Friday, September 30, 2005

The Clicks' Second To Last Tokyo Show


Japanese girl trio the Clicks played their second to last Tokyo show at a club called the Pink Noise in Futago-Tamagawa. The three had announced a few weeks ago that they would split up, but that they would play all the shows they’ve scheduled already, and would officially call it quits on November 5, their last show. Tonight was the penultimate chance to see them in Tokyo.

The evening left me in a sad mood. The Clicks did play well, the girls giving it their all even though they were a band marked for dissolution. But when you watch a band a lot you start thinking about that band’s future, their growth as musicians, and the new songs that they make, and in all those areas there was nothing more for the Clicks.

I remembered seeing them for the first time in Yokohama and thinking how raw their sound was, and being happy to see the people behind the Clicks songs (I already owned their first album). The club was a tiny one, was packed and the Yokohama crowd dug the three, because the Clicks are from Yokohama. Tonight at the Pink Noise the crowd stood back and didn’t seem to know who the three were.

The Pink Noise itself was a strange club, or live house, as these places are called in Japan. I couldn’t understand the reason for this live house’s existence. There are already too many of these clubs in Tokyo, and the number seems to be growing, but the new venues seldom do anything to differentiate themselves from the competition. It’s always a bare basement or attic with lights, a sound system and a small bar. You’d think one of the clubs might put up a Bob Marley poster or an old guitar on the wall or a singing fish plaque or something to give it some character, but no, the d├ęcor is always plain and boring. The Pink Noise was like that, and on top of that it was behind a shopping mall in a dark street that I at first wasn’t sure was open to pedestrian traffic.

Futago-Tamagawa, the neighborhood where the Pink Noise is located, was also a strange scene. This neighborhood next to the Tama River is one of the places where the rich live in Tokyo, and the shopping center next to the Pink Noise housed Chanel, Ferragamo and other fashion boutiques. But the whole mall was too clean and sterile, as it was just built yesterday, and I had a hard time imagining people actually shopping here rather than going somewhere like Ginza or Shinjuku. Why is the Pink Noise here in the first place?

So, there the Clicks were, playing for a crowd that didn’t care, at a live house that didn’t have much going for it, in a nouveau rich town. It felt like a rock show at the edge of the earth. The Clicks, at least, played their good songs with energy, and as always they were a nice looking group on stage, but all that made the night all the sadder. Well, I also did get to see for the first time Falsies on Heat, an all-girl quarter that badbee.net’s David called “Bikini Kill meets the Breeders but with better tunes and bigger attitudes”, and who were actually quite good.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Ken M, Advantage Lucy "Great Support Member"


If I don't accomplish anything else in life, I will at least be able to say I was listed as a "great support member" in Japanese pop band advantage Lucy's brilliant fourth album, Echo Park.

That honor is mine for having helped translate a couple of songs on the album, including "is this love".

I remember how, as singer Aiko and I tried to work out over the phone what English words would sound good and be just the right length to sing, Aiko would hum to herself a phrase I suggested, and then would either tell me, no, that's too short (or long), are there any other words we can use, or else, perfect! Let's go with that. A sweet memory.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Bright Day


A bright day.

Japanese pop band advantage Lucy's new album, Echo Park, is out.


It was a cool, overcast autumn morning, but the sun came out as I turned the corner toward Tower Records Shibuya, listening to Lucy's new song "Glider" on my iPod. I entered the store and walked to the second floor, the Japanese music floor.

There the new Lucy CDs were, in Tower Records' Japanese indies music section, where I've spent much time in the past few years. I bought several copies of the new album: one for myself, and the rest for friends.

I'd heard some stores started selling Echo Park yesterday, but I decided to wait until today, the official release date, to buy the album, so I could follow a sort of plan of action I made for myself on how to spend the day when the album comes out.

I would buy the album soon after the record store opens. Then I'd walk over to Yoyogi Park, find a comfortable bench, and listen to the CD under the sky, surrounded by trees. And then I'd go home and spend the rest of the day floating in the new songs by my favorite Japanese band. Which is what I did.

I shared the park with the crows that rule Tokyo parks, their cawing heard between songs on my headphone, and with people out exercising and painting sceneries.

