything about Jandek.”
By and large, whoever may really be behind Jandek, is a man wanting to keep his life private. He said so himself in one of his two unauthorized phone interviews.
More than 6000 miles away in Japan, a man named Daisuke Tobari is releasing similarly mystifying outsider folk but getting none of the press.
Part of the reason is probably the great disparity between Tobari and Jandek’s discography. Daisuke Tobari only has three records to his name, one of which contains mostly previously released material.
The records “Guitar” and “Drum” were put out in 1999 and 2009, respectively. It is unknown whether Tobari is active, planning on releasing a new album in 2019, or even alive.
I think the generic album names, along with all of his songs being untitled, goes to show Tobari isn’t searching for recognition, and probably wants to keep to himself.
You could count the number of confirmed pictures of Tobari on one hand. Half of the four pictures come from the art on the front and back of his first CD.
There’s one video of him performing live. It’s grainy and hard to make out, but it seems like it’s really him. Purported to have taken place in 1995, several years before his debut, the performance is pretty underwhelming considering how difficult it was to dig up.
So, one lackluster live performance, a bunch of untitled tracks between two records, and no information about the man behind them. That doesn’t seem to really hold a candle to Jandek’s living legacy. But as often is the case for music, nothing should be discounted without listening.
Released via Bumblebee Records, “Guitar” is one of the most fantastic and frenetic pieces of outsider folk I’ve heard, not only out of Asia but in general.
(For the record, there’s not more information about Tobari anywhere in Bumblebee Record’s catalog. They’re pretty mysterious too, between barely existing online and releasing only seven records between 1999 and now).
It’s wonderfully unfocused, switching from one style to another. “Guitar” shifts from sad cowboy ballads to Arabic folk-inspired chants to jangle pop to freakish tape experiments in a matter of minutes, sometimes on the same track.
The album has starts off simple enough with a quaint little track featuring vocals, an acoustic guitar, and airy synth, meandering together but never really going anywhere.
The second track swoops in with a reverb-soaked shout. Booming drums, a noisy sample of some Asian folk music, and strange electronic textures soon follow. Any sense of comfort developed in the first track is stripped away completely.
The lack of titles and frequent-genre hopping lead to an experience equal parts rewarding and dizzying. Every time the album seems to settle, some new sound crashes in to the mix.
For me, the standout track here is one of the simpler cuts. It’s a lazy jazz-inspired indie pop tune with beautiful melodies, both vocal and guitar. The second portion of the song features growling blues vocals that always manage to bring a smile to my face.
Ten years later, Tobari would break his complete silence to release “Drum” on Bumblebee Records.
It’s far more consistent than “Guitar” in terms of feel and style. This record feels a lot melancholic overall, with some really haunting vocal performances. The ones that come in here feel more like a cathartic moan than a musical performance, and it’s absolutely haunting.
This record does break away from its own conventions a few times, like on the opening track. An atmospheric drone, it’s the longest song on the album by quite a bit. The closer features some vocals that border on throat singing.
It might not be as immediately impactful or remarkable as “Guitar”, but “Drum” is still a fine piece of esoteric outsider art that could give quite a bit of Jandek’s catalog a run for its money.