Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hello Again, Supersnazz (At The Shelter)

After Supersnazz crashed into my life like a hell-flaming meteor at the Loft, I went out and bought all of the band’s CDs I could find: I got two albums of theirs that are still in print, Invisible Party and Rock-O-Matic, and bought used copies of Diode City, The Barba Rockets Patrol, I Wanna Be Your Love and The Devil Blues Youth. For a few weeks my musical world consisted almost solely of their fast, sweltering girl garage rock. The last time I saw them all of their songs were new to me, but when I caught them at the Shimokitazawa Shelter on Saturday night I knew almost all the tunes and in addition I had invested in them emotional significance (such as, ‘this song I listen to when I need a lift’, etc.).

Supersnazz got its start as a four-girl band in 1990, and in a decade and a half has toured all over Europe and the U.S. and once recorded with Sub Pop. What a terrific group they are. During the Ron Ron Clou set before them, the two current female members, singer Spike and bassist Tomoko, peeked out nervously from the dressing room, checking to see how many were in the audience. They continued to look stiff as they set up on stage. But then when the house lights went down and the show began, suddenly they were different people—rockers who had knocked out audiences hundreds of nights, and were ready to do so again tonight.

The fans raised their plastic cups of beer in a toast to the band, and repeated that during climactic moments in the songs. Spike, the singer, coughed painfully throughout the gig, a result of a bad summer cold, but never stopped shouting out the words to their pop-punk songs. One of those was a great tune called “Shelter” from the album Invisible Party, and listening to it at this cramped, dark club with the same name as the song, I wondered whether that’s what it’s about. Listening to it again at home, it seemed possible, with English lyrics like “I’m shouting/ I’m turning [?]/ I’m headless in the Shelter/ I’m crying/ I’m smiling/ I’m dying in the Shelter/ I just can’t walk on by tonight…”.

They are releasing an album of cover songs in October, and did a few of those, revealing their influences: they covered the Replacements and X, as well as “Brown Sugar” by the Stones (on a related note, the guy guitarist had a tattoo on his biceps saying ‘MC5’).

Monday, July 24, 2006

Odds & Ends

* Spangle call Lilli line, who I've interviewed, is releasing a new album on September 6 called Since. The trio hasn't officially announced this, but music store websites like Tower Records, HMV and CDJapan already list the album.

* Advantage Lucy, who I've also interviewed, is due to release a mini-album in another couple of months. I was somewhat involved in its production so will say nothing more other than that it looks like it will be great (but no surprise there).

* I really like this Live365 Internet radio station called Indie Beginning, which features independent music from Hong Kong . It's the sort of radio station I would have wanted to make if I were in Hong Kong rather than Tokyo. Japan Live Radio has also been updated, by the way, with new music.

* I'm headed to Taipei from Thursday to attend the Formoz Festival there. If anyone knows of any Taiwanese music CDs I should definitely buy while I'm there, please let me know.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Yunn & Yuyake Lamp At Grapefruit Moon

For several years now I’ve felt that Yunn and Yuyake Lamp’s Yumi, formerly of Orange Plankton, is one of the most expressive Japanese singers I’ve ever seen. She transforms the stage into an orchard of sound, growing with her soft voice shoots of unique musical phrases, the stage lights her sunlight. She squeezes out songs with her entire body—her voice makes even those not interested in the sort of gentle piano pop she plays stop and take notice. I always know going to Yumi’s shows that I’ll come away filled with new energy.

But at the same time, sometimes in weeks between shows I have slight doubts: was she really THAT good, as good as I describe, for example, in this post?

Wednesday I saw Yunn and Yuyake Lamp at the Grapefruit Moon in Sangenjyaya, and I immediately knew I wasn’t wrong. I’ve seen hundreds of singers perform in Japan, but very few have her ability to make you visualize what she is singing about and pull you into her world. In one of the first songs of the night, with a tiny wavy gesture of her arms she brought to life the sea, the subject of that song.

The crowd wasn’t big. I saw three or four Chinese characters 正 (‘right’ or ‘proper’) marking the number of fans who came to see the band, meaning that at five strokes per character, fifteen to twenty had come. But it was an interesting cast of characters: there were, among others, a pro wrestler, a TV commercial director, and a young, pretty actress, all in some ways connected to Yumi’s music.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

advantage Lucy, Swinging Popsicle, "Mine-Mine"

Aiko and Mineko

At Sunday night's Club 440 show, advantage Lucy singer Aiko said her band has been recording new music day and night so that even now on stage, she wasn't sure whether she was awake or dreaming. She was joking, but for me, there was indeed something almost dream-like about this event: it brought together advantage Lucy and Swinging Popsicle, two of my favorite Japanese groups. It was the first pairing of the two bands in many years, though they've known each other since both got their start about a decade ago. They are both wonderful groups that have stuck it out in Japan's volatile music scene and continued to make good music, creating new fans in Japan and abroad along the way.

