Sunday, January 29, 2006

An Orange Plankton Reincarnation

A few weeks after it happened, we fans of Tokyo pop band Orange Plankton are finding out that we weren’t alone in being shocked by the suddenness of the group’s decision to split up in early January.

It seems that the band themselves were fully expecting to continue in 2006, and it was only the night before they made their announcement that they had a talk that led to their putting an end to the group that was Orange Plankton.

At that meeting, Yuki on keyboards told the others out of the blue that she wanted to quit the band (I’m not sure what her reason was). They then decided that since Orange Plankton was always the four of them, they might as well end the band too with Yuki’s departure.

I recently had dinner with the other three—singer Yumi, bassist Tsuji and drummer Tamarou—and they appeared somewhat shell-shocked.

For fans of their music, too, Orange Plankton’s end was shockingly abrupt. Just a few days before the announcement, they were saying they wanted to make 2006 a big year for the band. They ended up not doing any sort of farewell show (luckily, I got to see their actual final show, the one at the Roppongi Morph that I raved about in a previous post, though I had no idea that it would be their last…and neither did the band members, apparently). Their official homepage closed down except for a page with their announcement. Their fan page shut down immediately too.

In those first few days, for fans of theirs there was a feeling of walking around in the fairgrounds after the carnival had left.

All over, there were reminders of the band (piles of their CDs in my room…and exactly how many posts did I wrote on their shows and CDs in Japan Live?), but even so, they were truly gone.

Still, if the group called Orange Plankton is no more, its musicians are still around, and I’m glad to report that they will go on making music and performing.

Singer Yumi will become a solo artist called Yunn (her nickname), Tsuji and Tamarou will form a unit called Yuyake Lamp (“Sunset Lamp”), and those two will perform with Yunn at shows, meaning they will in essence be Orange Plankton minus Yuki on piano, and they say they are also looking for other support musicians. Pianist Yuki, for her part, will be helping out other groups, and it seems that she and the rest of the former Orange Plankton remain friendly.

Yunn and Co. plan to record some songs, and have scheduled some shows too, including one on Feb. 8 at the Kichijoji Star Pine’s Café, which I can’t make. It looks like they will be doing many other shows, including one, possibly, in Seoul late next month, and I’d really love to make it to Korea again to see that performance.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Neomarxisme On Rehearsal Studio Culture

Interesting thoughts by writer-musician Marxy on lack of garage space in Japan where novice bands can practice, the existence instead of a slew of inexpensive and well-equipped rehearsal studios, and what this means for Japanese bands' musical development.

I'm not sure I agree with his thesis that these studios, with all their fancy gadgets and high comfort level, make it almost too easy for bands starting out, leading to musicians that care more about having fun for themselves than putting on a good show for an audience of strangers (maybe I've been lucky but I haven't seen many groups like this myself), but it's food for thought. And a nice report on how indie Japanese bands practice.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Take Care, Naoki Kishihara, Bassist, Plectrum

Naoki Kishihara

Saturday was a rare snowy day in Tokyo, the streets slippery with ice, but even so fans of Tokyo pop band Plectrum showed up en masse at the Shimokitazawa Club Que to see the band—the place was packed. And seemingly everyone who is anyone in the Tokyo indie pop scene was there. The bassist of Swinging Popsicle. The singer of advantage Lucy. Members of Cellophane, the Castanets and Gomes the Hitman. Everyone was there because this was a special event: it was Plectrum’s last show with Naoki Kishihara on bass, and we all wanted to see his final show as a Plectrum.

The departure of Kishihara, or ‘Kitchon’ as he’s affectionately called by everyone, came after ten years in the band. He was moving to another city to start a new job. It was the end of a career that began when he became a college roommate of Taisuke Takata, Plectrum’s leader. Kitchon, three years Takata’s junior, moved into the college dorm carrying a guitar. When Takata heard Kitchon play some blues licks, he invited Kitchon to join his band, but as a bassist rather than a guitarist because that was what they were looking for. So guitarist Kitchon joined Plectrum as a bassist.

Kitchon was the Mellow One in Plectrum. While singer Takata and lead guitarist Akira Fujita set the stage on fire, Kitchon usually stood to the side, enjoying the show, but staying cool. I found him to be the most approachable Plectrum at the beginning, and we became friends. Like many people that went to the Que on Saturday night, I just had to see this show.

It was a great performance, lasting two and a half hours, including two encores. Plectrum played all their classics from their decade of existence. Until about the end the band didn’t talk about the fact that this was Kitchon’s last show, but most of the audience knew, and many gathered in front of him below the stage and took pictures. When Kitchon walked on stage at the first encore, someone gave him a bouquet of flowers.

