Monday, October 31, 2005

advantage Lucy "One-Man" Live At Que

Woops... Club Que didn't quite get the name of the band right on the signboard.

But other than that, it was a nearly flawless show for advantage Lucy at the Que Sunday night.

The show was what Japanese music fans call a 'one-man live', just one band for the night rather than several. Since it was the Tokyo pop group's first 'one-man' in four years, and most fans prefer to see their favorite band alone rather than with other bands, the club was packed. The show was sold out, in fact--about 300 people were crowded together in the basement club.

I felt breathless standing there for about an hour before the show, with little space to move, not wanting to accidentally elbow the people around me, thirsty, unsure if I'd be able to make it through two-plus hours of the performance. (This may sound crazy if you've never been to one of these events, but you can start feeling territorial about where you are standing--once you stake out your ideal spot with a good view of the stage, you want to stay put, and not go to the bar or the bathroom or go talk to a friend, any of which will almost certainly cause you to lose your place. Then you might get stuck behind a pillar with no view of the stage, next to the bathroom, behind a really tall guy or a person with big hair, etc. So I stayed at my spot, as did everyone else.)

It was also an overcast, chilly day in Tokyo, and all day I had been in a gray mood.

But once the show started, my discomfort and gloominess vanished. I'm not so much of an advantage Lucy kook that I think their shows have therapeutic value, but nevertheless the fact is that I suddenly felt great. The packed crowd around me at times disappeared from my mind and then reemerged as groups of happy people with good vibes. Clearly the audience was happy to be at the Lucy show, and the happiness was infectious and I felt about as good as I've ever felt.

The band played more than twenty songs, over two hours of music with no break, both songs from the new album Echo Park and many of their classic tunes like "Citrus" and "Armond" and "Memai" (sometimes I'd notice a couple or friends in the audience look at each other with contentment when the intro to a song they both loved began).

What a great autumn this has been this year because of the arrival of Echo Park!

Lucy singer Aiko suggested there was more to look forward to next year--she said the band will try to finish another album in 2006. Well, it was quite a wait for Echo Park so I'm not holding my breath, but it would of course be a wonderful thing if we're treated to more advantage Lucy so soon.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

advantage Lucy's Echo Park

Like the sunlight that shines down on singer Aiko on its cover, advantage Lucy’s new album, Echo Park, is a dazzling work. This is my favorite Japanese album of 2005.

The Tokyo pop band kept their fans waiting long for this album: their last major releases were the two EPs, Anzu no Kisetsu and Oolt Cloud, in 2001.

But probably, considering all that advantage Lucy has gone through in those four years, this was about as fast as Echo Park could have been completed. If anything, I think that long period made the album richer and deeper.


Echo Park opens with the distorted guitars of “Glider”, and from there the band runs through eleven extraordinary songs, none of them anything but top-rate. Included are effervescent and driving pop songs like “Anderson”, slow but passion-filled ballads like “Akai Natsu” (meaning a red, or vermillion, summer), arty guitar rock numbers like “Shiosai” ('the sound of waves'), the straightfoward acoustic goodness of “Time After Time”, and much more.

In an age of MP3s and iTunes, when the single is King, advantage Lucy reminds you how powerful the album form can be. This is a CD made to be listened to straight through from the beginning to the final track.

It has many highlights. I love the way that overdriven guitars, horns and Aiko’s sweet voice magically mix together in “Anderson”—a 10 out of 10 rating pop song in my book.

“Shiosai”, the sixth track, is a desert nightscape of a song, where the objects—guitars, voice, Kimitoshi Sotomura’s jazzy drums—emerge from the darkness in glittering detail, as if shone by moonlight. I’ve never heard a song quite like this, and the more times I listen to it the deeper I feel myself under its spell. (After its intensity, the pure happiness of the next song, “Is This Love”, comes as a pleasant surprise.)

The second-to-last tune, “Everything”, lasts more than eight minutes, and reminds me of epic late-period Beatles songs like “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be”.

“Everything” could very well have been the last song of the album—it is a grand number, a wholly fitting finale. But instead, advantage Lucy took two acoustic guitars, a harmonica and recording equipment to a nearby park, and recorded out in the open a song called “Time After Time”, and made that the final track.

