Saturday, February 26, 2005

Plectrum! Live! Recorded!!

Plectrum live at Mona Records. Posted by Hello

One of the treasures in my music collection is a mini-disc that contains a recording I made of Japanese rock band Plectrum’s two shows in Seoul in March last year, during their first visit to Korea with three other Japanese bands. What a glorious time that was! I witnessed the creation of friendship between the musicians of Korea and Japan, two countries that are across the sea from each other but often seem much further apart.

Plectrum helped bring the Japanese and Koreans together by playing two of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve written before that a small Plectrum fan club sprang up in Seoul right after those performances. In this MD of mine is a record of those shows.

In one part of the recording, during a ballad called "Book End", Plectrum singer Taisuke Takata calls out in Korean to the Korean audience: "Yorobun!", meaning ‘everyone’. "OOH!", the crowd responds, a happy gasp. Takata then yells, "Saranghaeyo!"– I love you!– and in my MD you can hear women’s screams and laughter, like the final scene of Full Monty. It still makes me a bit emotional when I hear that part of the recording.

Plectrum's new album, Live 4 Live. Posted by Hello

Now everyone can get a feel for what Plectrum, one of Tokyo’s best live bands, is like on stage, because they have just released a live album called Live 4 Live. It includes performances in Tokyo and Osaka and their second Seoul tour in September. A recording could never substitute for actually seeing Plectrum live, but this CD is nevertheless a satisfying one, one that shows how the band plays with both the precision of experienced musical artisans but also an almost out-of-control passion. At the end of the album is a song whose significance you’d miss if you didn’t know what was happening at the show. It was the second show of the September Seoul tour, and in the middle of one of the songs the sound system went down. The band was about to stop, but the crowd began to sing as one big chorus Plectrum’s song, in Japanese, until the sound came back up. I wrote about this experience before here and here. It feels like a miracle that I can hear it again on a CD.

Plectrum live in Seoul, September 2004. Posted by Hello

Plectrum held a concert this week at the Mona Records in Shimokitazawa to celebrate the launch of their new album. A cafĂ© that also sells CDs and hosts nightly shows, Mona is a comfy venue, like listening to live music in the livingroom of a friend’s home. I took off my shoes to sit on the floor in the elevated area near the stage. It’s like a Japanese home – even the band members play shoeless, wearing socks!

The show was supposed to be "acoustic", but when Japanese bands say that it usually means they will still use amps, but maybe at a slightly lower volume. In fact, despite its being an "acoustic" show, Plectrum were pretty loud. Singer Takata said that the go (Chinese board-game) club upstair from Mona was closed tonight and all the elderly go players were out so that they’d received special permission to crank up the volume a bit. The extra volume was put to good use, fueling another amazing Plectrum performance.

Takata had asked people on the band’s website to request songs for the evening, and they played those requested numbers, mostly their old songs, but they also did some new stuff, like a jazzy song I especially like called "Stand By Me". I’d written on their BBS that I had that song running through my head but couldn’t figure out for a while what it was, and that I wanted to hear a recording of it soon, and Takata told me after the show that he counted that BBS message from me as a request and so played it. I’m not sure if he meant that, but it was a nice thing to say.

The standout song of the evening, I thought, was a tune called "3PM Lazy", which is the last song of their album Sorry and which I’ve never quite figured out what it’s about. But it’s a great, long tune. It starts with a lone, echoing guitar part played by Takata, and builds up in intensity, like a person gradually waking up on a day that turns out to be a dramatic one. Several times I’ve seen Plectrum play this song and I’ve been moved every time, and the Mona show was no exception.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Watermelon, Penguin and Orange Plankton

Orange Plankton... at press conference. (click to enlarge) Posted by Hello

At a press conference crowded with reporters and TV cameras, Tokyo pop band Orange Plankton reveals to the world the name of their new single... Well, OK, not quite.

