Monday, May 30, 2005

Vasallo Crab 75, Solo, At the Que

Vasallo Crab 75 singer Daisuke Kudo. Posted by Hello

Since moving to Japan a couple of years ago I’ve been to see several bands visiting from abroad (Cloudberry Jam, Luna, Yo La Tengo). While the Japanese fans adore these artists, I’ve never been blown away by these shows. The Emperor Wears No Clothes truth: the foreign bands’ shows are often not as exciting as the shows of their Japanese counterparts, but the tickets still cost three times as much or more, for example, 6,000 yen for a ticket (about $60) compared with 2,000 yen for a typical Japanese show.

I’ve wondered about why this is, and have come up with several hypotheses. One is that I’ve just been to a series of shows of bands that are laid back, and don’t try to set the stage on fire. I mean, Yo La Tengo isn’t James Brown, or Iggy Pop.

Another consideration is that whether or not a visiting band likes Tokyo and Japan, this is just another stop in an overseas tour. Whereas, the shows of Japanese bands I go to are often Big Shows, performances that are defining events for the band (like a band’s first solo-act show at a good venue). The bands are totally psyched about the event, and that comes through in their playing.

The last idea is that maybe, by trying to make it in Tokyo, Japanese bands almost automatically get better at presenting themselves in an exciting way. Tokyo is a hyper-competitive market for live music. Each night there are shows at dozens of major clubs and probably hundreds of smaller venues, each event trying to attract at least a tiny piece of the city’s 12 million people. This isn’t some college town—you need to be good to climb up in the music scene here (I wonder how it compares to New York, LA or London).

Vasallo violinist Kawabe-san. Posted by Hello

Those were thoughts I had as I pondered what to write about for Vasallo Crab 75’s excellent first-ever solo show, at the Shimokitazawa Club Que on Thursday night. The next day I went to the sold-out show of Yo La Tengo at the Shibuya Quattro. While Yo La Tengo’s performance was charming, and I particularly thought some of their slower songs were gorgeous, I much preferred Vasallo’s show.

One thing, of course, was that this was a special event for Vasallo. A band’s first solo-act show (called here a ‘one-man show’, even if it’s a band) is a rite of passage, a sign that a band has made it. The late Takayuki Fukumura, the former advantage Lucy guitarist who was one of Vasallo’s founders, used to talk with singer Daisuke Kudo about doing a solo show. Thursday night, that show finally happened, and the band was bound to be intense.

But there were also lots of light-hearted moments during this feast of guitar pop and funk, and in one inspired moment of stage direction, the band placed a string quartet, including the violinist Kawabe-san, to the left of the audience. A nice stereo effect was created: Vasallo’s rock ‘n’ roll from the front, the strings coming from the left.

The highlight of the night for me was when they played a new song called ‘Today Is Tomorrow’, an uplifting, folk-like gem of a tune. What does ‘Today is tomorrow’ mean? Kudo thought about it for a while on stage, and then explained it in terms of a little kitten. If a kitten died yesterday, today is a tomorrow that the cat was never able to experience. Replace the kitten with people who are no longer with us, and the sentiment of the song becomes clear.

I was given a CD-R containing the song and I’ve listened to it many times.

Listen to the morning
Listen to the dawn
So we are here now
Today is tomorrow

What a great song! I can’t wait for their new album.

A light-hearted moment between songs. Posted by Hello

Friday, May 27, 2005

Bassist Yosiko Quits Farmstay

I found out reading Tokyo rock band Farmstay's e-mail magazine that bassist Yosiko has decided to leave the band. She was in Farmstay for two years. Mysteriously, she writes that she will now "be involved in music in a different environment". No reason was given for her taking off.

Yosiko will be missed. With facial expressions somewhere between apathy and slight amusement, her bass hanging so low that it nearly touched the stage, she pounded out the pop punk bass lines of Farmstay. I liked it that she was the only girl in the quartet, and more than kept up with the guys.

