Soul Flower Union: Underground Railroad

This new album by the Kansai based roots-rock band Soul Flower Union is being advertised as their first in four years. That’s stretching a point as in that time the band has released three lengthy ‘mini-albums’ while singer and leader Takashi Nakagawa has made a solo album. There has also been the release of a 6 CD Soul Flower Box of their early work and last year there was a double album Best to commemorate their 20 years together. So their fans have hardly been starved of new releases.

Underground Railroad comes beautifully packaged and designed with an inner sleeve containing lots of photos plus all the Japanese lyrics of the songs alongside their English translations. The back cover photo is of a street banner displaying the slogan ‘Show Racism the Red Card’. The band themselves add their own words to the jacket to make sure there is no doubt of their intentions: ‘Anger is an energy. Silence is a war crime. No place for racism. This CD kills fascists. Best of Japonesian crossbreed rock ‘n roll.’

sfu-underground railroad

The album begins with ‘Ground Zero’ a typical blast of SFU with Nakagawa’s impassioned vocal mixed with a big sound and this sets the tone for what follows. SFU is now more of a collective centred around Nakagawa who plays guitars, sanshin and bouzouki. The six members of the newest line-up also include original members Shinya Okuno on piano, organ, accordion, synthesizer and programming, and Hideko Itami (sanba, hayashi). To these core members are added a total of 19 ‘associate musicians’ and among them this time is Okinawa’s Tatsumi Chibana.

Unfortunately, the album does not always match the commitment and fine musicianship of its members. The problem is obviously that the band has been so prolific that there is a sense of their now running out of new ideas. For those familiar with SFU’s past catalogue, listening to many of these songs will give a feeling of déjà vu as too many of them sound too much like other songs from other SFU albums. Nakagawa’s songwriting has plundered many of the tunes and melodies of his past with just a minimum of tweaking. The words of the songs range as usual from the political to the impenetrable.

No Soul Flower Union record is ever less than interesting but the cacophony of sounds and the familiar paths the songs take can be a bit relentless over 61 minutes. It comes almost as a relief when we hear the simple and direct cover of ‘Is This What Freedom is All About?’, a song written by Miki Toriro and adapted (with a new verse by Nakagawa) from a version on an NHK programme from 1954 called ‘Jodan Ongaku’ (Joke Music). It sounds more relevant than ever in today’s Japanese political climate. The other cover is Lee Perry’s ‘Upsetting Rhythm’ an instrumental providing some respite from all the impassioned songs. The title track of last year’s mini-album ‘Let’s Dance! Don’t Let Them Dance Us!’ is also included.

Underground Railroad is out now on BM tunes.








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