In reality the event in the photo above was held to announce that Ueno station, one of Tokyo’s biggest train stations, had become a Suica-friendly zone. Suica cards are IC cards issued by Japan Railway (JR) to pay for train trips, but now at the Ueno and Tokyo stations, with the card customers in the station can also buy drinks or cigarettes by touching a vending machine with it, or pay for meals, and spend money in other ways as well. "Suica", by the way, I think is an abbreviation of "sui sui", meaning "move quickly", and "card" (and it's also an IC card, thus SuICa -- clever, eh?). So, with a Suica, rather than wasting time lining up to buy tickets you can get on the jam-packed commuter trains right away. But the sound "suika" also means watermelon. And as everything must have mascots in Japan, JR’s Suica’s mascot is a penguin. Weird? Welcome to Japan.

The Suica penguin. Posted by Hello

But back to the topic of the press conference – if you look carefully at the picture above, you can see a woman in a bright red coat. That’s singer Yumi of Orange Plankton, and around her are the other members of the band. I don’t know how they arranged this, but one of Orange Plankton’s songs was chosen by JR as a theme song for the Suica Station, to be played on TV monitors in the station. At the start of the ceremony (which featured the actress Hayami Yu and a couple of other celebrities I didn’t recognize), that song was played on a big screen above the stage, though unfortunately I missed the song because I got there a little late. And I forgot to ask which song of theirs was the Suica theme tune.

Colors in a sea of gray and navy. Posted by Hello

Orange Plankton has been on a roll recently. A few of their songs were used in a TV commercial for a chain of pachinko pinball centers. Another tune was used to advertise apartments for students. And now this, Suica. If they keep this pace up and become famous nationwide, they might just become a band that does give news conferences...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Apple Crumble Record

Tokyo's most pathetic apartments. Posted by Hello

In a hideous fake brown brick building in Shibuya is Apple Crumble Record, a record shop that is loved by Tokyo guitar pop fans despite its tiny size. Miniskirt singer Edgar Franz, for example, calls it his favorite record store in the city. I went there for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

It's a brightly-colored closet of a store, carrying CDs and records from pop musicians from Europe, Japan, and other parts of Asia. But I didn't realize how cool the store really is until I looked up their website, and found a column of theirs called Indie Pop Noodle.

Aimed at introducing indie pop bands from the rest of Asia -- Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea -- the column describes in detail interesting-sounding overseas bands I otherwise would know nothing about. The author had already written 19 installments of the column (unfortunately for non-Japanese speakers, they are all in Japanese).

The first column talked about the Pancakes, a pop band consisting of one member, a girl from Hong Kong. I'd actually heard about the Pancakes but had forgotten about the band until I read the review.

"It's toy pop where all the songs have music that sounds cheap like it was made on Casiotones, but the melody is simple yet pop and easy to remember and just so great, and it's like a proof that whether it's just three chords a good song is good," the author writes about Pancakes' music [my translation].

The column says the Pancakes has one song in which the girl plays the A chord over and over again but it's supposed to be a nice song, which I'll have to listen to believe. The review made me want to sample some of the Pancakes' musical treats -- I predict an Apple Crumble visit coming up soon in my schedule.

What's so wonderful about Apple Crumble and its Indie Noodle Pop column is that I get the sense the people at the store want the same thing that I do: good music by local artists, whether in Japan or elsewhere. That may sound simple, but it's not that easy to find -- there's music everywhere, but it's often not that great, or if it is good, it's the same thing people all over the place are listening to.


CHANGE OF SUBJECT: Just found out from advantage Lucy's Internet page that the band is doing two shows in two weeks in March! First one will be on Sunday, March 13 at the Que in Shimokitazawa, and the next show will be at the Shibuya Cyclone on Saturday, March 19. Lucy has been good about performing live throughout the year, but the pace was still only about once a month. The recent increased frequency probably means they are gearing up for the release of their very long-awaited new album. It's good news, and I'm waiting eagerly for these shows, and so should you if you are in the Tokyo metropolitan area or are planning a trip here - Lucy fans unite!


