Review | Songlines

Empire Electric

Top of the World

Rating: ★★★★

View album and artist details

Album and Artist Details

Artist/band:

No-No Boy

Label:

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

November/2023

The new album, Empire Electric, from No-No Boy, the alter ego of rogue folklorist Julian Saporiti, dives into Southeast Asian family lore and Pacific Northwest American history. Though originally from Nashville, Saporiti and his wife and close collaborator Emilia Halvorsen-Saporiti, have embraced their current home in Portland, Oregon. While not a state known for its diversity, Saporiti has been uncovering a lost history of Oregon that foregrounds lesser-known pioneers like Miyo Iwakoshi, the first Japanese settler of the state (‘Western Empress of the Orient Sawmill’), or the Asian crew of the first non-Native ship to explore the Oregon coast (‘1603’).

Inspired by a retreat to Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery, the new album seems, if not more spiritual, at least more personal. Empire Electric’s most powerful moments come when Saporiti dips into the history of his own family, examining inter-generational trauma in the present day. The stand-out bilingual track ‘Mekong Baby’ is dedicated to his Vietnamese mother, among others, and grapples with a history of war. It features gorgeous vocals from Vietnamese singer Thai Hien. Bringing together deep research, excellent liner notes, evocative field recordings and family stories, Julian Saporiti’s gentle singing and genuinely curious mind make Electric Empire a true delight for the listener.

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