The wind was blowing so they had to record eight takes. You can also hear crows cawing in the background. But this simple song, with gorgeous chord progressions, is advantage Lucy at its most basic, and gives the essence of the band's appeal. It sometimes sneaks up to me unexpectedly, over headphones on the subway or at home, and hits me with emotion.


Guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka’s musical compositions in Echo Park are unforgettable, but Aiko’s singing also makes this album special.

A singer with a voice that is attractive but not naturally powerful, when she increases the intensity of her singing it sometimes feels as though the voice is at the edge of a limb, close to falling. But that makes the singing all the more compelling.

This is singing by someone you feel like you know, who loves music and pushes herself completely to express it. That may explain why many fans on Lucy’s BBS and other forums have said the eighth track, “Splash”, is their favorite song on the album: over a bright chord theme that is repeated throughout the song, Aiko’s voice soars, sometimes seems about to crash down, but never does.


A lot of the lyrics in this album, including those in “Splash” have to do with the passage of time, loss and remembering. “Time After Time”, for example, opens with a few lines about memories of the past, and then the lyrics address a person who is gone: “The more I chase you/ the farther away you run/ I look up in the sky/ where clouds are gathering / somewhere in this sky / do you travel still?” [translation mine].

Who is this ‘you’? I think that it is Takayuki Fukumura, who placed an ad one day in a music magazine to find the people that became advantage Lucy, played guitar for the band for a few years, quit the band but remained friends with them and stayed active in the music scene, and then, in November of 2003, passed away, too young, of heart disease.

Throughout the album are lyrics that seem to be written about him, and for him.

The past four years also saw Kaname Bamba, the band’s drummer from the beginning, develop a condition that made him unable to use one leg for drumming, and in the end he dropped of out of the band.

These things, plus a refusal to compromise and rush out mediocre music, and maybe a loss of direction and momentum at times, help explain the length of time it took this album to be completed.

But the finished product contains within it the gravity of those four years’ time. This is the same advantage Lucy of Fanfare and Station, essential albums of late 90’s Japanese pop music, but it is now also a group that is more mature and reflective. This is a band that has grown up.


At the end of the album, the last word Aiko sings is itsumo, Japanese for ‘always’.

Always is right. Always, this band creates beautiful songs that can’t be forgotten. Always, advantage Lucy is a band worth waiting for their new work, four years or five years or even a decade—though I hope the next wait is less. Listen to this album.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Kitchen Gorilla At Zher The Zoo

I was so excited by The Kitchen Gorilla’s show tonight that I got on the wrong train home. But I was in such a good mood it didn’t matter. I walked through Harajuku, and passed about half a dozen white model girls, thin and small-faced like cheetahs.

It was my second time seeing the Japanese pop/rock trio, and unlike the first time, I was familiar with all their songs from their mini-albums One and Skirt, and had become a major fan. They were playing again at the Yoyogi Zher The Zoo.

I love the way this band looks on stage. The guitarist is always expressionless, and vaguely resembles Lee Ranaldo in a young Japanese way. He wears a padlock necklace like Sid Vicious (Sid’s “My Way” played as the band walked on stage). The female drummer, on the other hand, is all smiles as she pounds and batters the drums. And then there’s the singer, Kayo, who is a fashion explosion. Tonight she was wearing big diamond-shaped earrings, white cowboy boots, a sequined and skull-shaped pouch, and was playing a black Flying V bass.

On stage, Kayo is a magnet for eyes. She sways like a snake charmer’s cobra. She sings as if she doesn’t ever want to let go of the mike—it’s like a tether that keeps her from being blown away by the force of the music. The girl has 100% confidence.

Yet, at the end of a show that left me feeling woozy, she rushed over to the merchandise table to collect questionnaires, like any old indie band member in Tokyo. I don’t understand why The Kitchen Gorilla aren’t already big stars.


The band, by the way, has announced it will release a new album called my voice in December.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Beaming At A BMX Bandit

Thursday was my second straight night at the Koenji Club Liner, a new Tokyo live house that is hosting a lot of great events. I was there to see Plectrum for the first time in a while.