Lastly, about the photo above that has nothing to do with Apple Crumble Record, except that it shows a row of apartments that are on the way from my house to Shibuya, where the record store is: I called them the most pathetic apartments in Tokyo, because they are. These apartments are literally built directly below the train tracks (or maybe the train tracks were built over them?), and they are old buildings, meaning the apartments must shake all day whenever a train passes (the trains stop running around midnight). Many questions: Who lives in the apartments? Don't they go crazy? Why are the apartments there? Did the apartment owners just not want to move after the train track plans were made? Are the rents dirt-cheap? Boggles the mind.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Spangle call Lilli line

Spangle call Lilli line at Aoyama Cay. Posted by Hello

In the solar system of my favorite Japanese rock bands, a group named Spangle call Lilli line is a planet that has been shining especially brightly recently. I’ve been spending an enormous amount of time listening to their CDs.

The best way I can think of to describe Spangle call is that they are an experimental rock band. They abandon traditional song structures in favor of a free-flowing style that takes listeners to unexpected places. Yet their songs are enchanting, despite their complex structures, because of the gorgeous melodies out of which they are woven.

Listening to their songs is like swimming in the ocean and finding unusual shapes below, then realizing that the shapes make up something bigger, such as the ruins of a ship. Singer Kana Otsubo’s voice floats like a jellyfish over the sea of melodies.

It’s only recently that I was turned on to Spangle call’s music, and because they haven’t played live for more than a year, so they could focus on recording an album (which is to be released in April), I haven’t had the chance to see them perform. Until tonight.

They played at a place in western Tokyo called Aoyama Cay, which during weekdays is a restaurant and bar, and becomes a performance space on weekends. Several hundred people had come to the Cay, and though there were three other bands playing tonight, I think most had come to see Spangle call Lilli line. The audience members were mainly people in their twenties, and many had the serious air of young intellectuals – I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were lots of grad students and art students in the crowd (there also was an unusually high proportion of bespectacled people).

Spangle call didn’t start their show until about four hours into the event, and some of what preceded their act was, to be candid, to me like sonic torture, the worst sort of experimental music, ugly, self-absorbed and seemingly interminable. So it was a relief when Spangle call’s set started.

They were good, but they didn’t blow me away. All the bands I write about often in these pages (advantage Lucy, Orange Plankton, Plectrum, etc.) have made great albums, but when those bands play live there’s something fresh and wonderful above and beyond the quality of their recorded work. With Spangle call, I didn’t get that feeling. While their playing was awe-inspiringly good at times, it didn’t sound that different to me from what they had done in their albums. Which, to be fair, is still probably an amazing thing, considering how intricate their musical compositions can be. And they had been away from the stage for a while, so they were probably out of practice (one of the guitarists admitted this during the show, and in truth, I think their playing got much more intense as the night progressed). Also, my friend Dr. I was thunderstruck and speechless after the show, so maybe I was just in an ungenerous mood because of all the experimental noise I endured earlier in the evening. In any event, I’ll certainly buy their new album in April, and I will see the band again – they are too attractive a group not to.

To close this post by returning to the metaphor with which I started – don’t the lights above the stage in the photo look a bit planetary?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Akky Night (Plectrum & Bank$)

Akira Fujita, a.k.a. Akky, of Plectrum. Posted by Hello

Tokyo rock band Plectrum’s Akira Fujita, a.k.a. Akky, is a guitarist of deep talent. A leftie who plays a black Gibson Les Paul, he is highly respected in the local music scene. Akky’s played, after all, for high-profile artists like Chara and Syrup 16g. In person, he’s friendly and laid back, if at times having rock musician idiosyncracies. For example, I asked him once who his guitar influences were, and Akky said, well, I can’t think of anyone really, when I hear good guitar passages on the radio I just try to play like them. Spoken like a genius.

