Friday, July 30, 2004

Plectrum, Live at the Que

Plectrum's singer, Taisuke Takata. Posted by Hello

Plectrum is a Tokyo rock group consisting of four thirty-something guys. They've been around since the mid 90's. Scotland's Teenage Fan Club gave them their name ('plectrum' means guitar pick, in case you were wondering).

They write both hard rock and guitar pop tunes, most of which talk about youth (their latest album, for instance, is called 'Prom Night'). At their shows, playing these songs, they remind me of how raw, powerful and passionate rock music can be.

Plectrum Posted by Hello

Tonight's show at the Shimokitazawa Que was like all of their gigs: filled with energy, humor, raw rock 'n roll and beautiful melodies. They opened with their song '30 Boy' from their latest album. It's about the band members reaching the third decade of their lives, and feeling that they are just getting started. A genuine rock anthem. When I was a teenager who listened mostly to punk rock, were there older bands I didn't know about that wrote great songs on what it's like to be over 30?

Akira Fujita, aka Acky, lead guitar. Posted by Hello

Plectrum went to Seoul in March, and with their strong performances made believers out of an audience that had never heard of them before. In fact, 30 people in the Korean audience formed a fan club right afterwards. (They're going back to Seoul to play for a weekend in September. I'm tagging along.)

When Taisuke Takata sings, his mouth opening as big as a hippo's, the sound that comes out is sometimes the sweetest tenor. Meanwhile, Akira Fujita makes the sort of incredible noise you can make with an electric guitar (his trademark black Gibson Les Paul), if you only have an excess of talent like he does. They're a tight band, and you know they're having the greatest time on stage. If ever you have a chance to see them...

Honesty at the Que

Honesty Posted by Hello

Honesty, a rock duo (they're looking for a drummer), played before Plectrum at the Que.

Their music was eclectic (rock, reggae and folk were some of the apparent influences), and their playing was accomplished. With just a guitar, bass and a sampler/drug machine, they made a lot of far-out noise.

Honesty was also on the eccentric side. They put on Billy Joel's song 'Honesty' before the show started, and hit the stage just as Joel crooned 'Ho---nestyeeee'. They set up a video on the stage that showed various random images like an animation of Pinocchio shedding tears. The big joke of the night was that the audience made the right choice to come to this show rather than Fuji Rock Festival to see Lou Reed, the Pixies and others.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Vasallo Crab 75 Song Samples

Vasallo Crab 75 is a Tokyo rock band that is starting to attract a following with its color-filled, funky, pop-rock musical creations. I wrote about their most recent, heat-inducing show here.

And you can listen a few songs from their latest album, Breathe, at this page. (Click on the link in Japanese under the words 'Rainbow Entertainment' toward the top of the page.) The first two, Vicious Circle and Yellow Bird, are especially nice and worth a listen.    

Orange Plankton Song Samples

Orange Plankton is an up-and-coming pop quartet originally from Osaka. Their music is soothing, and I often listen to them in the morning on the way to work as I attempt to face a new day. Orange Plankton's fourth album is due out on August 22. I'm buying it that day.

It's hard to tell what a song or band is like listening to a 30-second snippet of a song, but it's better than nothing, so here is a link to some song samples. If you can't read Japanese, find the lines above the three pictures that say 'ram', and click on them. You may need to download Real Player first -- click on the icon is on the same page to do that.

From the top, the first song, with the pink and green illustration, is 'sangatsu no koto (About March)' , the second is 'yoru no owari (End of Night), and the one at the bottom with a picture of the band members is 'Ai no Youna (Like Love)' [all translations mine], their latest single. 


Saturday, July 24, 2004

Ricarope At Shimokitazawa Basement Bar

Ricarope with special guest. Posted by Hello

I've come back to see keyboardist Ricarope after having been to her show only a week ago. Her performance that night had deeply impressed me. I wish people that don't know anything about Japanese pop or have only heard worthless popular acts such as Morning Musume could see a musician like Ricarope play live. It will change their view of Japan's music, I think.

The show tonight was at the Basement Bar in Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo. 

Ricarope at the Basement Bar. Posted by Hello

Toy pianos are a big thing for Ricarope, and she propped one up in front of her on the stage, maybe as a talisman to help bring her a good performance.  If that's what the toy piano was for, it worked.

She started the performance playing a few passages on the toy piano, then did a couple of solo tunes, including one she claimed she made up on the spot. Ricarope is a fantastic pianist.  She shines on solo pieces and group numbers, both quiet ballads and the more rocking songs.

Maybe Ricarope's parents made her take piano lessons as a child, hoping she might become a classical pianist. But then she decided to do her own thing, and became a Keyboardist for a Rock Band. It seems to happen a lot in Japan, a cause of happiness for me. (Ricarope is her nickname, by the way. I don't know her real name.) 