Then, in the dressing room between the first and second encores, something snapped for Kitchon, and when he came back on stage his eyes were bloodshot and watery. The band played one last song, a new tune that they recorded in a mini-album, Sweet Memories, that they made for this show, and in the middle Kitchon could no longer hold back his tears, and turned his back to the audience and faced the amp.

At the end of that second encore, almost the entire crowd stood in place, silent, not clapping for more songs, but not wanting to leave either. I’ve never seen anything like it. This was an audience that knew that two encores were about the limit and that the club usually wants everyone out by 10PM, and so at first they didn’t ask for a third encore, but neither were they ready to leave. So, we all stood, quiet, emotional. After a few minutes, some people in the front started to clap. Soon, the rest of the audience joined in the applause, very quietly.

Plectrum came on stage one last time to thank the crowd, and Kitchon also said thanks, we should all be able to meet again. Which must be true, as long we’re all here in this world.

Friday, January 13, 2006

10 Favorite Japanese CDs of 2005

Here are my ten favorite Japanese albums and mini-albums of 2005.

1. Advantage Lucy’s Echo Park

A thrilling musical pageant of guitar pop, rock, and neo-acoustic songs, Echo Park, advantage Lucy’s first album in four years, would probably have topped my list of favorite albums in any year. “Shiosai”is among the best songs recorded anywhere in 2005, and every other tune on the album is gorgeous. A reviewer described in simple but illuminating terms the appeal of this album: “the singing is gentle but strong, the sound is elegant but heavy”. A longer review I wrote of the album is here.

2. Spangle call Lilli line’s Trace and For Installation

Spangle call Lilli line’s music took an abrupt turn into new territory in 2005 in the album Trace, making them sound sometimes like dance pop you’d hear on Top 40 radio. This left some fans of their slowly-developing, epic old songs unsatisfied, but give it a chance and you will see its lovely artfulness that connects it to previous albums like Or and Nanae. I think the two mini-albums Trace and For Installation should be listened to as a double album, going from Trace’s new pop experiments to For Installation’s more familiar Spangle sound.

3. The Kitchen Gorilla’s One and My Voice

I found out about the rock trio the Kitchen Gorilla sometime in 2005, and I’ve gotten hooked. They released two mini-albums during the year that, again, should be listened to as one whole. Both deal with vocalist Kayo’s literally almost losing her voice (due to a throat problem). One, the first of the two, is more mellow, containing gems like “Beautiful Sunday”. My Voice is intense from the start, a rocking body-slam of emotions. Kayo’s singing is phenomenal throughout, a high voice that never stays still, and often soars.

4. Gomes The Hitman’s Ripple

Veteran Japanese pop band Gomes The Hitman is led by Toshiaki Yamada, a lover of American alternative acts like Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens and Wilco. He’s called Ripple a watershed album for Gomes, and on that I agree with him: every song is deeply satisfying, passionate pop for grown-ups. Ripple is the equal of albums of the American bands Yamada loves.

5. Vasallo Crab 75’s Today Is Tomorrow

I haven’t had a chance to write in detail about this album by Vasallo Crab 75, but Today Is Tomorrow was, along with advantage Lucy’s Echo Park and The Kitchen Gorilla’s My Voice, one of the Japanese albums that excited me most in the second half of 2005. It’s like a DJ party of an album, the party guests taking turns putting on guitar pop, funk, disco, and even classical music, and getting a kick out of the resulting mix.

6. The Clicks’ Magic of White

A collection of simple, straightforward, energy-filled pop-punk songs that could have been put together in a garage anywhere in the world, there’s nevertheless something different about the Clicks’ Magic of White. For one thing, the three Clicks girls rock as hard as the best of them, but with cuter voices. For another, they created some of the catchiest rock songs in 2005, like the title track and “Love Bomb”. It’s a shame that they called it quits.

7. Waffles’ Orangery

Bright piano pop from Waffles, a group that follows in the musical footsteps of bands like advantage Lucy. Kyoko Ono, the band’s vocalist and keyboardist, who writes the songs, infuses her sung words with emotion; she has a girl-next-door voice, but few Japanese vocalists sing with her passion.

8. On Button Down’s Nordic Forest

This fun album opens with two catchy alternative pop songs, but then descends into extended, post-rock-like ambient pop music compositions that please the ears and stimulate the brain. The guy and gal that make up On Button Down are a duo to watch.