I like bands that include both guys and girls. Well, actually, I like all-girl bands a lot too. I think I simply really like the idea of female rock musicians, particularly if they play the bass or drums, which you still don't see too often in Tokyo. I wonder what Farmstay will be like with Yosiko gone.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Orange Plankton in Okinawa

Orange Plankton at the Paraiso in Okinawa. Posted by Hello

I went to Okinawa to see Orange Plankton play at a music festival, and found out that Okinawa isn’t really Japan, and Orange Plankton isn’t an ordinary Japanese band.

Traditional Okinawan dance. Posted by Hello

Well, the latter I had figured out already, long before my Okinawa trip. Orange Plankton, the Tokyo-based piano pop quartet about whom I’ve written many times, plays songs that sound familiar but are unlike anyone else’s.

That Okinawa isn’t Japan is something I suspected for a while but wasn’t certain about until this trip. It is true, Okinawa, an island reached by a two-and-a-half hours flight south from Tokyo, is part of the Japanese nation. And Okinawans speak Japanese, though they have their own dialect that can be hard for outsiders to understand. But culturally and ethnically, Okinawa is very different from mainland Japan.

Okinawans, first off, look different from the Japanese of the four main islands up north. The people of Okinawa are smaller and often look a bit like Native Americans. The Japanese, on the other hand, have similar features to the Chinese and Koreans. I won’t go into details but that probably has to do with the history of invasions in ancient Japan.

There are also things in Okinawa you never see in Japan, like the seesah, the sculpted lion pairs that sit atop gates and walls all across the island to ward off evil spirits.

See-sah guarding a security company's gate. Posted by Hello

And the people of Okinawa are also much more easygoing than the mainland Japanese (by which I mean residents of Japan’s four main islands—Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Hokkaido). For example, you hardly ever see men in Okinawa wearing wool suits in the hot weather (in contrast to mainland Japanese, who do so even in the sweltering summer), and you see women and men of all ages wearing Hawaiian shirts (or, Okinawan shirts?). I saw one elderly man at the airport wearing a brightly colored shirt decorated with images of the bumpy green bitter-melon, one of the favorite Okinawan foods.

Hawaiian shirts on sale. Posted by Hello

I watched several Okinawan rock bands play. While none of the bands’ music interested me very much (they didn’t seem too original), the musicians seemed to be cheerful and laid-back, cracking jokes between songs, and during their performances often broke into Okinawan dancing, arms thrust in the air with the palms facing the sky.

At the indies festival where Orange Plankton played, about half of the bands were from Okinawa, the other half from Tokyo, and there were also several ‘guest’ artists, veteran bands booked to attract more audience. But these veteran groups were all hard rock and heavy metal acts that had seen better days a decade or more before, has-been bands like BowWow, and it was unclear how much they helped in boosting the audience count (I think the crowd was somewhere between 300 to 400 people).

Orange Plankton did three songs, including a lovely new tune called ‘Fuwari Fuwari’ that was being used in a TV commercial for student apartments. The show started with an extended monologue by singer Yumi that dealt with matters such as the dawn of life on earth 4.5 billion years ago—her talk appeared to mystify some in the audience but piqued the interest of others. It was their biggest show to date, on a large stage in front of hundreds of people, and they handled it well.

Orange Plankton at Indies in Okinawa festival. Posted by Hello

But it was clear there were things Orange Plankton could learn from the has-been bands. Though I wasn’t a big fan of the hard rock fare of the has-beens, it was obvious all their years of playing big concert halls had paid off, and they had become expert at getting crowds going.

One of the has-been bands was the heavy metal group Loudness. My relationship with heavy metal isn’t quite love-hate, but maybe more like like-dislike: I usually don’t listen to metal much, but then sometimes I hear a great song or see an excellent show and buy a metal CD in my excited state, only to never listen to it more than once or twice. Watching Loudness, a band that has been around since the 80’s, was one of those ‘like’ moments. They played super-aggressive, fast heavy metal, and the guitarist’s fingers flashed across the guitar neck at almost inconceivable speeds.

Orange Plankton will never be Loudness, nor would I want them to be, but if they ever do play stadiums or arenas, there are things they could rip off from the likes of Loudness for playing big shows.