On the walk over to the club from the subway station I ran into Plectrum’s Taisuke Takata and Akira Fujiya chatting with a tall white guy. Ignorance is limitless—it wasn’t until Takata introduced me to the guy that I found out he was Douglas Stewart of Glasgow’s BMX Bandits, a band that enjoys hero status with many Japanese pop bands. Douglas would be jamming with us later, Takata said.

There’s one segment of Japan’s music scene that is deep into Scottish bands like the BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub (see my interview of Plectrum’s Takata, for example), and I’ve wondered how that came to be. Scotland is far away from Japan. But probably that distance is part of the appeal. These Scottish bands are so different from a Japanese kid’s everyday life. They are exotic, having a look and a sound that aren’t at all like those of Japan but feel right.

Whatever it is that accounts for the Japanese guys’ love of bands like the BMX Bandits, I got to see the love up close at the end of Plectrum’s set, when Douglas came on stage to do a couple of songs with the band, and even more later in the evening, at the after-show party. The bands moved to a music café in Koenji, a retro place painted bright red and orange, and Takata found an acoustic guitar and asked Douglas to sing a BMX Bandits song or two. At the end of each song, Takata would smile in his irresistible way and ask for another song (“Serious Drugs?” “Kylie’s Got A Crush On Us?”), and Douglas would shrug his shoulders and say, sure, and Takata would be off playing the chords for another BMX Bandits song. Takata was amazing—he knew the chords of all the songs (the top picture shows the two jamming).

As Douglas sat in his booth and sang in a voice that filled up the cafe, gesturing along with the lyrics, a half a dozen Japanese musicians sat around him, enraptured by the thought of a real BMX Bandit making music only a few feet away. As people do when they are ecstatic, the musicians said the simplest things to each other, like, “He’s playing right in front of us”. Many of these guys had been listening to the band for a decade. The feeling in the café was as warm and happy as could be, and I was glad I stayed late and was able to witness this, an audience with a music hero.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Jimmy Pops At Koenji Club Liner

Leaning on the wall inside the Koenji Club Liner waiting for the Jimmy Pops show to begin, I felt a shaking.

An earthquake? Or was this my body’s way of telling me I should cut back on my alcohol intake? For a few moments I wasn’t sure, but then I saw the Club Liner signboard on the stage swaying, and heard the girls behind me in the audience say, ‘this is a long quake’, and figured out it was the earth and not me that was doing the trembling.

But then I got to thinking about a nightmare scenario—what if the Big One hit Tokyo while I was at a club watching a rock show? The dingy buildings that house rock clubs in this city hardly look quake-proof. Since I go to shows at least once a week in evenings, if my luck is bad I could very well be buried alive in a live house with the bands and their fans. Would people then say that my end came doing a job—trying to spread the word about great Japanese indie pop and rock bands?

Those few seconds of delusional pondering soon passed, and I became excited again about seeing the band I’d come to see, Jimmy Pops. I’d heard this band’s songs in the great K.O.G.A. Records compilation album Good Girls Don’t, and had wanted for a while to catch them live. Like a lot of groups affiliated with K.O.G.A., Jimmy Pops is what might be called a gyaru rock band (gyaru being the Japanese rendition of ‘gal’), playing catchy pop tunes mixed with some alternative rock and just a sprinkle of punk. And as with other such bands, the main vocalist is female and sings in a girlish, high-pitched voice. They play a lovely, ultra-catchy tune called “Michelle” in Good Girls Don’t (which is a compilation anyone who has a taste for this sort of music should try to get their hands on), and their new album Jimmy Pops' Minyalbum, is growing on me.

Jimmy Pops only plays live once in a blue moon, and for one reason or another I missed their last couple of shows, but tonight I was determined to see them. They looked about the way imagined them. On the right and left of the stage were the lead guitar and bass, two huge guys—judo heavyweight big—and between them were two petite girls, the singer and the rhythm guitarist, and in the back was the guy drummer. They all wore blue and yellow Jimmy Pops T-shirts.

Their show was bubbly, unserious, and amateurish, but in a lovable way (one of the songs featured two false starts—neither of them scripted). It was as if they were playing for friends in someone’s living room, and, in fact, between songs, the singer sang "Happy Birthday" to a pal in the audience. But the light-hearted performance was never annoying, because the band was having a great time and their happiness was infectious, and besides, the music and their playing were both good.

