Tokyo Rosenthal has always been a songwriter that writes about the issues of today, right this minute. He might wrap his songs in the mask of the Lone Ranger. You might catch fragments of an Irish jig wandering in and out of one of his songs. You might hear, somewhere deep, faint echos of a klezmer theme conjuring up middle European wanderers from some past century. But Tokyo Rosenthal isn’t interested in the past. He’s not a musical archaeologist He writes songs about what we’re all thinking about right now, what we’re going through today, the things that make us face ourselves. On Tokyo’s Fifth, Tokyo Rosenthal gives us ten songs that draw from musical traditions all over the globe and make us realize that we’re all more than a little bit unfamiliar and unsettled with the place we find ourselves in. Tokyo’s Fifth makes the point that we’re all immigrants now.
Take the opening track from Tokyo’s Fifth, “This Ship Will Sail.” It opens with a solo clarinet laying down a sad mournful theme that conjures up ships crammed with immigrants. But song broadens out into something more dramatic and you’re not sure if he’s singing about actual immigration of families. You’re not sure who’s coming, who’s going, who’s getting left behind. You’re not sure if the song is about actual moving or if it’s more about families being pulled apart. But it captures the feeling of, well, uprootedness, of families being pulled apart. And just when you think there might be an ethnic slant to the song, he effortlessly switches to Spanish and makes the song completely universal.
“Waste of a Heart” comes across as a classic country waltz and sounds a bit like a broken relationship song, But the opening verse blows away any preconceived notions about sad country waltzes by telling us it’s “Rosh Hashona in Dixieland.” Okay then. Tokyo;s Fifth takes our assumptions about classic roots music and applies them to new situations to create songs that are confoundingly original and familiar at the same time.
My personal favorite song on Tokyo’s Fifth is “Mulberry Place.” It feels like a traveling song complete with pedal steel that gives it a wide open, sunny, positive vibe. But the story of the song about sad bewildered people culminating in a refrain that drives home the point, “This hurt is new.”
“What Did I Used To Be” is the high point of Tokyo’s Fifth uprootedness theme. It’s about everyone feeling poorer, out of control, bewildered by small changes to everyday things. “The Immigrant” is a sympathetic look at the humiliation illegal immigrants feel getting through the day.
With all that angst building up through the themes explored in the first five tracks of the album, it’s almost natural, almost a relief, to hit the sixth track where Tokyo thrashes through a cover of “Helter Skelter.” But like all of Toke’s songs, he manages to pull in a roots music twist. In this case, there’s a dark bluegrass-inspired fiddle in the music that cranks up the angst to 11.
The feel-good track on Tokyo’s Fifth, it’s in Killaloe, a beautiful fiddle driven melody about making peace with your place in the world and making peace with loss of a loved one. It’s the foot tapper of the album with mellow guitar licks.
Picks from Tokyo’s Fifth by Tokyo Rosenthal
- Waste of A Heart
- Mulberry Place
- What Did I Used To Be