Advantage Lucy went first and began by doing two songs unplugged, just Aiko's singing and Yoshiharu Ishizaka's acoustic guitar. That brought out Aiko's striking singing voice, which is delicate but strong and clear, an icicle voice. For the second tune they did a cover of a song from the animation movie Gedo Senki, which I found out is based on the Earthsea fantasy novels that I spent days and nights reading as a child. After that the rest of the band came out and they turned up the volume much louder than usual at a cafe like the 440. They played mostly oldies like "Memai" and "Red Bicycle".

Swinging Popsicle's set featured several new songs, including a gorgeous minor-chord ballad called "Kanashii Shirabe (translated to something like 'A Sad Melody')", and a rocking new number called either "Crash" or "Clash" (you can't tell when it's pronounced in Japanese--I think the former though).

Advantage Lucy's Aiko claimed later that she and Ishizaka-san listened to Swinging Popsicle's set in the dressing room and told each other they need to become skilled musicians like them. And Popsicle was good, rocking the crowd in an almost business-like manner (though, at times, Shimada the guitarist and Hirata the bassist flashed little smiles at each other as they played behind singer Mineko, like two school-kids exchanging jokes behind the teacher's back).

For the encore, the audience got a treat: both Lucy's Aiko and Popsicle's Mineko came on stage for a performance of a rarely-heard unit called Mine-Mine ('Mine' pronounced 'mee-neh'), a reference to the 'Mine' in Mineko's name and Aiko's family name Hiramine. With members of the two great bands on stage, the Mine couple sang a cover of The La's "There She Goes", their voices blending prettily and all the musicians seeming to have maximum fun.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Caraway & Guitar Pop

The Caraway is a Tokyo pop band led by Osamu Shimada, Swinging Popsicle’s guitarist, and they just released their first album, The Caraway. To celebrate its release they headlined an event at the Shinjuku Motion, also featuring Three Berry Icecream, Orangenoise Shortcut and Sloppy Joe.

What struck me most about this event was how many people showed up. It was sold out. Before the show dozens of people lined up at the grimy stairwell leading up to the club. It’s not a big venue at all, holding around a hundred people at most, and the Caraway and others are fairly popular, so maybe it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise that the place was packed. But compared with punk and other currently popular types of music in Japan, the music the Caraway plays, so-called guitar pop, is a genre favored by a small minority: a bit like people who would name Iceland or Belgium their favorite European country. So, as a fan of Japanese guitar pop myself, it came as a pleasant surprise to see the Motion so crowded with fans it took a big effort to move from one end to the other.

Of course, one of the great, distinguishing things about Tokyo is that for almost any sort of musical genre you can think of, somewhere there are musicians who play it for devoted fans. Hip-hop, country, blues, reggae, grindcore, rockabilly, zydeko, bossa nova, krautrock, you name it. People here like to let the music they listen to partly or wholly define who they are. I guess people do that everywhere, but it seems to be taken to a more extreme level in Japan, for reasons I’m not sure why. (On a related note, the other night I went to a bar where a harem of Japanese belly dancers was putting on a show. They danced skillfully, but also in a studious, decidedly non-flirtatious way.) In any case, the result is that there are groups of people who closely follow works by guitar pop bands and try to make it to their gigs.

(“Guitar pop”, by the way, is a term that doesn’t appear to be used much outside of Japan, and I’ve started to wonder whether it’s a Japanese invention. It’s not in wikipedia, for instance, and it’s not listed as a genre in Live 365 radio. As a description of a type of music it’s pretty vague, referring to bright, guitar-centered pop influenced by British New Wave, Swedish pop and indie pop bands.)

I like going to guitar pop shows because the fans tend to be mellow, classy folks not prone to random drunk violence, and I’ve gone to enough events now that it’s like Cheers: everyone knows my name (or, at least, many do). At the Caraway event, when the first group Three Berry Icecream played, the young daughter of the singer called out to her mom between songs, prompting all the petite ladies in the front of the crowd to smile and laugh the way they would do to a little girl who had just ransacked the closet and came out dressed up in a way she imagined adults consider fashionable.