For their finale they played a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser”, and while the huge bass guy tried to be as over the top as Black Francis, the girl singer also attempted being an intense Pixie but she got the giggles listening to the bass and didn’t quite pull it off. I would have never imagined, though, when I bought the Pixies album when it came out, that one day I’d be listening to a cover of it at a tiny club across the Pacific in Tokyo in 2005, and I loved watching Jimmy Pops going at it.


A duo playing acoustic guitars was also good tonight. They were members of a band called Tsurezure Shokudo. The singer had a fine tenor voice, and the lead guitar was amazing, casually running through difficult sounding jazz parts. They’re worth checking out.


The Club Liner’s schedule said that private parts-exposing singer-led punk band Ging Nang Boyz will be playing there this Sunday, but the show is sold out. Well, of course! The live house is tiny. Maybe 150 people can be packed in there at most, but it will be uncomfortable. In fact, it will probably be hellish. I almost wish I could go to the show just to say I was there, like the Spaniards must say, yes, I was one of the guys who was chased by the bulls at the carnival.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Note From A Korean advantage Lucy Fan

Knowing the members of Tokyo pop band advantage Lucy in person and knowing how un-celebrity-like they are, I sometimes forget that these are musicians loved not only by many in Japan, but also by fans in Korea, China, Taiwan, the U.S., Brazil, various countries in Europe, and other parts of the world.

But on occasion I'm reminded of this fact.

That was the case tonight when I saw a message from a Korean fan on the band's message board. This person had written earlier that he or she would go to Lucy's mini-live and CD autographing event at a Yokohama record shop that happened on Sunday. Tonight, the person wrote that he/she was now back in Korea, and thanked the band for the show and for signing his/her copy of Echo Park, the band's new album.

Both messages were generated using translation software, so there were strange parts, non-sensical Chinese characters here and there, but overall, the messages were understandable, and I was touched by the latest message, because I knew where he/she was coming from. Here's what it said:

I'm home.
This is Korea.

I still can't write Japanese.
I don't know if the translation machine will convey correctly what I say,

I felt happiness being able to listen to your music.
Thank you very much for greeting me in a friendly way.
I really like you, so my heart beat hard and my hands shook.

I'm happy your music exists.
Please continue with your music, don't quit.

Thank you very much.
Good night.
Good bye.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ging Nang Boy Caught With Pants Down

Ging Nang Boyz singer Kazunobu Mineta has landed in trouble for following an old rock 'n' roll tradition dating back at least to the Doors' Jim Morrison: deciding to remove his trousers on stage and showing his manhood to the audience.

The incident actually happened more than two months ago at an outdoor music festival with a crowd of about 45,000. But police have just now busted Mineta by sending complaint paperwork to prosecutors, which is a slap in the wrist and almost always means the accused won't have to serve any time.

What I found most amusing about this incident was the way fans and others responded to it in the Ging Nang Boyz message board, which has exploded with comments. Many commenters are critical, saying that what he did was a crime, and he especially shouldn't have done the Full Monty in a outdoor festival where many children were present.

Others say, what's the big deal, bad boy rock 'n' rollers will be bad boy rock 'n' rollers. Some spout the nudist party line, saying the naked body is natural, why should he be busted for this, Fight the Power, and so on. There's even one fan who says, people shouldn't criticize Mineta unless they were at the show, when he dropped his pants it was such a moving thing I was reduced to tears. A bit hard to imagine that, but if you say so...

I don't know much about Ging Nang Boyz other than that they are a punk band that seems to appeal to teenagers, though this news has made me more curious about them. But if I went out and bought a CD of theirs because of this, I might just be playing into their hands if, just maybe, this was a publicity stunt on the Ging Nang Boyz's part...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Orang And Tea At Mona Cafe

Go for too long without seeing music shows at Tokyo cafés, and I start getting seriously nostalgic for evenings past. I like to see shows at small, warmly lit cafés like the Ikenoue Bobtail, Shimokitazawa Mona Records, and the Kichijoji Mandala.