Special guest -- Asako Toki, formerly of the Cymbals. Posted by Hello

Before Ricarope's show, which was the last of the night, there was a buzz in the air. Two people told me separately they'd heard that Asako Toki would be performing as a special guest for Ricarope. This was an exciting development.

Toki was the singer for a Japanese pop band called the Cymbals, which split up last year. They were once one of my favorite bands, and I still enjoy their work, especially the early stuff before they joined a major label. (Not that I have anything against major record labels. Just that in their case their major label albums seem more uneven and contain fluff like spoken-word parts, compared with their indies-era records.)

Anyway, Toki is one of the Beautiful People of the Japanese indies pop world, and having her show up unexpectedly at a small club is comparable to, say, going to your local jazz club and Norah Jones popping in for a surprise appearance. That may be stretching things, but it was certainly exciting to see Toki up close and to hear her soft, sweet singing.

The Aprils at the Basement Bar

The Aprils' keyboardist. Posted by Hello

In the audience at tonight's Basement Bar show was Edgar Franz, a German resident of Japan who leads a band in Tokyo called Miniskirt. If you think I sound too heavily involved in the Japanese music scene, you ought to talk to Edgar sometime. He's a font of Japanese music knowledge. If he wrote a book describing what it's like to be a foreigner in a band that performs in genuine Tokyo rock clubs, I'd certainly buy and read it.

Edgar had come to see the Aprils, one of the band playing before Ricarope tonight.  (Please open that Aprils link to their home page, by the way. It's very cool.) He said their music was the music of the future, of the 21st Century. They weren't like a lot of other Tokyo bands, whose music was still basically stuck in the 1980's.

And indeed, seeing their show I felt that this band was a new thing. On either side of the stage were two monitors showing computer graphics videos of the songs that played at the same time as they were being performed live. They had a percussionist in addition to a drummer, and a guy who spent most of his time dancing. They were colorful: Edgar said that a stylist had come in this morning to spruce them up, though I didn't independently verify this. They were definitely born in the 80's.

I like this band and would like to see them again. The only thing that got to me about the Aprils was that despite the pleasantness of their music and look, they seemed light-weight. I wasn't sure whether any of their songs would stick in my mind. Being able to create songs that do might be something that comes only with time.

The Aprils' percussionist. Posted by Hello

PolyABC at the Basement Bar

PolyABC. Posted by Hello

I went to the Basement Bar show not only because I wanted to see Ricarope again, but also because I was interested in catching polyABC's show there that night.  I'd been to one of their shows before, and I liked a song they contributed to a Various Artists album called Killermont Street 2001. (If I can digress here, that album is a special one for me, because it's where I first heard advantage Lucy, my favorite Japanese band. My J-pop craze really got started when I heard in that album a version of their song "Chikyu-" ((in English, "Earth")) that starts with a recording of children playing in a park, followed by a beautiful acoustic guitar part. Years after I first heard it, it's still one of the songs I like most in the world.)

PolyABC includes Umu, who is also the bassist for House Plan and the Bank$. He's a busy guy.

In the end, my conclusion was that this band plays with abundant energy and has its moments but not much of their music leaves a strong impression. That was what I felt last time I saw them too.    

Thursday, July 22, 2004

House Lights/Plan at Shinjuku Loft

House Lights at the Shinjuku Loft. Posted by Hello

The HOUSE LIGHTS and HOUSE PLAN are in the house tonight at the Shinjuku Loft.

I went to this legendary Tokyo rock club to see the Japanese rock band House Plan. As I've written before, they are a Japanese rock band I liked a lot in the late 90's, but the band disappeared from sight for a few years, only to re-emerge last year with a different member line-up.

By coincidence, appearing the same evening at the club was the House Lights of the U.S., playing the third of their fourth show on their Tokyo tour. I'd seen them at their first show at the Red Cloth, when I also had gone to see a different band (Orang). They were good that night, and they rocked tonight too. 

House Lights. Posted by Hello

House Lights/Plan at Shinjuku Loft 2

Afterpilot at the Shinjuku Loft.  Posted by Hello

House Plan (of Japan) played around the mid-point of the event, and the House Lights were up last. Some of the other groups that played were mediocre. Listening to them felt like walking through a desert. Or a trail with thorny bushes.

For example, there was an all-girl noise rock trio, who weren't bad, but had zero stage presence. Throughout the show, two foreigner girls danced like crazy to the tunes. I thought the two must either have a few screws loose or be on drugs, because it wasn't that type of music that pushed people to shake their body.  They must have been pals with the band. I ended up being more amused by the dancers than the trio on stage.

I suppose you always judge your favorite bands much more favorably than some band you never heard of before, but even given that, tonight's show made me feel that House Plan is a superior band live. Their music mixes together hard rock and grunge with a tea spoon of punk and a pinch of heavy metal, but for all that, there's a lot of clarity to their sound. I remember being struck with their aggressive but clean sound when I saw them in the 90's.

