Sunday, December 24, 2006

Supersnazz's Sweat Box

Is the ‘cover album’ a Japanese thing?

That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out as I listen to Supersnazz’s Sweat Box, an album that consists entirely of Supersnazz playing other musicians’ songs. I’ve seen other Japanese bands do cover albums too—the Automatics’ Good Melodies is one—but I can’t think of an American or European act that tries it. Maybe there are copyright issues.

When Japanese musicians make cover albums, their aim is to celebrate and pay homage to their beloved and be-influenced music. But there are also two hidden agenda items: one is to show off their good, eclectic taste via their selection of tunes. The other is to display their musical creativity by arranging familiar songs in new and engaging ways.

On the first agenda, Sweat Box does the trick. Half of the songs the rock quartet plays are by what might be called the Punk Rock Canon of bands: Supersnazz covers X’s “Year 1”, the Replacements’ “Goddamn Job”, X-Ray Spex’s “I Live Off You” and the Dictators’ “Stay With Me” (and the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and “Happy”, which were recorded before the punk era, but the Stones influenced a lot of punkers, so they count). The other half of the tunes, however, is a surprise: they cover very un-punk numbers like Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”, Mickey & Silvia’s “No Good Lover”, and even the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”! The selections are a fun glimpse into the unexpected favorite music of a band that writes almost exclusively hard rock of grunge-type tunes themselves.

As for arranging the songs in their own, unique way—yes, Supersnazz does that (they make “Love Will Keep Us Together” sound much more dark and heavy than the original, for example), but the really remarkable thing is, whether they are covering X or CCR or Captain & Tennille, they take it at a grab-you-by-the-collar intensity that old Supersnazz fans are familiar with from great albums like Diode City. (It cracked me up the first time I listened to the album that they even did a heavy rock treatment of the Shirelles.) Supersnazz doesn’t always get their tongue and teeth completely around the English lyrics of their cover tunes, but they more than make up for that with their consistent, energetic delivery. One of my favorite moments in Sweat Box is in “No Good Lover”, where guitarist Marky sings Mickey’s part and vocalist Spike takes Silvia. Marky starts the duet with a hyper and aggressive rendition of Mickey’s lines, in a tolerable cover, but then Spike comes on, and though also singing in a rocking way, she make it more playful, shooting up and down octaves, in a delightful performance that’s as if she’s saying, step aside, I’m Supersnazz’s singer.

Sweat Box is like Supersnazz inviting you into their house to take a peek at their record collection and pulling out a few favorite LPs, but rather than putting them on their stereo, they strum out their own versions. Nothing beats listening to a great, original song, but this isn’t bad at all either.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Rightround Column: Fishermen Rockers Gyoko

This month's column is on Run-D.M.C.-loving fishermen rockers Gyoko. I still haven't had a chance to see them live, but when I do I'm going to stand at the front with chopsticks and a bowl of soy sauce at the ready for the finale...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Budou Grape & Extraterrestrial Friends In Yoyogi

I went to the Yoyogi Zher The Zoo on Saturday night to see Budou Grape, a quintet from Nagoya that came highly recommended by Steve of JapanFiles, and discovered the evening to be a pageant of weird, fun groups that I didn't know about.

Up first was Souchi Megane, which consisted of a skinny guy surrounded by keyboards pumping out 80's-sounding synth disco music, and his fleshier, bowl-cut-hair partner, who hopped around stage doing dance routines while singing. In one of those only-in-Japanese-live-show things, about a dozen mainly-girl fans in the first two rows did the same dance moves as the singer (for example, making a circle with the thumb and forefinger to represent glasses, like in the picture above). I wasn't sure whether the gay feel that permeated the show was real or accidental, and whether the gal fans were into that or just liked the music and the cuteness.

Band #2 was Kasei Soda (meaning 'Mars Soda'), and they went for the SF-anime-look, with the singer wearing high-tech military goggles and the girl lead guitarist receiving galactic transmissions via her big white headphones with a protruding antenna. The singer said they were from the planet of Neo-Nagoya and were here to teach all the country bumpkins about rock 'n' roll. For all that, their music was straightforward rock, though with lots of (cosmic?) energy.

Budou Grap, the band I came to see, came on next, wearing matching yellow-orange shirts and polka dot ties. Budou Grape ('budou' means grape too--don't ask me what their name means, because I don't know) is made of five people all stage-named Budou, sort of like the Ramones. They have a good sound: the three guy Budous, Nagai, Matsui and Taichi, pound out heavy, rocking bass-drum-guitar parts, while the two Budou girls, keyboardist Midori and singer Quminco, add a cute sweetness to the music. Quminco is said to work as a model when not singing grape rock, and seemed to have several die-hard fans, one of whom took flash photos of her throughout the gig. Budou Grape said they're also from Neo-Nagoya.

I'd seen the fourth band Hi-5 a couple of years ago, and they were as good as I remembered them--they're like a more punk New Order with a teaspoon of funk mixed in. The trio said they were from, not Neo-Nagoya, but Neo-Kita-Kyushu, which must be a gritty, industrial city, going by its name. I felt Hi-5 would make it much bigger if they were anywhere in the world but hyper-competitive Tokyo--I really feel they would attract fans in big cities in the U.S., say.

I should have, but didn't, see the last band Cosmic Airplane, who organized the event, because I was musically stuffed full by the fourth group of the night. They passed out a DVD of one of their music videos, though, so I can watch it and regret not seeing them if they are good.


Most of the crazy, costume-wearing, flashy bands seem to come from Osaka or Nagoya (...excuse me, Neo-Nagoya) rather than Tokyo, where musicians for the most part seem plainly dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Maybe it's that Tokyoites have grown complacent when it comes to stage presentation since they're at the center of Japan's music universe and no one else is dressing crazily, whereas those in the regional cities feel a psychological need to stand out, or, they're afraid, they would slip back into the comfortable dullness of their provincial origins. Well, in any event, that's my hypothesis.