Monday, August 30, 2004
Orange Plankton's 4th Album, Wakusei Note
The two girls and two guys that make up the Tokyo pop band Orange Plankton are in the midst of a tour of small Japanese rock clubs to promote their new album, Wakusei Note.
Their fourth album, Wakusei Note is a dazzling work (the album title translates to something like, 'Notes from the Planet'). It is my favorite new Japanese pop music album so far this year. It's dominated my home stereo and iPod for the last couple of weeks.
Yumi and Yuki of Orange Plankton.
Orange Plankton's distinct sound is created from the classically-trained piano playing of Yuki, and Yumi's singing. Yumi doesn't have a naturally powerful voice. As with some female Japanese singers she sounds almost like a child at times. But she does wonderful things with that voice; she can express so much with a whisper.
That singing is on full display in Wakusei Note. At first listen the album may sound laid-back, but dig deeper and it overflows with rich emotions.
Its main themes are the big world that surrounds the musicians, their longing to see more of it, and the emotions that come and go as they plan their grand travels.
"How many times can we circle the earth/Meeting a friend of a friend of a friend," Yumi asks in the song "Weather and Music".
Or, "Wave your hands big/With the image of going over the ocean's waves in the horizon", she sings in another tune.
And, "The shape of the world I created in my head/It wasn't under a faraway sky/No, it was made of things that are always near me", another song says.
Singer Yumi writes almost all the lyrics, and they are shining pieces of Japanese poetry. Like in the ethereal final song of the album, 'Mebuki' (meaning 'a new shoot' -- all these translations are mine), in which she sings: "From a fallen tree, a new shoot sprouts/Somewhere again in a life that repeats itself".
I talked before about how this album was made. They recorded most of it in a small apartment during a hot Tokyo summer. They turned off the air conditioner while recording, to keep out of the tracks the noise of the machine. That they were able to create an album that is this beautiful, inspired, varied, this plain FUN to listen to, feels miraculous.
I love this album and want it to be listened to widely, but as things stand it's not available on Amazon Japan or anywhere but the biggest record stores in Japan. If you, however, read this and become interested in the album, please write to me and I'll try to arrange something. (And you can hear some samples of their past tracks by following the link from this post, though it's impossible to get any real sense of Orangle Plankton's music from those thirty-second snippets of songs.)
'Wakusei Note' Album Progress Chart (click to enlarge)
In an earlier post I mentioned that I played a minor role in the making of Orange Plankton's fourth album, Wakusei Note. Now that the album is out in stores, it's time to reveal my exact role: I translated the band's first-ever English song, called "Weather and Music".
The mini-project came up because one night I chatted with the band members, and in one of those random things that come up in small talk, I described a guitar shop in Santa Monica, California called McCabe's.
That conversational topic somehow got the gears of singer Yumi's musical creativity going. She said it made her think about how in distant countries, people lead lives much like hers, with music a constant presence. That thought eventually grew into an idea that became a song.
I also said to her that at some point Orange Plankton should do a song in English so people abroad could understand the words, and offered to do any needed translation.
In a few weeks' time, she took up my offer. Yumi sent the lyrics in Japanese to me by mobile phone e-mail. It was a nice song about her dream that music be everywhere there are people and weather, and her belief that by connecting the friends that you meet through music, you can circle the world. I translated the song into English and also helped her with the pronunciation of the words. (A semi-amusing aside: I found out that Orange Plankton's working title for this song was my family name.)
It's the eighth song of the album Wakusei Note. I was thrilled to participate in an Orange Plankton project to begin with. I was even more excited to find out, finally listening to the entire album, that I had provided the words in English to a song in an album that is really, honestly, great. An album that I will be listening to many times in my life.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Yumi of Orange Plankton.
A feeling of being on mild narcotics after Orange Plankton's show last night. Warmth. Happiness. Satisfaction.
It was one of the best Tokyo rock shows I've been to this year, and I've been to dozens. The show was to celebrate the release of their fourth album, Wakusei Note.
Orange Plankton's piano-bass-drums ensemble playing was tight and joyful as usual. But what stood out was singer Yumi's performance.
Ever in motion, she hopped to ring bells tied around a wrist and an ankle, crouched to make her tiny frame even smaller, then, energized by the music, burst out her limbs. All the while singing with unrestrained passion.
Orange Plankton at Deseo.