But, in truth, I got bored of Loudness’s antics in about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Orange Plankton created some new fans at the festival show. One guy bought all of their CDs after their performance. Another guy (not sure if it was the same person), wrote in Orange Plankton’s BBS that, “to tell the truth I’d gone to see Loudness, but seeing Orange Plankton live for the first time I was so moved I cried,” and that “Okinawans are shy people so we listened to the show quietly, but we knew what you were trying to express.”

Bassist Tsu-ji- and singer Yumi of Orange Plankton. Posted by Hello

Sunday, the day after the festival show, Orange Plankton was scheduled to play a small Okinawan club about midnight, and had free time before then. Singer Yumi, who grew up next to the ocean in Ehime Prefecture, wanted to go swimming.

So the band, staffers, friends and fans headed to one of the beaches in Okinawa. Yumi led the group by dashing into the water to swim, and we spent the next few hours examining the marine life in the rocky beach: crabs and hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, squilla, and tine blue damselfish.

Spending any amount of time with Yumi is to discover a person who is warm, creative and quite unlike anyone else. Tiny in size, she has a squeaky high voice that is easily recognizable even coming from a crowd of people. She carries around a notebook she made herself with lots of little pictures, on which she writes ideas, images and the ingredients of new songs—she’s the one who creates almost all the music and lyrics of Orange Plankton. Yumi likes nature programs and thinks about space, the beginnings of the planet earth, the mysteries of the human body, other countries’ cultures, and many other things. She reminds me of the girl sung about in ‘Little Wing’, who has a “circus mind that’s running wild” who thinks about butterflies, zebras, moonbeams and fairy tales.

It was amazing to me that Orange Plankton had the energy to do a show near midnight after a full day of running around, following a late night celebrating over Okinawan awamori liquor, but they did, and their show Sunday night at a club called Paraiso was fantastic. I was headed for the jungle island of the Iriomote the next day so I parted ways with the band at the relatively early hour of one in the morning, knowing though that I’ll take from these couple of days many good memories.

Pianist Yuki of Orange Plankton. Posted by Hello

Monday, May 16, 2005

Advantage Lucy - Good News, Not-So-Good News

Advantage Lucy's Aiko at the O-Nest. Posted by Hello

First, a news flash for fellow advantage Lucy fans everywhere: the Tokyo pop band’s very long-awaited new album will be released in the next few months, and will be called Echo Park. It will contain about a dozen songs. Those who have heard the works-in-progress say the final album will knock you out. How long we’ve waited to be KO-ed by a new Lucy album!

Lucy singer Aiko announced this happy news during Sunday night’s show at the Shibuya O-Nest. (She said the specific release date would be announced at their next show in June.)

Earlier, Aiko also announced another piece of news that wasn’t good at all—a month ago she had been hit by a car while bicycling, and had broken a collarbone when she fell. She also hit her head (though the collarbone acted as a shock absorber, apparently that's how the human body is designed), and because of that she’s lost about five hours’ worth of memory, from when the car hit her to when her parents came to see her at the hospital.

But besides the broken bone she was fine, and, showing her optimistic side, Aiko says she feels that her mind is somehow reset because of those five missing hours of memory, and she feels energized because of that.

Except that announcement on stage, Aiko didn’t talk about the accident or the injury at all. But she was in a bit of pain during the show, because the bone still wasn’t completely healed. Until she hit the stage her arm was in a sling. On stage though, the only way you could tell she was hurt was in the way she leaned slightly to her side when she played the harmonica because she still couldn’t raise one arm completely.

The way Aiko went on stage and did a fantastic show despite the injury reminded me of something I’ve observed about her personality. While usually a laid-back, modest and friendly person, when it comes to performing, Aiko is completely serious, almost obsessively so. I remember the night before advantage Lucy’s first ever show in Seoul, for example, Aiko spent much of the night at a cafĂ© preparing detailed schedules for the next night’s shows while the others hung out and chatted. And probably that’s not out of the ordinary for her. She goes through the trouble because I think she wants to keep the stage a special place: it’s where she can really soar, and become the person she wants to be.

