Sunday, May 21, 2006

Compilation Albums (LOVE Them)

When Japanese indie record labels like K.O.G.A. and Blue Badge release compilation albums, I grab them right away. I LOVE compilation albums; they are a big part of my music diet.

The albums themselves are often a mixed bag—some songs are good, but others aren’t and are destined to be fast-forwarded over every time after the first listen. Still, I listen to these albums because they are where I most often find the brilliant band I knew nothing about and seemingly came out of nowhere, but plays that one dazzling, rocking song that makes me want to know everything about them and go to all their shows.

It is after all by listening to a compilation called Killermont Street 2001 a few years ago that I made my happiest Japanese musical discovery to date—the discovery of a group called advantage Lucy, who contributed a song named “Chikyu (faraway version)” to the album (a side-note: any true Lucy fan should try to get a hold of this album because it contains a beautiful, mellow version of “Chikyu” that must be listened to, with a recording in the background of European kids playing in a park somewhere, giving the song a dreamy feel).

Listening to compilation albums is also a way to see a snapshot portrait of a musical era and some of the bands that were active at the time, and recently, by buying a couple of albums that include early songs by advantage Lucy, I’ve been able to better understand the mid-90’s Japanese guitar pop/neo-acoustic scene.

The two albums I bought through Yahoo’s auction site were Splash Dive Cream Cone Compilation Vol. 0 and Pop Jingu Vol. 1. I’d been looking for the two CDs for a while, because both contain songs by advantage Lucy (called Lucy Van Pelt at the time), but both were out of stock. As someone who wants to listen to every single recorded version of all Lucy songs (and advantage Lucy is one of those cool, creative groups that make a new version of a song each time they contribute it to a compilation), I was excited to see those two albums offered on auction (though I later found out that I can also buy both on Amazon Japan’s used CD market—how easy things are in the Internet Age!).

An added joy to listening to these albums came from the fact that I was able to discover some great old bands. Both Splash Dive and Pop Jingu, for example, included songs by two bands I didn’t know about but I truly dug, Peatmos and Kactus. I looked up Kactus on the Net, and found out that the group disbanded a number of years ago, and an American member of the band went home. I’m not sure what became of Peatmos, a band featuring a female vocalist with an unforced, ethereal voice, and a crunchy acoustic guitar sound.

Splash Dive, which shows a somewhat homoerotic photo of a pool scene on its front cover (and a, um, COLORFUL photo on its back cover, shown above), includes other interesting stuff. One is a song by “Guitar Bader” which I assume is a misspelled rendering of Guitar Vader. It also has a song by “Cymbals” called “Happy Time”, but I’m not sure as to whether this is a song by THE Cymbals, since it is more hard rock than the pop of early Cymbals, features a male singer rather than Toki Asako, and the album itself came out in 1997, which means it preceded THE Cymbals’ debut album, released in 1998.

Meanwhile, Pop Jingu, with an out-of-focus picture of a forlorn-looking retriever on its cover, includes one very remarkable song: “Color Is Navy”, by Maples. Why remarkable? Because “Maples” was the name of the one-person unit of advantage Lucy singer Aiko, in which Aiko sang and played the guitar alone. As far as I know this is the only recording of Maples. It’s good—simpler and sleepier-sounding than Lucy songs. The album also contains songs by bands like 800 Cherries and Color Filter.

The two albums were both released nearly a decade ago, in 1997, but they still sound fresh. The type of music recorded in them may have fallen out of fashion to some extent in Japan, though there are still die-hard fans and bands that play for them. I like this music because it isn’t pretentious, can be played by just about any group of people with guitars, but the end product is often surprisingly gorgeous and memorable. I’m waiting for more Splash Dive’s and Pop Jingu’s.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Supersnazz,'s, Mad3

Friday night in Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku—Dodging the African sex-club touts and weaving through the weekend crowd-thronged alleys, I made my way to the Loft, to see the’s, Supersnazz, and Mad3. It had been a while since I was last at the Shinjuku Loft, the king of Japanese live houses, not the biggest, but still the country’s preeminent venue, where even Southern All-Stars, the Toyota Motor Corp. of Japanese pop bands, once played.