At the end of the show, looking up and facing away from the audience, she let out a scream.
A rock 'n' roll scream, like Janis Joplin's.
She said the most important things for Orange Plankton are things that can't be seen. Last night, something unseen was moving her.
They play pop music that is gorgeous and relaxing, but at live shows the rawness of rock 'n' roll comes out. It's invigorating.
Yuki of Orange Plankton.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
246 live at Deseo, in a yukata.
I was at the Tokyo rock club Shibuya Deseo tonight to see Orange Plankton's show, which blew me away. Before I get into that, here are photos of a cool female pop duo that was playing before them, called 246. Both members are wearing light summer kimono called yukata.
The kimono has been making a comeback in Japan among young people , but even so, you don't usually see girls rockers with guitars wearing it on stage. 246 said this was the last show they will play this summer, and they wanted at least one chance to put on yukata before the end of the season. The yukata is something Japanese girls wear in the hot months to show off a bit, just as an American girl might show off her prom dress. It combines dazzling colors with the solemnity of tradition.
246, made up of the two female musicians, is named after national road 246 which runs west from Shibuya. The last time I saw these two, they said that as soon as they learned a couple of chords on their guitars they started to play outdoors along road 246. That was how they came to be called 246.
246 at the Deseo.
They are a nice, retro duo, playing acoustic guitars, wearing yukata and singing folky songs including one that uses baseball as a metaphor for life. One of the girls turned out to be a receptionist at the gym that my friend Jonathan goes to. Chatting to her I soon found out these gals are very friendly and down to earth. As most pop musicians in Japan are.
246 at Shibuya Deseo.
Saturday, August 21, 2004
Hartfield at Shibuya La Mama.
My third time to see the Japanese rock quartet Hartfield. I've been listening to their mini-album L.I.B.R.A. over and over and over. It's superb dreamy rock music.
They were up first in a three-band show at a rock club called Shibuya La Mama. Opening a show isn't easy; the audience isn't warmed up yet, the booze hasn't made its way through the listeners' blood vessels. But Hartfield got the crowd going. They're a great band.
Later, I was surfing the web and found this mention of Hartfield in the home page of an American (?) band called the Lackloves, who apparently toured Japan last year. Right on!
Yusuke and all our other new friends in Japan, the bands we played with (The Oranges, Hartfield, Salt Water Taffy, The Sunbeams, and Nudge 'em All), all of whom I can honestly say were fantastic and rocked us, and I'm old and jaded and don't like anything. Honestly, why The Oranges and Hartfield in particular aren't huge internationally known rock bands is beyond me. They have got it.
Hi-5 was an awesome techno/disco/hard rock band I saw for the first time. They were like an emo New Order (if that's not contradictory).
An amazing thing about tonight's show, featuring the Tron, Hi-5 and Hartfield, was that in audience of maybe fifty people were about a half a dozen women in yukata, a light summer kimono that Japanese girls often wear to festivals and firework displays. Today there was a festival in the nearby Azabu Jyuban neighborhood and fireworks along the Tama River.
The women in yukata were swinging to heavily amplified rock music. Only in Japan!
The last band of the night, the Tron, were good, but I don't remember much about their music except that they played with two basses in addition to two guitars, which seemed novel.
Their band name got me thinking: wasn't there a video game in the 80's called Tron, based on a science-fiction Disney movie of that name? I seem to remember it was fun except for the fact that there were around four sub-games that you had to clear to move up one level, and one of those sub-games was very difficult. Maybe it was the one where a bunch of spider-like creatures attacked you, and you had to shoot them all to survive?
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Apila at Shimokitazawa Shelter.
Apila is the stage name of a female Japanese singer who has a nice, husky voice and who has released two good albums, including one that came out this year, called "The Moment Could Have Been Beautiful", which was recorded in collaboration with Scotland's Teenage Fanclub. ('Apila' is a Finnish word that means 'clover'.)
I particularly like a tune in her latest album called "Beckham Song", in which she sings about watching soccer on TV with her boyfriend even though she doesn't understand the sport. She's bored, until she sees on the TV screen a gorgeous soccer player, with (from the lyrics of the song) "beautiful eyes, nice smile".
Her voice soars when she sings the "beautiful eyes" line. A little unfortunately, maybe, she's singing about David Beckham.
She was performing last night at the Shimokitazawa Shelter, a tiny basement club, together with Vasallo Crab 75 and a band called Soul Mission.
