We Are the Works in Progress pays beautiful homage to Japan’s reconstruction

Following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March of last year, Kyoto native Kazu Makino, with her bandmates in Blonde Redhead, has brought together a new compilation album to benefit the ongoing reconstruction efforts. The 14-song album includes previously unreleased tracks from Blonde Redhead, Deerhunter, Interpol and Four Tet, among others. While records for charity don’t demand much criticism on their artistic merits, We Are the Works in Progress happens to be a collection of music to a remarkably high standard of craft. Meanwhile, though, it does something quite unexpected in its choice and treatment of themes, and ends up presenting an exciting interpretation of the very idea of a benefit album.

Blonde Redhead is an “avant rock” band that consistently aims high in its own songwriting. Their most recent album, Penny Sparkle, met enthusiastic praise from critics and fans, and the band ranks high on my own list of favorite live acts—not least because their style seems to evolve so steadily, a missed show will never be captured again. It’s impressive, however, that they can bring those same high standards to bear when their role is ‘curator’ rather than author. In an interview with Hyphen magazine, Makino described the idea behind the compilation:

“I wanted to have works that had so much energy because they were in progress, in the making. The very material that makes artists want to complete, want to do something more…”

That vision comes through with tremendous success. An atmosphere of potential pervades: The songs here all swarm in empty spaces and untapped energies. Throughout, there is a precarious interaction of dimly-heard melodies and untamed noise, sometimes flowing and sometimes willfully jarring. For all the diversity of styles at work, the abstraction on its basic theme comes through with unmistakable clarity.

Humility seems to be Makino’s hallmark, but notice what’s been done, here: her intent was for the record itself to be a piece of art on the themes of reconstruction, labors of love, and living among incompleteness. Making comparisons within the field of benefit albums would be wrongheaded, but the contrast, in this case, points to something crucial: We are the Works in Progress doesn’t seek to provoke sympathy, but to share it. For the people still living and working among the devastation caused by the disaster, this album offers a heartfelt and insightful benediction of their labors.

The album can be ordered, in vinyl or digital forms, at the tumblr blog for the project, which also links to charity organizations that benefit the recovery efforts.

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