Although I’m a devoted advantage Lucy fan, at times I become uncertain as to whether past Lucy shows were truly as good as I remember them, or whether their next show will measure up. But then, I go to the show, and almost inevitably, I’m blown away. I know I was at the O-Nest show.

What’s their secret? Of course there’s the music, which is gorgeous, melodic pop, and which the band plays with skill and passion. But another big thing is that the group performs with so much joy. At times on stage, they seem almost radiant. When I saw them for the first time at the Que nearly two years ago (I’m a nut, I can even remember the exact date—August 6), I remember after the show I walked around the streets of Shimokitazawa like I was on a cloud. I still feel that way sometimes after Lucy shows.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Orange Plankton in Roppongi

Orange Plankton at the Roppongi Morph. Posted by Hello

Seemingly every foreigner in Tokyo makes it to Roppongi sooner or later. And most of them conclude quickly that the gaijin entertainment ghetto is a big, uncool dive.

I, however, don’t mind the place. The touts for the gentlemen’s bars and cabaret clubs who march up and down the streets are entertaining, and Roppongi seems to ooze with sleaziness and sin accumulated over decades of being one of the city’s premier entertainment districts. Here, once (still?), Japanese celebrities, yakuza gangsters, right-wing bosses, American big-shots, and hipsters and hustlers of all hues gathered, and there are still little reminders of those days. There are also decent restaurants, bars and clubs.

In one of those clubs, the Roppongi Morph, Tokyo pop band Orange Plankton did a show. Apparently, the manager of the club saw them performing on the street in Shibuya (as they do every Sunday these days), and invited them to play at the Morph. It was a new and clean club, with a high ceiling and fancy light system.

Orange Plankton are headed next week to the southern island of Okinawa to play in front of thousands of people at an indies band festival, and this show tonight was like a dress rehearsal for that big gig-- a good performance. I’m headed to Okinawa with them next Friday, my first trip to the island.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Kiiiiii at the Shibuya O-Nest

Kiiiiii at the O-Nest. Posted by Hello

Seeing Japanese pop duo Kiiiiii play live Sunday night was like peeking into a slumber party thrown by grammar school girls.

The two girls that make up Kiiiiii, Ut and Lakin’, walked on to stage wearing bright cocktail dresses, as if they had just gone through mom’s closet for adult clothes. Their faces were painted like members of Kiss. They carried several big bags full of toys, which they placed on stage in a formation whose logic was only known to them. A day-glo pink sleeping bag covered a Fender amp. A big plastic ice cream cone was placed on top of another amp, as was a toy cassette player. An inflatable R2D2 doll stood next to the drums. The grungy club stage was converted into a basement recreation room of some suburban home, packed with toys, a brother’s drum set in one corner.

The Kiiiiii girls began the set with a cheerleading routine, with chants and dance moves. Then, after screaming, “KIIIIIIIIII!”, Lakin’, in a pink dress, dashed to the back to play the drums, while Ut, in a blue dress with a pearl necklace, stood in front, and started to sing, rap, scat, and twirl about. They were like two girls who are having fun being silly, but at the same time are acting out, in completely absorbed seriousness, the parts of their favorite stars—singers, cheerleaders, rappers, rock musicians (at one point Ut did an extended air guitar solo using the mike stand, causing the girls in the audience to titter).

I felt I was seeing in real life the sort of wacko, over-the-top Japanese acts that Hollywood employs as props in films about Japan to show the weirdness of its people. Didn’t Lost in Translation have a scene where Bill Murray is taken to a club featuring, basically, A Band From Outer Space? And the movie Tokyo Pop from way back also briefly had a scene in a club showing an out-there, bohemian band performing. Was there something like that in Kill Bill too?

But the Kiiiiii girls were charming, and those audience members that weren’t completely baffled by them seemed to enjoy their antics. Despite all the craziness their songs weren't gibberish and had actual lyrics, and there was a set list—at one point, the singer and the drummer started performing two different songs, and they said at the same time, in English: “Mistake!”