Apila says she gets extremely nervous during live performances and sometimes forgets lyrics. She did fine at last night's show, though it looked like she kept a notebook with lyrics in front of her on the stage, maybe to remind her of the words when she forgot them, and when she did a cover of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love", she had in her hand a sheet of paper on which she'd written out the words. Guess she couldn't memorize the words in time for the show.
All in all, it was a good show. There's a feeling of blues in the way some Japanese women sing, an engaging and emotional style, and that's the way Apila sounded.
She also had an all-star crew of supporting indies rock musicians, including Reiji Okii, formerly the leader of pop band Cymbals, on bass. As I've written in a previous post, I was a big fan of the Cymbals and was sorry when they split up last year.
A few weeks back, I was excited to see ex-Cymbals singer Asako Toki at a Ricarope show (I wrote at the time that it was like seeing Norah Jones appear unexpectedly at your local jazz dive bar) and I was similarly happy to see Okii at a surprising venue.
The first time I saw the Cymbals was at the Shinjuku Liquid Room, a big hall, behind a mob of people, and now here Okii was at the Shelter, only a few meters away.
(In the photo above, the guy on the left is Vasallo Crab 75's Taisuke Kudo, the woman in the middle is Apila, and ex-Cymbals' Reiji Okii is on the right.)
Vasallo Crab 75's Guitarist.
Vasallo Crab at the Shelter.
Another rocking show by Vasallo Crab 75, one of the best live bands playing now in Tokyo. Last night they were performing at the Shimokitazawa Shelter with Apila and Soul Mission.
If you're a rock music lover in Tokyo, their shows shouldn't be missed. Vasallo's creativity and passion are energizers of the soul, no matter how much it's worn down by humid Japanese summer heat, crowded train commutes, boring office work, etc. etc.
It's incredible that I can watch a band of Vasallo's caliber in a tiny club like the Shelter, and right next to the stage too (that, partly because most Japanese fans seem shy about standing right in front of the stage, and prefer to stand all together in the back).
You can't, of course, argue with the hit charts. But still, it's a thing of wonder that many worthless J-Pop acts perform at big halls in Japan and a great band like Vasallo headlines the Shelter. Well, it's the general public's loss, not mine.
And as I wrote before, Vasallo seems to be gradually attracting a following. They are a bands' band, and a lot of indies musicians show up at their gigs. At last night's show, which blew me away once more, was Mayumi Ikemizu, who leads a great band called Three Berry Icecream and is the mother of Ruka, no doubt the hippest three-year old girl in Tokyo. The kid's probably been to more rock shows than I have.
Between sets I talked to Ikemizu. Out of the blue, she pulled out an EP CD of Three Berry Icecream and gave it to me as a gift. I was touched, and happy.
This is Mayumi Ikemizu, one of the heroines of the Tokyo indies music scenes. Ikemizu, whose music influenced advantage Lucy and many other Japanese bands. Ikemizu, who played accordion in advantage Lucy's song "Nico", one of that brilliant band's classics. Ikemizu, who brought together Daisuke Kudo and the late Takayuki Fukumura, the two who would go on to form Vasallo Crab 75.
She gave me the CD in all spontaneity too (though she had asked me before whether I owned any of Three Berry Icecream's CDs).
Did I lead an especially virtuous life in an earlier incarnation to have something so cool happen to me?
Apila at the Shelter.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Edgar, singer of Tokyo pop band Miniskirt, sent me an e-mail yesterday with an intriguing subject line: 'Subject: best live show of the year!'. Edgar has extensive knowledge of Japan's indies music scene, so I would have normally sat up and paid attention.
However, this time I knew exactly what he was going to say.
In his e-mail he told me about the show on Saturday the 21st at the club Shinjuku Marz featuring Aprils, Sonic Coaster Pop, Eel and several other bands. I'd seen a flyer for this show a few weeks back, and knew one thing as soon as I saw it: Edgar will be there.
That's because I know Edgar is a big fan of cute techno/dance/noise/pop music bands like Aprils. Saturday night promises to be a Cute Bands Marathon, which I wouldn't mind checking out, but I have a problem -- Hartfield, one of my current favorite bands, is also playing that night at a different club.