Tonight was, in my mind at least, Akky night. At a show at the Shimokitazawa Club Que also featuring the Burs from Nagoya and SGT, Akky played the guitar for the third act, the Bank$, and the final act, Plectrum. It was one of those nights where I watched a fabulous player like Akky up close in a small club and wondered, why doesn’t he and his band rule the Japanese airwaves (rather than all the mediocre musicians that actually do)?

It was also one of those shows that partly answered the question, where do girls in Tokyo go on weekend nights? I can say that about 150 of them came to Shimokitazawa to watch a rock show at the Que. The audience was, no exaggeration, about 95% female.

Akky in Bank$. Posted by Hello

I think many of those girls had come to see the Bank$’s and its singer, keyboard and manic stage orator, Yuhi Komiyama. A tall guy who always wears sunglasses during shows, Komiyama is one of those musicians who people might pay just to listen to talk, which he does a lot of, seemingly about whatever subject enters his head. But he’s also a great live musician who always gets the crowd going (many of the girls in the audience were hopping during Bank$’s more upbeat songs). In truth, a night like tonight featuring the Bank$ and Plectrum is a rare treat, because those two are two of the best live bands in Tokyo.

As I listened electrified, I thought about what formula, if any, creates a live band that is exceptional like these two group. Being outstanding musicians is one requirement. And having good songs. Also, being passionate. And having lots of experience. But there’s some unexplainable extra quality that seems to make the difference between being just a good band and being a band that makes people want to see you over and over. Whatever it is, Plectrum and Bank$ have it. If you are reading this and you live in Japan, please do try to catch these two bands. You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

d(^o^)b E-mail From Yumi d(^o^)b

I always like getting e-mails from Yumi of Orange Plankton not only because it's a good feeling to receive correspondence from the singer of a band I think is one of the best in Japan, but also because I enjoy looking at all the happy typographical creatures that populate her e-mails.

For example, in her latest message, in the subject line saying 'It's Yumi', there is this guy, smiling and giving the thumbs' up:


After 'Dear Ken' in the text is a shy creature,


her (?) cheeks blushing as if she met someone unexpectedly.

Where Yumi says she is psyched about a future show in Okinawa sit these twins,


with musical eighth-notes on either side of them (I don't know how to generate that symbol). Do they represent Yumi and Orange Plankton's pianist, Yuki?

And the e-mail closes with a happy but bashful creature:


Every e-mail of hers is filled with these shift-key spirits.

But don't think she is one of those mindless people who type little happy faces all day: no, in reality, she's a poet. If you can read Japanese, take a look at her song lyrics, full of vivid images that stay in the mind.

Nelson Great and Kyushu Night

Monday night was Kyushu night.

I went to the Chelsea Hotel in Shibuya to a show featuring Nelson Great, a trio from Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four big islands. Dr. I, a friend who appears from time to time in these pages and is himself originally from Oita in Kyushu, had introduced me to the music of Nelson Great, one of his favorite groups. Due to work I barely made it to their show just as the first song was getting underway, but it was worth rushing to get there.

Nelson Great consists of two girls, a vocal/keyboard and a drummer, and a guy bassist. The singer, Takashima-san, is one of those petite Japanese women who despite her small frame is blessed with a strong voice that fills up halls. She sang with passion to fine ensemble playing that made me almost forget there were only three musical instruments. "Avant garde pop" is the way they describe their sound in their home page. By coincidence, they've played in Osaka with Orange Plankton, one of my faves and a band that I've written about numerous times in Japan Live. I liked Nelson Great's music so much I bought one of the CDs they brought to the show, and I chatted briefly with the singer, who said little on stage but was friendly in person.

Listening to his beloved Kyushu-based band, Dr. I apparently became nostalgic for Kyushu and its food, so we headed to a Kyushu food izakaya (bistro) a few blocks down, eating basashi (horse meat sashimi), mentaiko (spicy cod roe ), karashi renkon (Japanese mustard-filled lotus roots), all washed down with shochu... Ate too much in fact.