I'll write more about the album later, after I've absorbed it more, but let me just say for now: it's fantastic! Every song is great, the album feels nearly flawless. That combination of elegance and passion in their music that grips listeners and makes them into fervent fans is still there, maybe more than ever.

The four years' wait was worth it.

Now back to floating around Echo Park...



Sunday, September 25, 2005

Linus' Blanket's Single & Other Asian CDs


Linus' Blanket's Labor in Vain single.

Apple Crumble Record in Shibuya, as I’ve written before, is one of the coolest record stores in Tokyo, a tiny closet of a shop that stocks only good music from Europe, North America and Asia. I stopped by there the other day, and without having planned on it, ended up buying several CDs by bands from elsewhere in Asia.

One was “Labor in Vain”, the new single by Seoul-based band Linus’ Blanket. A delightful Korean group whose songs sound, at different times, European pop, lounge jazz and bossa nova, Linus creates some of the most delicate, sweet music I’ve ever listened to. It’s the sort of music one might enjoy over afternoon tea with fine china in a forest cabin in Europe or something. Singer and keyboardist YeonGene, on the cover above, apparently has the Mozart-like ability to play back a song on the piano after hearing it just once.


invisible cities journeys compilation

Also in the shopping cart was a compilation album by several Hong Kong bands, called invisible cities journeys, released by Mackie Study. A lot of great music seems to be coming out of Hong Kong and Taiwan these days, and this compilation was further proof of that. I especially liked the fourth track, a slow Cantonese ballad by a female musician whose name in English I don’t know, singing a song that I think means “Missing Person”. The compilation also included vivacious illustrations by local artists. Two examples below:


invisible cities journeys illustration.


... and another.

One of the differences between music made by Japanese musicians and musicians elsewhere in Asia is that the latter don’t seem to be afraid of writing gentle, relaxed pop songs, whereas Japanese groups, for the most part, seem to prefer rock, or music that tries new things, for example a mix of various genres such as jazz or hip-hop or techno. The Japanese groups often come up with nice results, but they don’t often produce mellow CD like this invisible cities journeys compilation or the Linus single. My knowledge of other Asian music is pretty limited, however, and it could be I’ve just run into several unrepresentative examples of relaxed music.


the pancakes' everyone has a secret.

A third CD I bought is another instance of a non-Japan Asian music you can relax to: everyone has a secret, by the pancakes of Hong Kong. The pancakes, the musical unit of the Hong Kong girl ‘dejay’, seems to already be very popular locally. Interestingly, the first song on this album is called “tamagawa”, the name of one of the big rivers in Tokyo, the Tama River, and the album art is photographs of a riverbed park, where Tokyoites play sports and have barbecue parties over weekends. The lyrics have nothing to do with the river or Tokyo, as far as I can tell. I wonder what this Japan connection is?

***

I wish, one of these days, I could see a show that brings together great bands from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia. A gathering like this I think would not only be completely awesome, but even transforming (in that music helps bridge gaps, and this is a region with a lot of gaps to bridge).

And if such a thing were possible, I also wish I could fly to these other Asian musical centers on weekends when nothing is happening in Tokyo, to keep abreast of what’s happening in other parts of Asia (then maybe I would change the name of this blog to East Asia Live).

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Big Music Week In Tokyo Next Week


Next week is a big week—a slew of exciting musical events are happening in Tokyo.

Firstly, and most importantly, advantage Lucy’s new album, Echo Park, is coming out on Wednesday. As soon as the record shop opens I’ll go in and buy the CD and spend the day swimming in the new music by the brilliant pop band, my favorite.

Thursday is one of those tough choice days. In one part of the city, at the Harajuku Astro Hall, sweet-voiced tenor Toshiaki Yamada’s band Gomes The Hitman will be doing a solo show. But not too far away on the same night, the girl band the Clicks will be playing at the Futago-Tamagawa Pink Noise club, along with a band I’m interested in called falsies on heat. This will be the second to last Clicks show in Tokyo before they officially split up. Which to see? I probably won’t have an answer until Thursday around 5 in the evening, a couple of hours before the show.