The event, organized by ultracool indie label Bluebadge, was one of those where I thoroughly enjoyed all the bands that played. A happy discovery was Orangenoise Shortcut, a group whose name I’d heard of but otherwise wasn’t familiar with: the audience seemed to like them as much for their joke-filled banter between songs as their upbeat, sunny songs.

During Caraway’s set, I was reminded again what a natural performer guitarist Shimada is: when the band was asked for a second encore, they hadn’t prepared any songs, so Shimada decided to play a new number from their new album called “The Rainy Day”, and performed it exactly the same way they did earlier in the evening, just because it’s a great song and Shimada wanted to do it again. And everyone loved it again.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ging Nang Boyz Plays... Berkeley??

Here's an amazing account of Japanese bad boy rockers Ging Nang Boyz making a punk rock pilgrimage to Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street (the musical birthplace of bands like Green Day and Operation Ivy) , and then, quite by accident, getting a chance to do an unscheduled mini-gig for a room full of Californians who had no idea who they were.'s Bob Vielma writes:

Everyone seemed a bit dumbstruck by the unbridled energy of this unknown Japanese band, but that didn't mean they weren't having a hell of a time. Did any of them realize that they were seeing one of Japan's biggest punk bands? This band that could easily sell out a club of hundreds or even thousands was giving their all to a crowd of about sixty.

I wish I could have seen it!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Melt-Banana, The Ignored & Bad-Bee Bad Boys

I’ve been going to Tokyo rock shows for years but somehow never made it to the Jam in Shinjuku, one of the oldest live houses in the city. That changed on Friday, when I went there to catch’s event featuring Melt-Banana, Nokemono, Factotums and Falsies on Heat.

The Jam is a small basement club that looks as plain as a shack in a suburban mall. You get there walking down a drab thoroughfare away from the rowdier parts of Shinjuku, going past a Shinto shrine. Once inside, I thought I felt the liquified essence of Rock Bands Past perspiring down the Jam’s walls (or maybe it was just the air-con was down).

The first band up was Falsies on Heat, an all-girl quartet that I thought was good the last time I saw them, but truly rocked this time. Maybe they come to life most in a little, low-staged place like the Jam, where there’s nothing separating them from the audience. Or, maybe I was in a more receptive mood this time. Either way, my opinion of the group went up. They said they were going to take time off from doing shows because the drummer was about to have a baby.

Speaking of being one with the audience, Simon, the singer of the next band Factotums and one of the badbee guys, placed one mike in the audience section and another on the stage, and moved between those two seemingly at random, staggering sometimes into the crowd and singing in their midst. With long hair reaching down to his tattooed shoulder and with drink-hazed eyes, he was every Japanese daughter’s dad’s worst nightmare of a furyou gaijin (‘bad foreigner’). But he sang well, like a 70’s rock star (the band reminded me a bit of the Dictators).

‘Nokemono’ (pronounced ‘no’, ‘kay’, ‘moe’, ‘no’), the name of the third group, means something like ‘the Ignored One’. It was hard to blow them off though at the Jam: their bass and guitarist both played bare-chested, while the singer, wearing shocking-pink full-bodied tights and a green leather (?) cap, shouted at the audience that Nokemono drove 600 kilometers from Kyoto to be at this show, so they better have fun, and went on to try to crowd-surf two times, a difficult undertaking because the crowd density wasn’t quite enough. describes their music as “mental psycho-delic rock ‘n’ roll”.

Melt-Banana, the last band, dashed though their fast, experimental, short (one minute or so) punk songs, and were amazing. I remembered once being bored at an extremely brainy Tokyo indie pop show, and one of the few high points that night was that the club showed a video of a very energetic, rocking group, which turned out to be Melt-Banana. After Melt-Banana’s gig, a friend said that they are one of those bands you don’t expect to be that good because all these foreigners that know little about Japanese music love them, but you go to their shows and it turns out that they are really excellent after all (a somewhat elitist opinion, to be sure). Their female singer, wearing a white, caped pullover, moves the irises of her eyes from one corner to another as she sings, like a Balinese dancer, though I wasn’t sure if that was part of the performance or just a nervous thing.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Japan Live Radio Updated: Pop

Japan Live Radio has been updated, this time with a focus on good pop tunes including those from Hideki Kaji's new album and the debut album of The Caraway, Swinging Popsicle's guitarist's band. I'm also broadcasting a few songs from Fresh Cuts From Japan,'s compilation CD. Check it out.