I went to the show because I wanted to see the’s, a female trio whose biggest claim to fame is that one of their songs was used in Kill Bill. ‘Supersnazz’ also sounded familiar, and I wanted to see what they were like.

At the loft, there were more foreigners than just about any Tokyo gig I’ve been to—I guessed that was because of the’s Kill Bill fame as well as the fact that all three groups were fairly well known abroad. There were also dozens of Japanese rebel Brit-punkers, all wearing the same clothes—Ivy caps were the headgear of choice, and many had big chains hanging out from their pockets, connected to their wallets so they don’t get lost in the mosh pit.

The’s went first. They affected some in the audience like a pleasurable electric shock: a tiny Japanese girl in front of me screeched every time the band named the next song or played an intro to a song she liked, and she proceeded to hop around maniacally to the music. My reaction to their music wasn’t quite as intense, but I did enjoy it; their tunes were heavily influenced by 50’s rock, rockabilly and surf music (I think I read somewhere the numbers in their name stand for the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, their favorite musical decades).

Supersnazz was next, and this quartet completely knocked me out. A Supersnazz fan was born Friday night: me.

It wasn’t that Supersnazz was playing the sort of music I’d never heard of before; in fact, their 80’s-sounding garage pop-punk was eminently familiar. They played music that’s formulaic, but it’s a formula that I never get bored of no matter how many bands I listen to going over similar territory. It’s the hamburger of music: the ingredients may be more or less the same but there’s still the good and the bad, and when it’s really good, you get a craving for it from time to time, for all time. Two recent favorite bands of mine, the Kitchen Gorilla and myuuRy, also are these kinds of bands.

The group consists of two orange-haired girls, the singer and the bassist, and two black-haired guys, the guitarist and drummer. The singer, ‘Spike’, looks like a Japanese Chrissie Hynde with a Steven Tyler-like mouth. She bops around on stage, belting out garage punk, while between the song parts the guitar guy RIPS out solos. I found out later this band has been around since 1990. True veterans—I went out and bought a CD of theirs right away, Invisible Party, the first of many of theirs I think I will buy, and this show is also likely to be the first of many that I’m likely to see.

When the final band, Mad3, started playing, the front section of the crowd turned into a wild mosh disaster zone, and the spectacle was entertaining enough, and the band was good enough, that I considered staying for the whole set, but I decided to take off after a few songs, back through the grime and bright lights of Shinjuku on a weekend night. (Check out an insane photo of theirs here. And here's a good photo of Supersnazz.)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Japan Live Radio Updated; Thoughts

I’ve been adding about a dozen songs at a time to Japan Live Radio’s playlist, and taking out a dozen tunes at the same time, and now the playlist contains completely different music from when I started.

Although I’m an utter amateur at this, I’ve had fun. A couple of people have even rated my radio their favorite, which is flattering (and quite undeserved, honestly, considering all the radio stations out there where people put in real work, but more on that later…).

Live 365 is an American system, and being American it’s obsessed with ratings. So, you can rate each radio station you listen to, and you can also give a thumb’s up or down to each song you across.

Seeing how people rate the songs I play on Japan Live Radio has been fascinating, and in some ways mystifying, and even, disconcerting. It made me see why Top 40 radio ends up broadcasting songs like they do: people like flashy, short, easy-to-understand songs with some sort of twist. With some songs I could see why people wouldn’t like them, because they are long, eccentric, raw, etc. etc. But with others, I just couldn’t understand where people are coming from. For example, Judy and Mary’s “Lollipop” was rated pretty low. How could anyone not like “Lollipop”??

I personally like every single song I play on the radio. When a great tune I’d forgotten about comes on my iPod on shuffle mode, I make a note to include it in the radio later on.

Right now, the playlist usually contains about four hours worth of music. I was looking through Live 365’s bulletin board, and I read that hardcore broadcasters often have several playlists of dozen hours or more, and they spend hours each day putting these lists together. Not me…I just wouldn’t have the time. I’m not sure if sometimes people end up listening to the same sequence of music listening to my radio at different times, and if they do, whether that gets them bored. If they do and it does, I’m not sure what to say, except, maybe you ought to also listen to some of the other stations? I’ve found some great stations that play music I would usually never listen to, like salsa, exotica (Tiki lounge music), Bollywood soundtracks, and so on.