Friday night, Good Dog Happy Men, the band led by former Burger Nuds singer Masaaki Monden, is playing at the Koenji Club Liner. The late Burger Nuds was a band that could make your blood pump faster while also stimulating your brain synapses, and I’m curious what sort of band GDHM will turn into.

Saturday night at the Yoyogi Zher the Zoo is a rare live show by Luminous Orange, the outstanding shoe-gazer rock unit of female vocalist/guitarist Rie Takeuchi. She says she was inspired by bands like the Pale Saints, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, and you can hear the influences in the band’s music, though Takeuchi works from those to create an emotional and melodic sound that is like no other’s. The infrequency of Luminous Orange’s shows (a few times at most a year) makes it crucial to try to catch this one.

Sunday is difficult decision time again. On the one hand, K.O.G.A. Records pop-rock band Jimmy Pops, another good band that hardly ever plays live, is appearing at the Shimokitazawa Basement Bar. But performing on the same night at the Club Liner is a band I know almost nothing about, from the southern city of Fukuoka, called Bambino Radio, and even though I know nothing about them I have a strong feeling they should be good. Just look at that picture of them (at the top)! Two girls plus a guy drummer wearing a red mask with horns!! And this trio from the island of Kyushu is supposed to play "cute" pop music! If nothing else they should be interesting.

Sometimes I wish I could be at two places at once.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Limited Express's Brilliant "Tiger Rock"


Makes You Dance! is the brilliant second album by Limited Express (has gone?), a Japanese trio who plays eccentric rock similar to groups like the Ruins and Boredoms. This album would be worth buying for the song “Tiger Rock” alone, a weirdo music classic, even if all the other songs were duds. Fortunately, Makes You Dance! contains many more great innovative, rocking moments, making it a must-listen for music lovers with adventurous tastes.

“Tiger Rock” reminds me, strangely, of a song from a completely different musical genre: Ice Cube’s gangsta rap masterpiece, “Jackin’ For Beats”. Though a rap song, “Jackin’ For Beats" is actually more of a showcase for imaginative, ever-changing sampling, that sounds great as a whole. Similarly, you never quite know what will come next in “Tiger Rock”: the song starts with a full-blast garage rock guitar part, followed soon after by female vocalist Yukari squealing, “Pi! Pi! Pi! Pi! Pi! Pi!”, followed by her singing of lyrics that are either highly muddled English or simple gibberish, and then the climactic line, “Six! Five! Eight! Three! Nine! Four! Two! Seven! One! Zero! Tiger Rock!”, and then much more.

What in the world do those numbers mean? And that is “tiger rock”, and what is this song trying to say? All questions that might come up listening to the song, but in the end “Tiger Rock” has so much energy and so much eccentric artfulness that the answers don’t really matter. It’s a wild, not-quite-three-minute musical amusement park ride.

And “Tiger Rock” is but one highlight in this album that tries out new rock music things and sounds great doing so. Maybe the one song in this album where Limited Express seems to have gone too much out on a limb is “Hopping”, which features Yukari counting numbers slowly, sort of like a Sesame Street introduction to numbers. It’s probably not a ‘song’ you’d want to hear a hundred times. But the album as a whole, with its screams and nonsense lyrics and unpredictable but rocking parts, is one you just might want to listen to that many times and more.

UPDATE: Just found out you can sample all of the songs from Limited Express's two albums here at YesJapan. Check them out!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Shimokitazawa Music Scene - The Game


In a stack of fliers for upcoming rock shows you always get at music clubs in Tokyo, I found something out of the ordinary.

It was a board game printed on a piece of paper. It looked like the Game of Life, but what it was would be more accurately described as the Game of the Shimokitazawa Music Scene.

Club Que created the game for fun for its 11th anniversary. The game’s object is similar to the Game of Life, but rather than trying to retire rich like the Game of Life, in the Que game the aim is to make it big in the Shimokitazawa club circuit, and more specifically, to play a sold-out one-band show at the Que itself (the Que is considered one of the top clubs in Shimokitazawa).