At some points in the show I got a little tired of the ceaseless silliness, but the Kiiiiii show was without doubt unlike any rock show I had ever seen before.

It seemed fitting that right after the show ended, the song that the DJ put on was the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’.

Ut of Kiiiiii at the O-Nest. Posted by Hello

Another band I’d come to see at the O-Nest show was Clisms, a rocking band I’ve written about before. Tonight was the conclusion of a national tour, and their finale was wild: one of the drummers cimbed on top of the bass drum, then crashed into the rest of his equipment, while the lead guitar jumped up and hung by one arm from a ceiling pipe, and hopped on to a one-legged table and in a feat of good balance played some riffs there.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Apila, Reiji Okii Radio Interviewed

Jens Petersen from Sweden wrote to tell me he's done Internet radio interviews of Apila and Reiji Okii, the former leader of the defunct Japanese band Cymbals. I'm a big fan of Apila, who is a female Japanese solo musician, so I enjoyed listening to her talk about recording with Teenage Fanclub, her thoughts on football/soccer, and other matters. (At one point she talked about how, in Japan, when people record music the sessions go from morning to midnight without breaks, but in Glasgow, where she recorded with members of Teenage Fanclub, she and her colleagues frequently took time off to visit the local pub. She says there would often be three to four beer breaks in one day.)

Apila talks in English while Okii speaks in Japanese with interpretations by Petersen. The interview podcast of the show, called MeroMero, mixes in songs by Apila and the Cymbals, so if you are curious to know what these artists sound like, I'd highly recommend it.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Spangle call Talk About Themselves

Japanese art pop band Spangle call Lilli line has published on its homepage a series of interviews that has each of the three band members talking about the new album Trace. The interviews are detailed and long—each taking up four Internet pages. If you are a Spangle fan and can read Japanese, the interviews are well worth a look. If you can’t, here’s a summary of some of the interesting and amusing things the three said.

* Trace, their fourth studio album, was their first since Spangle's original drummer departed (the band released a live album, 68scll, between the third album and Trace), and all three remaining members say they felt they should try out new musical styles with this new album. The members felt the third album, Or, was the culmination of the old, arty, post-rock Spangle sound. The departed drummer, Nobuyuki Kabasawa, provided a lot of musical direction for Or. But because the band strained to create the ultimate old Spangle sound with Or, making that album was highly stressful, causing singer Kana Otsubo to break down crying about once a month. Creating Trace didn't cause as much stress, and was even enjoyable as the band was able to explore and incorporate into its sound new types of music, especially black music.

* Guitarist Ken Fujieda said he was especially influenced by old soul, Motown and dance classic music in making Trace. He also made the other member listen to Prince’s new album, but singer Otsubo said she couldn’t sing like that.

* Two girls from the band Miami All played horns on the album, and they ate sweets with Otsubo during breaks in the recording. (Fujieda)

* The album title, Trace, comes from ‘tracing paper’. The band envisioned ‘tracing’ various musical styles with the latest album. (Fujieda)

* The covers of the first three studio albums featured illustrations by singer Otsubo (who is a professional illustrator when not doing music), but in Trace the band decided to change the album’s appearance. Guitarist Fujieda says the latest album cover was influenced by the designs of Yves Saint Laurent, though the cover also reminds him, in a way, of a bathroom towel.

The cover design. Posted by Hello

* Spangle will release in June an album called For Installation containing new songs that didn’t make it into Trace. (Fujieda)

* The band created between 40 and 50 demo songs, and voted on which songs to put into the album, says the other guitarist, Kiyoaki Sasahara.

* The 4th song of Trace, ‘Corner’, was inspired by a riff in an unnamed song by the rap-metal band Korn [and listening to it now, it does sound like a riff that might be used by a heavy metal group, though I would have never guessed unless I read this interview]. (Sasahara)

* Kana Otsubo, Spangle’s singer, says she had images of Bulgarian and Chinese ethnic music in creating this album, though those images didn’t really come through in the end.

* Singer Otsubo is a big fan of R&B and hip hop, and especially likes SWV, Crystal Kay, Prefuse 73 and Dabrye, as well as Sade, who she saw play in Japan.