The playlist now on the air includes several cool post-Shibuya-kei electro pop acts such as Cubismo Grafico Five, Yukari Fresh and PineAM. I’m not allowed to publish the current playlist, but below is the historic first Japan Live Radio playlist, which was pretty girl pop heavy. If you missed any songs that you wanted to listen to, or you want to listen to a song again, let me know, and I’ll stick it back on the playlist:


1. advantage Lucy – Splash
2. Spangle call Lilli line – U-Lite
3. MissWonda – Ageha
4. Supercar – Storywriter
5. Qypthone – Something Valuable In me
6. Clammbon – Pan To Mitsu Meshiagare
7. Swinging Popsicle – Something New
8. Plectrum – Don’t Tell Me A Lie
9. The Automatics – Secrets
10. The Kitchen Gorilla – Sensation
11. Jimmy Pops – Ballroom Riot
12. Mix Market – Going My Way
13. Teeny Frahoop – She Is Baby Panda
14. Lucy Van Pelt – Christina
15. Lost In Found – Radio 24
16. Cymbals – Do You Believe In Magic
17. Tornado Tatsumaki – Atom
18. 4 Bonjour’s Parties – Il Cortile Grigio
19. Gomes The Hitman – Tokyo Gozen Sanji
20. Hartfield – Strangers When We Meet
21. Plectrum – Cherry Boy 1994
22. Orange Plankton – Mizuumi
23. Swinging Popsicle – Satetsu No Tou
24. The Automatics – Yesterday’s Children
25. The Clicks – Magic Of White
26. Teeny Frahoop – Inside Of Theatre
27. The Kitchen Gorilla – O.K.
28. Orange Plankton – Atama No Uchu
29. Hartfield – 16 Lovers’ Rain
30. Misswonda – Arabesque
31. Spangle call Lilli line – sss-urp
32. Tornado Tatsumaki – Best Tight Tricolor
33. Comeback My Daughters – Seasons And Silence
34. Contrary Parade – Happy End
35. Gomes The Hitman – Te To Te, Kage To Kage
36. Orange Plankton - Yofukesugi

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Plectrum+Las Vegas+Round Table

It’s not often that I enjoy, from beginning to end, a Tokyo rock show featuring more than one band. Oftentimes, only one group is good, and the rest are passable or worse. If a band I don’t know about turns out to be brilliant, it feels like a minor miracle, but that doesn’t happen very much. And neither is it a frequent occurrence for every band on a bill to be great. But that was the happy situation at the Shimokitazawa Club Que on Friday night, in a show featuring the groups Plectrum, Round Table and Las Vegas.

The thing these three bands share is plentiful experience. Plectrum is celebrating its tenth year as a band. Las Vegas is a unit created by a member of Great3, which has been around even longer than Plectrum. I’m not sure how many years Round Table has been in existence, but I guess it’s about a decade too.

All those years make a difference. First off, if they weren’t good they probably would have fallen away from the scene long ago. And as the years pile up, so does their experience. A performance by a veteran band simply feels different, from the opening few seconds of the gig: it’s tighter, and it draws the audience in more, and immediately.

Rock fans (and the music press and record labels) tend to spend a lot of time looking for the Next Big Thing, which is fine, as long as one keeps in mind that the Previous Big Thing and Big Thing Before That are not only good, but may actually be better because of their experience.

Having written all that, I have to say that Round Table’s show surprised me—I knew they were good, but either I’d forgotten, or didn’t fully realize before, just HOW good they are. A duo consisting of Katsutoshi Kitagawa, the guitar guy, and Rieko Ito, the keyboard girl, they brought along a rhythm section and a guy on the congos, and did a show that was about as funky as I’ve ever seen in a Tokyo pop show. It was obvious they were having a blast—Ito wrinkled her brows in the way that musicians do when they are focused completely on keeping a perfect jam going.