Like other board games, each player rolls a dice, and depending on where you land you can add or subtract points, and other things happen, mostly having to do with Shimokitazawa, the artsy Tokyo neighborhood.

For example, if you land on “Work part time at First Kitchen”, you get 100 points, presumably your salary. If you land on “Watch a play at Honda Theater”, on the other hand, 40 points is taken away from you, for the ticket charge. You can also “Buy a T-shirt at SAKAEYA. Become stylish” at a cost of 50 points. On the darker side, you can “Become tired with life, and return to your hometown. Lose all friends”—and also lose two turns.

This is Shimokitazawa, though, so after you land on “Form a band”, you can play at live houses like the Yaneura, 440, Cave Be, Garage, Shelter, Club 251, and of course, Que itself, and at each, you get 20 points times the number rolled on the dice, if you’re already in a band.

To get to the inner circle that leads to a solo Que show, you need to land on a “Jump Chance” space, which represents various big deal events for bands. For instance, one “Jump Chance” is “Get a call on mobile. Receive offer from K.O.G.A. to release a CD of your band” (with a picture of K.O.G.A. Records owner Mr. Koga making a call on a mobile phone). If you have a Mobile Card and Band Card, you can then jump into the Shimokitazawa band scene’s inner circle. (Mr. Koga, however, isn’t always good luck in this game. There’s one space you can land on that says, “K.O.G.A. gets you drunk. Lose you wallet”—and also, 100 points.)

For the grand finale, when you land on “One-Band Show at Club Que”, if you have ten Friend cards, or if you roll a “Que” on the special dice, your solo show sells out, and you get more points the sooner you do that.

What’s cool about this game, besides that someone actually took the time to make it (and must have had fun doing so), is that the game gives a good summary of the Shimokitazawa music scene. Live houses like the Que, Shelter and Club 251 compete with each other, in theory, to attract music fans, and it’s strange in a way that the Que gives free advertising to the other live houses in the form of this game.

But then these clubs are part of a community, and the live house staffers hang out with each other, compete with each other in sports tournaments, and must have a good laugh seeing their clubs featured in a board game created by another live house (though, all that doesn’t mean each club doesn’t try to book the best bands to get a bigger crowd than any other club).

Monday, September 12, 2005

Hartfield Headed To U.S. East Coast


New Yorkers, Philadelphians, Washingtonians, Chicagoans and others:

Japanese shoe-gazer rock duo Hartfield will be touring the East Coast of the U.S. this month with Chicago band airiel. They're a fantastic band I've written about many times before, so try to set aside an evening to see them if they are coming to your town. Schedule below:

9.17.2005 at The Shadow Lounge Pittsburgh.PA.USA
9.18.2005 at The Rotunda - Philadelphia.PA.USA
- The PopNoise Festival -
9.19.2005 at The Brighton Bar - Long Branch.New Jersey.USA
9.21.2005 at Sin-e - NewYork.NY.USA
9.22.2005 at The Warehouse Next Door - Washington D.C..USA
9.23.2005 at Relative Theory Records - Norfolk.VA.USA
9.24.2005 at Comet Bar - Cincinnati.OH.USA
9.27.2005 at Double Door - Chicago.IL.USA

Hartfield has updated its website, by the way, and it looks sharp.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Bank$ & advantage Lucy at Que


To celebrate Shimokitazawa Club Que’s 11th year in business, a series of shows has been scheduled at the Que this month, with the first event featuring advantage Lucy, the Bank$ and Paunch Wheel. The Bank$ (pronounced ‘banks’) are wild and crazy crowd-pleasers, while advantage Lucy is a brilliant pop band, and I was looking forward to their double-header Friday night.

The Bank$ is a musical unit led by Yuhi Komiyama, formerly of Hoff Dylan, and is supported by Plectrum’s Akira Fujita on guitar and Umu, formerly of the Beat Crusaders, on bass. They play high-energy, melodic, danceable pop songs that get the crowd hopping. In between the songs, Komiyama talks. And talks. And talks.

Usually the topics he discusses are off-beat. Tonight, he talked about the beginnings of Club Que, eleven years ago. At that time the Que, which is two floors down from the ground level, was barren land, Komiyama says. Nii-san, Que’s owner, cultivated the ground, planted the electric lights one by one, until it grew to become a true live house that was ready for shows…the day before yesterday.