There’s, of course, an undeniable thrill in going to a major club like the Club Quattro or the Liquid Room and seeing the big audiences and feeling their excitement. But café shows have their virtues too. The atmosphere is relaxed—there’s no security team herding the crowd, or making sure everyone's following the rules. You order your drink and take a seat in one of the sofas, and you know or recognize many of the several dozen people in the audience.

The bands playing aren’t trying to make it professionally for the most part, though it’s more than a hobby. After a band’s set, you can always chat with its members—the café is so small, you will bump into them whether you like it or not.

And that’s the way it was when I went to see a few bands play at the Mona Records in Shimokitazawa on Sunday night. I got to the café early to claim a sofa right in front of the stage (the one drawback of a café show is that if you don’t find a place to sit, the standing space is usually pretty cramped). The show opened with two good guitar pop bands: the Sweet Onions, and Humming Parlour, a duo consisting of two friends of mine.

Sometimes at these café shows, however, you run into a band that ought to be famous and playing at the big venues, because they are so wonderful and solid. The third act, Orang, was one such group. Orang is a guitar pop band led by singer and guitarist Yasutaka Yoshiara, formerly of a group named airplane rider, and once counted as members two ex-advantage Lucy musicians: drummer Kaname Banba, and the late Takayuki Fukumura, the guitarist. Now Yoshiara and bassist Toshiya Kojima play rarely (their last show was in November), assisted by guest musicians.

Listening to them at Mona made me wish they could play more often and release some albums too. Their show lifted my spirits. It was one of those shows that made me realize that I didn’t just dream up the great guitar pop performances I’d witnessed in Tokyo in the past: some of those bands, like Orang, are really outstanding. Osamu Shimada of Swinging Popsicle played lead guitar tonight, and having run into the mild-mannered musician mostly off stage at other people’s shows recently, I’d forgotten how fiery and intense his solos can be, until tonight.

The last band, Tea, mixed together rock & pop, R&B, and bossa nova sounds, and were great too. I loved the vocalist (photo at the top), singing and dancing like an American soul music star, and wearing a tight denim mini-skirt and a bright pink T-shirt that had a design saying ‘wire hanger’ on the chest that curved dramatically.


On the way to the show, I ran into an autumn festival in Sangenjaya. Men and women wearing matching, brightly-colored coats with the names of their towns printed in big Chinese characters on their back carried portable Shinto shrines through the streets. It’s something you see all across Japan at this time of the year, the season of the rice harvest, and is supposed to bring the people of the town together. But my barber told me now some of the towns don’t have enough young people to carry these shrines, so they have to find people from other towns across the city to help them out. That's another sad consequence of Japan’s aging and shrinking population.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Luminous Orange At The Zher The Zoo

Luminous Orange is a band I’ve wanted to see for a while but haven’t been able to because they rarely play live. The musical unit of a very talented Japanese woman named Rie Takeuchi, Luminous has released several great albums, including drop your vivid colours. I finally got my chance to catch them live, at the Zher The Zoo in Yoyogi.

Musically they most resemble groups like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, and on stage, like those bands, Luminous Orange seemed very much in the 'gaze at your shoes while playing' school. Actually, in Takeuchi’s case, she didn’t stare at the ground but her feet stayed immobile for much of the set, like those of a statue. She also didn’t say much. Just a ‘long time no see, we’re Luminous Orange’, and she noted that the club was packed and that the sound should be most balanced in front of the stage (I was standing to the side of the stage, in the unbalanced sound section…). Luminous wasn’t a band that went out of its way to draw in the audience to the show; it was more, here’s our music, take it or leave it.

Judging by how crowded the Zher The Zoo was, many people were happy to be takers. The law of supply and demand was at work here. Luminous hasn’t played live as a band for more than a year as far as I know, so the supply of live shows is low. And the band is popular, meaning demand to see them live is high. Ergo, a full house.

They played mainly songs from drop your vivid colours, and as a big fan of that album I was happy to hear the live renditions of the songs. Like the surface of the sea, Luminous songs come in waves, the crescendo and decrescendo of the drums, guitars and Takeuchi’s voice giving the songs their distinct emotional quality. If you’ve familiar with their style from listening to their albums, it’s exciting to hear this recreated on stage. If you’re going to a Luminous Orange show uninitiated, however, I’m not sure if you'd necessarily be that impressed with this band (though you never know).