Next up was Las Vegas, who was a regular rock band the last time I saw them couple of years ago but appeared to have become a DJ/trance/club music act, and they set up their equipment to the side of the audience rather than on the stage. I don’t know much about DJ music, but it seemed like they were trying interesting new things and I enjoyed it, even if their 40 minute set only consisted of two ‘songs’.

And then there was Plectrum. These guys are a perfect illustration of what I mean when I say a veteran group’s gig feels different right from the start. There’s intensity, even if they don’t begin loudly or fast. They are also all fabulous musicians: lead guitarist Akira Fujita and bassist Manabu Chigasaki both play as supporting musicians for major acts; Mikiya Tatsui, the drummer, has an explosive style, and likes to show off his moves on stage. But Plectrum wouldn’t be Plectrum without its lead vocalist Taisuke Takata, who is pictured above. A natural entertainer, he has an unerring ability to get the crowd giggling with little jokes between songs, but then turn around and deliver musical performances of true passion. After the show, Takata told me that he writes one song a day, humming the melody into his mobile phone—songs are like diary entries for him.

These three bands are all worth seeing if they ever come your way.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Advantage Lucy In Niigata

I went to Niigata over the weekend to see advantage Lucy.

A bullet train took me to the city on the coast of the Sea of Japan, about two hours from Tokyo. It’s famous for three things—rice, sake and fish, and during my stay I had a lot of those three, the holy trinity of Japanese cuisine.

In recent months Niigata has also been in the news as the place where several Japanese people were kidnapped and taken to North Korea a few decades ago (Pyongyang only recently admitted to the abductions). Friends jestingly warned me that if I went to the beach I should watch out for kidnappers from the sea—but walking on the sand next to the dark blue-green sea, my thoughts were more on what fish would come out of the ocean and end up on my dinner plate that night.

Food was on my mind a lot in Niigata. What I ate there felt like the archetype of Japanese food. For example, one night I had flatfish that had been dried for a day to bring out umami, the fifth taste of savoriness, then salted and broiled. Another day I had a Niigata specialty called noppe, a cold stew of diced vegetables and meat that is served at weddings and other celebrations. The food was all made with ingredients that were in season, following a monthly calendar of what fish or vegetable is good when, and prepared in a way that makes flavors like saltiness and umami come out, but not to excess.

I ate happily, but I also ate because there wasn’t much else to do. Niigata is a flat city without any obvious major tourist attractions. A millennium ago, this whole area was either under seawater or swamps—it was filled later to make rice paddies. One interesting district, the ‘old town’, looked like something out of a 1960’s-era Japanese movie, with narrow alleys between square, dark wooden homes.



The club where advantage Lucy played, called Junk Box Mini, was in the old town. The Tokyo pop band was the last group in a four-band set, and performing before them was a good Niigata-based band called Extension58, who are old friends of advantage Lucy.

For advantage Lucy it was the first time to play Niigata in eight years, which meant that the last time they were there they were still called Lucy Van Pelt, hadn’t signed yet with Toshiba EMI, and included as members Takayuki Fukumura and Kaname Banba. They played a lot of old songs, maybe in memory of the show eight years ago, and support guitarist Taisuke Takata used one of Fukumura’s old guitars. They also did one brand-new song that didn’t even have a name yet, but was beautiful and super-catchy—making simple and catchy tunes like that must be one of the most difficult things a songwriter can do, but this band does it consistently.

Standing in the back of a crowd of about 100 enthusiastic fans, what struck me most about advantage Lucy’s show was vocalist Aiko’s voice. It’s light and delicate, yet the voice isn’t quiet, and it projects. There’s a distinct joy in listening to that voice singing at shows, and it makes me think, I'm in the right place.


I spent a bit of time with the band after the show and on the road back to Tokyo, and ate more food. With them, everything was magnified: if, say, raw crab sashimi was tasty, it wasn’t just good, it was always THE BEST THING THEY’VE EVER TASTED. They are also very ordinary Japanese kids in some ways, staying up until dawn playing card games, and then excitedly buying sweets and toys in gift shops the next day. At times like those it’s sometimes hard to see the emotional depth that lead to their creating their brilliant songs, but it’s doubtless submerged somewhere inside, to come out when needed.