He also asked the audience to sing along to “Boy Friend”, a song about wanting to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Komiyama points the mike to a tall girl standing at the very front in the center, and asks, “Do you have a boyfriend?” When she shakes her head no, he says, “That’s what I thought, seeing that you are standing at the very front (like a groupie).” At the end of the show, he gave the girl a bead bracelet he was wearing, for being a good sport in the face of his joking rudeness. I think she forgave him.

***

Advantage Lucy’s show was second to last, before the Bank$’s finale, and the Que was the most crowded then because of all the Lucy fans. The Bank$’s show may have gotten the crowd dancing the most, but Lucy’s show was what stayed in my mind afterwards (noting, however, that I’m a Lucy devotee who owns all their records).

The highlight of their show for me was when they played “Akai Natsu [‘vermilion summer’]", which is a song in their soon-to-be-released new album, Echo Park. A short, beautiful ballad (few bands create ballads as gorgeous as Lucy does) about growing up, the song made me think about all the days that had gone by since I started seeing Lucy live in August of 2003 and gradually came to know the members of the band. A loose translation of the song’s opening lines:

The lights of the days that rush by—so bright,
The rain continues falling, as I wait for summer.


So simply but eloquently, the song evokes the feeling of growing older.

Only a couple of more weeks until Echo Park comes out!

NOTE TO LUCY FANS IN TAIWAN: advantage Lucy may be headed your way in a few months’ time! Don’t miss them.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Vasallo Crab 75; Shugo Tokumaru

As I headed to Mona Records to see Vasallo Crab 75 and others, I thought about how it had only been three weeks since I last went to a rock show, but it felt like ages. (I went back home to L.A.)

In mid-August, when I went to see My Way My Love, it was the peak of Japan's sauna-like summer. Tokyo was swimming in a sea of humidity, and on the streets Japanese women walked in short sleeves, a continuous stream of cream-colored, smooth-skinned arms. Now, at the start of September, a cool breeze swirled down from the sky. Autumn was approaching.

The show at Mona Records in Shimokitazawa matched the feel of the day well. It was a mellow acoustic evening, featuring Vasallo Crab, whose third album just came out, solo musician Shugo Tokumaru, and his Life is Records, a duo consisting of throwcurve's singer and NANANINE's drummer.

I had two main missions tonight. One was to buy Vasallo Crab's new album, Today is Tomorrow. The other was to see Shugo Tokumaru, who I'd read about on the Internet and had been wanting to see.

Catching Tokumaru live for the first time made the trip to Shimokitazawa worth it, in itself. A gaunt guitarist who was so soft-spoken it seemed the air conditioner could drown his voice out, once he started playing Tokumaru created his own musical cosmos. His art pop guitar playing sounded jazz and even flamenco at times, and he also went through a box-load of other instruments such as banjo, pianica, and a mysterious bow and saw combo. I'd never listened to music quite like his, and I felt that anywhere he played, whether in a cafe, or a big concert hall, or under a bridge, that place would be transformed by his sound.



Vasallo was just as energetic playing acoustic guitars as when they performed with amps turned on to full volume (one of the guitarists kept on suggesting to the audience, without success: "You can stand up and dance...if you like."). A good thing about unplugged shows though is that you can often hear the beauty of melodies and musical compositions more clearly than when the sound is on full blast. That was the situation tonight. I bought the CDs of Vasallo and Tokumaru on my way out of the door to a autumn-like evening.

Monday, September 05, 2005

K.O.G.A. Records Recommendations


An anonymous commenter recently wrote that he (or she?) had become interested in the Clicks after reading my posts and asked how he/she could buy the girl trio’s music. Simple, I thought—go to Amazon Japan, click the ‘display in English’ button, then order the CDs as you would usually do on Amazon. While I was at it, I thought, I ought to recommend a few other great CDs from the Clicks’ label, K.O.G.A. Records, run by one of the characters of the Shimokitazawa hamlet in Tokyo, Mr. Koga.