The singer, Gender, is fun to watch on stage. As he finishes one singing part with his high-pitched voice, and as the music becomes more frenzied and loud, Gender gets a look on his face like you'd see on a teen-ager as he skateboards down a slope and hits top speed.

I didn't get any good photos of House Plan. Next time. They are releasing a new album in September, which is something for me to be excited about.

If some of the standing through mediocre bands' sets was no fun, it ended up being worth it because I found a local band that plays enjoyably straightforward hard rock: afterpilot. Their drummer plays drums for the Bank$, while House Plan's bassist is the bass for Bank$. So, two out of the Bank$'s three support musicians were at the Loft tonight.

Speaking of which, the Bank$ just released their first album. It's a nice one. More on it some other time.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

China Rock 'n' Roll Photos

Taking a breather from my usual reporting on JAPAN's rock scene to point out to you some cool rock photos from CHINA, in the photoblog The pictures of the scuffle between the stage-divers and the black t-shirted staffers are especially amusing.

Check out the rest of the site too. It has excellent photos of everyday life in China, in all its incredible variety.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The House Lights in Tokyo

The House Lights at the Red Cloth. Posted by Hello
A couple of bands that I liked were playing last night at the Shinjuku Red Cloth to welcome the House Lights, a U.S. band I hadn't heard of before from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the start of a one-week Tokyo tour. It was an exciting evening, and the show made me think about the difference between American and Japanese rock 'n' roll.

The House Lights. Posted by Hello
I thought about this because the House Lights took command of the stage from their first note, in a way I don't see many Japanese bands do, at least not in that way. These guy were basically nerds from Small Town, U.S.A., but they personified what Iggy Pop must have meant when he sang Raw Power.
It felt like the difference between Major League baseball and its Japanese counterpart. Or, to pile on the analogies, a steak dinner versus sushi.
Why was there this difference?
First, I thought, the Americans are simply bigger. They take up more space on the stage, and there's more movement when they strut around on it. That also makes their guitars look smaller, like toys tossed around by giants. (I mean, take a look at the bassist below...)
Second, I assume that their being a U.S. band means that they tour around a lot in the U.S., playing in hick bars where no one's ever heard of them. They need to perform in a way that makes the audience boogie rather than boo (or throw bottles). A lot of Japanese bands, on the other hand, can get by ok in Tokyo alone, the city having such an amazing concentration of clubs.
Third, rock music was invented in the U.S.
So what?, you might say. There are, it is true, many, many great bands from outside of the U.S. But I think when Americans form a band, they get a big head-start because of the reservior of rock 'n' roll knowledge all around them, and they grow from there.
All of which isn't to say that, god forbid, Japanese rock is somehow lacking. No. Fireworks go off every night on stage in Tokyo clubs. But there was something confident, powerful and electric in the way this American band played, which was good to see. 

The House Lights' bassist. Posted by Hello

An Orang on Red Cloth

Orang in orange and red. Posted by Hello

The pop quartet Orang was the band I had come to see. I was excited about the show because they aren't very active and I don't get to see them much -- it was their first show since February -- but they are good.

Playing in the band is Kaname Banba, the drummer of advantage Lucy, a group that I'm crazy about. It's a little unclear what his situation is now. He seems to still officially be a member of Lucy, though trouble with one of his legs holds him back on his drumming, and maybe as a result of that, another drummer plays at all the Lucy shows.

Banba does fine, however, at Orang shows by adjusting the drum set to minimize his leg problems.

In fact, he drums great. I've written this before, but to repeat: Watching the joyful way Banba plays the drums, I wish, just once, I could have seen Lucy play a few years ago, when Banba was still the full-time drummer and Takayuki Fukumura, one of the two guitarists, was still with us.

At the very end of the show, Banba started to crack up. I didn't know whether it was because the lead guitar had messed up on a part, or had pulled off some surprising musical stunt that wasn't obvious to the audience, or just because Banba was getting off on the music. But it was a moment like I had seen at advantage Lucy shows, and I felt I knew where he was coming from.

Orang in white. Posted by Hello

Salt Water Taffy's On The Red Cloth

Salt Water Taffy at the Red Cloth. Posted by Hello
My second time to see Salt Water Taffy. They are a good band. The music is pop, but with extended 60's psychedelia-like guitar solos, an engaging combination. 