Which should I see? This sort of schedule conflict happens fairly often. Anyway, if you are reading this and you will be in Tokyo on the 21st, and you are free that night and would like to check out several bands that are hip, bubbly, colorful, cute, high-tech, original and a bit wacky, may I recommend the Shinjuku Marz show?
(P.S. Aprils recently released a new album called 'Pan-da' and I just realized the album's cover illustration of multi-colored pandas was done by a guy named Mori Chack, whose speciality is drawing stylish cartoons of teddy bears attacking and eating human beings. That animation on the intro page of his home page is quite simply, radical...)
Saturday, August 14, 2004
Linus' Blanket in Seoul. (click to enlarge)
It's exciting the way that recently, musicians of Japan and Korea, two neighboring countries with a troubled past, have started to embrace each others' music. Japanese musicians are finding out about and enjoying K-pop, and vice versa.
One cause for this is the South Korean government's lifting of its ban on Japanese pop music this year. That allowed Japanese musicians to sell their music in Korea and perform there. Though, to be sure, hip Koreans were already familiar with Japanese music years before the ending of the music ban, J-pop tunes having been available online in MP3 files.
For Japan's part, the country is in the midst of a Korea boom. Korean restaurants are popping up all over the place, Japanese vacationers are traveling in droves to Korea, and Korean movies and TV dramas are becoming big hits -- a Korean movie star was followed around by thousands of screaming (mostly, for some reason, middle-aged) female fans during his recent visit to Japan.
It might not be long before Korean pop also hits the big time in Japan.
Linus' Blanket is a Korean band that epitomizes closer Japanese-Korean musical ties. Its guitarist, Kang Minsung, lived in Tokyo for a while and went to shows of excellent bands like advantage Lucy during the time. He played in the Tokyo band Miniskirt. His current band Linus recently began selling their debut album Semester in Japan. I have no idea how it is selling, but their sound -- light and mellow tunes with echoes of Swedish pop, bossa nova and J-pop -- is the sort of sound many Japanese listeners like, so it would seem they'd be popular here, though that's something you can never tell.
As a side note, Linus and several other Korean bands I've listened to reassure me because their music answers a question that has been nagging me a bit: whether it's possible to truly enjoy songs in a language you don't know. Most of the Japanese songs I listen to are in Japanese rather than English, and as a native Japanese speaker I understand their subject matter and poetry. But what if other people who try out the songs I recommend can't enjoy the songs because they don't understand the words?
Listening, though, to Linus's songs in Korean (which I don't speak), my worries disappear. I don't know what is being sung, but I like the great singing and music. Only a narrow-minded person could be unfeeling about these tunes.
I saw Linus twice in Seoul in March, and loved those performances. But one thing I remember touched me that time in Seoul was something that happened during the warm-up before one of the shows.
Several bands, including advantage Lucy, were visiting Seoul and playing at the same shows as Linus. It was advantage Lucy's turn to warm up, and on stage they played the beginning of their song "Armond". Gene, the singer of Linus, and her friend Yaeri were sitting watching the stage; they both recognized the song right away, looked at each other in excitement and started to hop up and down with the music. I could tell that here were two girls that had listened over and over to Armond, a great tune, and now were overcome with excitement at hearing it live for the first time. And they are Koreans, who weren't even allowed to buy advantage Lucy's CDs legally in Korea until the start of this year!
Singer Gene and bassist Wonyul of Linus.
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
A few weeks ago, I pre-ordered the album at Tower Records Shibuya to ensure that I got one of the first 100 CDs pressed. All 100 have a cover hand-illustrated by Ricarope herself. Marvelously do-it-yourself!
It's a cute cover, a colored pencil illustration of a girl sitting under a tree in a green field reading a novel, a red toy piano beside her. (Note to self: buy a scanner.)
I have illustration number 37 out of 100. Now, if Ricarope ever made it big like Elvis or the Beatles, I would be set. If I needed to, I could sell the illustration, and with the proceeds, I might be able to quit my day job and devote myself full-time to listening to Japanese rock (and, probably, go deaf).
My hallucinations aside, Pianovel is a nice album. Ricarope's playing and singing are just like at her shows, direct and swinging. Her voice sometimes shoots up octaves, like the piano's sound does when she drags her fingers across the keyboard.
Monday, August 09, 2004
I went to Shimokitazawa tonight to see the rock band Cruyff in the Bedroom, but another group stole the show.