* Otsubo thought the 3rd song on the album, ‘U-Lite', was pop and upbeat enough that it might work as a TV commercial song for cosmetics, but says that there weren’t any takers among the big cosmetics companies.

Monday, May 02, 2005

CDs of Note

murmur's Good grief! Posted by Hello

When the mini-album Good grief! by murmur came out, we devotees of Tokyo pop band advantage Lucy had little choice but to check it out. That’s because on the cover of this CD was the ultimate Seal of Approval: there was a blurb by Yoshiharu Ishizaka, advantage Lucy’s guitarist, saying, “Here is the future of Japanese rock!! A must-listen!!”

With praise like that from Ishizaka-san, how could we not give murmur a try? And we did.

One of my Lucy fan friends, who bought Good grief! for the reason described above, said when he listened to the first song of the album, ‘The man’s wish’, he thought: “Wait, this IS advantage Lucy!” Indeed, with its bossa nova/pop sound, horn parts, and female vocals, it does sound Lucy-like.

But murmur creates its own world in the course of the rest of the album, with gentle acoustic parts and nice pop melodies. Murmur, according to the liner notes, is a girl named Mai Tsuyutani, who plays the guitar, pianica, bell and shaker.

My favorite song on this mini-album is the fourth, called ‘You don’t know’, which reminds me of the mellow-out shoegazer band Slowdive. It sounds like the sort of song someone would think up waking up from a nap in the evening. (And, looking at the lyrics, it is actually about awakening after a dream: “This melody is/ Wonder. Cute. Slow. Green. Sweet & Magic./ I met you in my dream./ I’m happy to see you here./ But you don’t know.”)

Well, Ishizaka-san, as I was told I must do, I listened to this album, and I’m happy to say your advice was sound. I also appreciate it that this CD, like other Japanese pop releases, has stylish album art: a bright orange cover showing a coffee-drinking, fez-wearing bear-like animal looking up at a green bird wearing a kerchief.

Bluebadge Label's guitar pop crazy! Posted by Hello

Guitar pop crazy! is the third compilation album to be released by the eminently cool Bluebadge Label. I don’t know the people behind Bluebadge, but I know that it is a relatively new indies label that brings together musicians with a love for guitar pop, neo-acoustic, British and European pop, the Glasgow scene, etc. etc. If advantage Lucy and Swinging Popsicle are among the major league Japanese guitar pop bands, the groups that Bluebadge assembles in compilations like this one might be thought of as the up-and-coming second string bands—but they’re fresh and good, with lots of promise.

Notable songs include: ‘Sunday Clothes’ by the Caraway, which is Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada’s other band; ‘view’ by Spaghetti Vabune, a Kobe-based band that is growing in popularity; winnie’s ‘starless’, their first song release in a couple of years; ‘sweep’ by rockers CleanDistortion; ‘magic rabbit’ by Hong Kong one-girl musical unit the Pancakes; and ‘path’ by humming parlour, which consists of my advantage Lucy fan comrades and friends Ito-san and Kawaie-san.

SP-Tsunagari Posted by Hello

Being a Spangle call Lilli line nut, I’ve been trying to buy everything that the Japanese art pop band has ever released (which isn’t all that much anyway: four full-length albums plus a live album, and a few maxi-singles). In the process of that quest to make my collection complete, I found this mini-album called SP-Tsunagari by Line And Meter Nova Society, containing one cover song by SCLL.

The song made me crack up, because it’s a very arty, mood-filled rendition of … Foreigner’s ‘Heat of the Moment’.

Maybe some people are too young to be familiar with this song, but in my teen years it briefly rocketed up the charts. For me growing up in LA, it was the song spoiled Japanese surfer kids listened to in the parking lot in the Toyota Supras that their parents bought them. I also considered buying the Foreigner album, but didn’t, probably because I didn’t have enough money.

It’s a strange feeling to be reminded of that era by this cover by Spangle call, with SCLL’s Kana Otsubo singing in her delicate voice, “Heeeeeeeat of the mo-o-ment”…