But looking for those K.O.G.A. albums, I was surprised to find that Amazon Japan didn’t stock many of them, perhaps because of their relative obscurity. I then remembered that a couple of commenters had said in the past that they had ordered Japanese CDs on CDJapan and found the Internet shop reliable. Worth checking out, I thought. And…Eureka! Almost every CD I was thinking about was available on CDJapan.

So, here are a few CDs I think you should listen to from K.O.G.A. Records, THE indie label for Japanese girl pop-rock-punk bands (the album titles link to CDJapan):

Good Girls Don’t compilation: This 22-song various artists album is a good introductory album to K.O.G.A. girl bands. I found out about bands like Teeny Frahoop, Mix Market and Jimmy Pops listening to this album.


The Clicks’ Magic of White: I wrote about this wonderful album here. This engaging, energetic rock threesome is, unfortunately, splitting up at the end of the year. Buy this album, and their debut album, Come to Vivid Girl’s Room, before it’s too late.



Teeny Frahoop’s Wee Wee Pop and 2nd Hospital: For a long time, like a guy stuck in a frontier outpost, I felt alone, as a foreigner, in my knowledge of how great Teeny Frahoop was.

But then I came across a review of their 2nd album, 2nd Hospital, by a guy who had actually seen the girl trio play live—something I couldn’t claim myself, because the band had long split up by the time I discovered them. This reviewer, in an excellent J-Pop review site called BadBee.Net, said that 2nd Hospital was one of the “best indie records” he’s heard in Japan.

I can see where he's coming from, because I do love the two albums that Teeny Frahoop released, Wee Wee Pop and 2nd Hospital, filled with catchy melodies, cutely rocking parts and quirky lyrics. I wrote about them before, here.


Automatics’ Quietude: A quartet led by songstress Momoko Yoshino, the Automatics have an instantly likable retro sound in this album: one that brings to mind 50’s rock and surf music. Yoshino sometimes sings in an extremely pinched-nose nasal way, for example in the excellent ‘Automatic Eraser’, that strangely grows on you.




Mix Market's Chronicle, Jimmy Pops' Minyalbum and Crawl's Milkicking (not available on CDJapan): These three are all good K.O.G.A. alternative rock bands with girl singers, though, to be honest, I sometimes get them mixed up. They have a similar sound: straightforward rock melodies with nice hooks, and high voiced female vocals. But if you like the sound—and I lap this stuff up—you’ll love these albums even if sometimes you think a Jimmy Pops is a Mix Market, and so on.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Chipple.net On Usagi-chang Night


MissWonda live (image from chipple.net). Posted by Picasa

I would have gone to the Usagi-chang Night Fever!! show that chipple.net described at length and entertainingly in a recent post, if it weren’t for the fact that I was separated from it by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. When this show in Tokyo featuring the Aprils, YMCK, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Eel and others took place, I was 5500 miles away, back home in Los Angeles. (Isn’t the Internet great? I looked the distance up in a website called How Far Is It.)

These so-called piko piko future pop bands have their share of true devotees, who are fond of telling you that groups like the Aprils are Japan’s New Thing. And indeed, the sound is fresh and interesting: beeping computer noises (“piko piko” is a Japanese word representing video game noises) creating nice pop melodies. Usagi-Chang ['little bunny'] Records is the label that is the creative headquarters of this new sound.

This is music by kids who love video games, and are young enough to have grown up in a world where the games were always around (whereas old fogies like me saw the coming of Pong, and witnessed the evolution that went from Space Invaders to Pac-Man to Donkey Kong and so on). Go to an Aprils show, and you find two computer screens on the stage that show a simultaneous music video of the song that the band is playing live, and the images of the video resemble those of a video game.

Piko piko is a Japanese invention, and it’s a fun little thing, like all the PlayStation and other Japanese game gadgets that give these kids inspiration. One thing I’m not sure of though, is whether any classic piko piko album, or even a song, has come out yet. Fun songs are one thing, but have bands in this musical genre produced a masterpiece that will make them noticed by many new listeners? I’m not sure they have, and that makes me continue to be a lukewarm fan, for the most part, of these artists.