They were one of the wackier Japanese rock bands I've seen in a while (and that's saying a lot). Take their name -- Clisms. When I first saw the name 'Clisms', I thought it sounded vaguely erotic (maybe a sex act I'm not familiar with?). But at the show tonight during a break between songs, Clisms' singer spelled out their name -- C, L, I, S, M, S -- and then said it should be pronounced 'Chlistmas'.
Chlistmas? Or maybe Christmas? But since there's an L in there, it should be Chlistmas, no?
Now, I'm not one of those people who are endlessly amused by jokes about Japanese people getting their L's and R's mixed up. In fact I think those jokes are old and tiresome. But. A band named Clisms pronounced Chlistmas. That's crazy. I think it belongs in engrish.com.
I wouldn't go on so much about the Clisms, though, if it weren't for the fact that they were radical. For one thing, they had two drummers playing at the same time. Throughout the show, the drummers were in their own world of intense competitive drum-pounding. In addition, all the band members wore white cardigans with a design showing a double drum set. They didn't use the stage lights, and instead lit themselves with lightbulbs they brought for the occasion.
Their music was like Captain Beefheart meeting fusion-era Miles Davis, with subtle hints of Spinal Tap Mark 2 (the one that plays at the amusement park).
The Tokyo music scene, so full of surprises. Like the Clisms. How could I not love it?
cruyff in the bedroom
As I said, Cruyff in the Bedroom (origin of band name unknown), not the Clisms, was the band I went to see tonight at Club Que in Shimokitazawa. But because the Clisms were so Out There, Cruyff's gig didn't have the same impact. Even though Cruyff was good.
On a very geeky level, however, I was impressed with the Cruyff guitarists' rigs. The two guitarist must have had about thirty effects pedals between them, costing the equivalent of at least several thousand dollars for everything. Also, the guitar that the singer is holding in the picture is an ESP (Japanese brand) 12-string, which I'd never seen before. I think ESP gives guitars for free to rock musicians it thinks will be good advertisement for their guitars.
Bassist of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas plays instrumental fusion-rock with a sampler. Their show tonight at the Que was very gripping stuff. I noticed that the super-tall pony-tailed bassist was the bassist also for Honesty, which I wrote about before.
The First Rule for listening to shows at Tokyo rock clubs: the first band is almost never any good, so have patience while they play. They are the new bands that are trying to get experience. They often don't have any stage presence, or much that is compelling to say in their songs. But it's important to put up with the first band, and not give up and leave for other forms of entertainment. That's not only because it's a nice thing to do, but because the bands that follow may be great and their shows life-changing, or at least quality-of-life-enhancing. Tonight, too, the first band was pretty hopeless, but then I got to see Las Vegas, Clisms and Cruyff in the Bedroom.
I don't understand, though, why the first band's singer kept on saying over and over how he was nervous. I don't want to know! Are you trying to drag the audience members down with you into your world of anxieties and insecurities?
You're getting paid to perform, so perform, don't whine!
Saturday, August 07, 2004
Hartfield at Shimokitazawa's Club 251.
Several bands perform in the same evening at almost all Tokyo live house rock shows. The time between the end of one band's set and the start of another is dead time. I buy a drink or look through flyers. I listen to other people talking. I look at the next band getting ready and wonder if they're any good. Then the lights go out, the speakers roar with amplified, distorted electric guitar noise, and I come back to life as another rock show starts.
The breaks betwen sets are times of boredom, and also doubts as to whether it was worth traveling to the club to catch the show. The next band rarely looks promising, especially if I've never seen them before.
Taketeru Kagawa of Hartfield.
But when I saw Hartfield last time, my first time to see this band, a strange thing happened. I got a strong feeling seeing them setting up on stage that they were a good band and would play good music. And I was right. Their performance was excellent. I ran to Tower Records to buy their latest album.
I'm not sure why Hartfield turned me on, so to speak, that night. They are a good-looking group of musicians. Maybe the way they looked switched on a part of my brain that predicts people's musical creativity and skills based on their appearance. Who knows.
Anyway, Hartfield was awesome tonight too, my second time to see them. They are distant descendents of My Bloody Valentine musically.
Take a look at Yukari, the female guitarist, below. If a long-haired Japanese woman in a white summer dress rocking hard with a cream-colored Gibson Flying V guitar isn't cool, what is? No. If that's not cool, nothing is.
Yukari of Hartfield.