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The Bank$ Live At The Que

The Bank$. Posted by Hello 
Tonight I went to see the Bank$ (pronounced Banks, not Bank-dollar, just to clarify) and Hermann H. and the Pacemakers. The show was at the Club Que in Shimokitazawa, a high-density rock 'n roll neighborhood where I've been spending a lot of my free time recently. 
This was my third time seeing the Bank$ live. I think they are one of the best live bands I've seen in Tokyo.
Yuhi Komiyama is Bank$'s hyper, energy-charged singer/keyboardist. The band is termed his 'solo project', with the other musicians playing a supporting role. He's found some top-notch rock players to help with his project.
Playing guitar, for example, is Akira Fujita, Plectrum's excellent guitarist, who also assists Syrup 16g in concerts. On bass is Umu, formerly of Beat Crusaders, who now also plays for House Plan and polyABC. I don't know who the drummer is, but he was good too. Together, they sizzle. 
Not bad for a band whose members wear T-shirts saying 'bankers' in Japanese (ginkouin). 

The Bank$ Live At The Que 2

Yuhi Komiyama, the Bank$ singer/keyboardist. Posted by Hello
Between songs, Komiyama talks and talks and talks.
Tonight, among other things, he discussed how:
1. Before the show started, he went upstairs to a manga cafe (a cafe where you pay by the hour to sit and check out some of the thousands of Japanese comic books - manga - on the shelves) and read a big chunk of a manga series called "Kaiji" (a story about gambling, one of whose extended episodes deals with a luxury cruiser which collects people who have heavy debt, and makes them compete in a complex, psychologically-demanding card game, with the winners having their debt forgiven and the loser suffering an unstated terrible fate);
2. He's been appointed to be a Store-Manager-For-A-Day at Highline record store in Tokyo, and on that day he will allow everyone to shoplift whatever CDs they want, as long as they buy the Bank$'s new album;
3.  He had to go to the hospital yesterday because he was feeling ill, and a middle-aged nurse had trouble poking the needle into his arm to give him an IV. The nurse called over her favorite doctor to get help and used Komiyama as a prop for an in-hospital romance worthy of an episode of ER in Japan;
And so on. Komiyama said he was taking steroids that the hospital gave him yesterday because he still wasn't completely well, but you couldn't tell that at all from his super energy level during the show. 

Acky guitaring for the Bank$.  Posted by Hello

Hermann H. and the Pacemakers

Hermann H. & The Pacemakers. (Fans' hands in the foreground.) Posted by Hello

This was my second time seeing Hermann H. the Pacemakers and the gaggle of young girl fans that comes as part of the package at their shows.

The gals mostly look to be in their late teens to early 20's. Many of them wrap Hermann H. towels around their necks. The towels are used to wipe sweat and to identify the girls as Hermann H. fans. When the music starts, they hop up and down and throw their fists up in the air at key song moments.

From the stage, a Mystery Member of the band encourages the girls to clap their hands or sing along or do other group activities. This Mystery Member's job description includes singing the choruses, playing the tambourine, dancing and jumping around on stage, and generally getting the crowd excited. He's a bit like Flavor Flav, if the main singer is Chuck D.
They were a fun band to watch, but as for the music ... hmmm, well, they did have a lot of energy and played well, but they weren't my cup of tea.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Shimokitazawa Rocks!!!

Yuko of the Clicks at Club 251. Posted by Hello

Shimokitazawa, a hard rock hamlet in western Tokyo, must have the highest per-capita electric guitar ownership in the world. It's a little like the town scene in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, except the Japanese on the street carry guitars rather than swords, and wear T-shirts and Converse shoes rather than kimonos and sandals.

Tonight I headed to Club 251 in Shimokitazawa for a show that included the Clicks. It was one of my best nights in a while. First off, the show featured not one, not two, but THREE all-girl rock trios. They were all wonderful, including the Clicks.

Second, all five bands that I saw (I think I missed the first band) were either outright brilliant, or generally good with powerful moments. Tonight there weren't the self-absorbed eccentricism, sloppy sentimentality, incompetence or lack of vision in bands that make waiting for your favorite group a chore sometimes.

The bands I saw were: The Clicks, babedge, Ricarope, Tamurapan and Amanuno Chemise.

There's inspiration and energy in the air in Shimokitazawa. It's a scene, like Seattle and Manchester and New York were scenes. In short -- Shimokitazawa rocks!

The Clicks at Club 251

The Clicks at Club 251. Posted by Hello

My second time seeing the Clicks live. The three-girl rock trio is a striking group to watch on stage. Yuko, the singer and guitarist, is tall and long-limbed, with an expression of focus and concentration on her face, while Chiharu the bassist is short and relaxed, looking around during the show and seeming to have a good time. Yuki, the drummer, sits back with a somber look. Tonight, they all wore black Clicks t-shirts with mini-skirts in primary colors.

Their music is straightforward rock, but good to listen to. The tunes are usually love songs sung over light punk/hard rock melodies. Yuko plays mini guitar solos from time to time on her aqua blue guitar.

Chiharu of the Clicks. Posted by Hello