9. Limited Express (has gone)’s Makes You Dance!

The brilliant second album by Limited Express (has gone?), a Japanese trio who plays eccentric rock like the Ruins and Boredoms, this album contains the weirdo rock classic “Tiger Rock” and other adventurous pop tunes. More here.

10. Hazel Nuts Chocolate’s Cute

As the album title suggests, “cute” is the concept here, and that vocalist Yuppa’s soft-voiced singing is. But Hazel Nuts Chocolate isn’t music for air-heads: it borrows from diverse musical styles including dance music, pop, hip-hop and jazz, and the compositions are uniformly solid. “Swing Life”, in which Yuppa sing-raps in the sweetest way imaginable, is one of the best songs of the year.


I also liked Tokyo Pinsalocks’ Rhythm Channel, Murmur’s Good Grief!, and Plectrum’s live album, Live 4 Live.

My list is pretty pop-heavy, a reflection of my recent preferences. For a different take on Japan’s best music in 2005, take a look at’s great top albums list, featuring the top-five picks by all of its staffers. They’re more into rock acts like the Band Apart and Ging Nang Boyz (though we agree on advantage Lucy).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sakerock, Tucker, Kiseru

I went to see the Sakerock/Tucker/Kiseru show Thursday night because I was in the mood to see a few bands I knew nothing about, and also because I liked these groups’ names. Kiseru is the thin pipe that old folks smoke with in Japanese historical dramas on TV—a curious name for a folk duo. And the sake in Sakerock is the name of Japanese rice wine. I could see where they were coming from—knocking back a few pints of sake has made me felt like a rock star on several occasions. The show seemed to have promise, so I headed to the Shibuya Quattro, which was packed.

Kiseru was up first. The duo played vaguely psychedelic folk, and it was good, pleasant music, but sweet-singing two guy folk units like Kiseru (duos like them seem to be a popular sub-genre in Japan now) always remind me of that singer in Animal House whose guitar is destroyed by John Belushi at the stairwell…

Next up was Tucker, who was a crowd pleaser. He started out DJ-ing, but also played a mean electone organ, and also nibbled at the electric bass and guitar and drums. At one point he played a bass part and put that on a loop, moved to the electric guitar and did the same, then ran back to pound the drums, becoming a one man punk band. Tucker seemed to like a retro sound, the sort of music you’d hear in silent movies, and he covered music like the Pink Panther theme and the song “Tequila”. It was like a 21st Century Neo-Tokyo vaudeville show. At the end, for the climax, Tucker set his synthesizer on fire.

The headliner was Sakerock. They seemed to combine jazz with kayoukyoku, popular Japanese music, and I kept on thinking they were retro in a Taisho Era (1912-1926) sort of way. Maybe it had to do with the way the vocalist played a trombone wearing a hakama. The singer was better when he sang and scatted than when he blew the trombone, and what’s the point anyway of listening to a passable trombonist at a crowded Tokyo live house if you can see amazing jazz players at much more comfortable jazz clubs? I didn’t stick around until the end of the Sakerock show, but while I was there I had a good time. And I liked it that nearly a thousand young Tokyoites showed up at the Quattro to see a band that seemed to have time-warped into Shibuya from an earlier era.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Goodbye, Orange Plankton

I received word yesterday that Orange Plankton, one of my favorite Japanese pop groups, has disbanded. Although I know in the abstract that no band can last forever, still, the news of this band's end came out of the blue and came as a shock. It made an already bitterly cold Japanese winter seem, somehow, even colder.

For some time I’ve felt that a rock band can be one of the most glorious ways for people to associate with each other. At best, a band is a group of strangers that gather together and make music that moves the heart and defines an era. But a band too has a lifespan, and it’s much shorter than that of a human being. Its span is more like that of a small mammal’s. Even the Beatles, after all, lasted only about nine years.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as too large a surprise that Orange Plankton, which formed in 1999, are leaving the scene. I had noticed that the band had changed, which I noted in a previous post, though I didn’t think it was the sort of change that would lead to dissolution. The main thing that struck me was I learned that the band members now only got together about once a week: when I first met them two years ago, they left every evening free for practice or meetings. Still, the band had been talking about big things for this year, including signing a major label contract, and I had hoped that 2006 would be the year that they’d be able to achieve some of their goals. Instead, on the sixth day of the year they announced they were quitting.

I haven’t heard the exact reason for the band’s decision, but I suspect that lack of commercial success was one. I always thought that Orange Plankton, with their catchy, somewhat jazzy piano pop, was one of Japan’s best bands, and a small group of true believers agreed with this, but most Japanese music buyers didn’t, or simply didn’t know about them. With all the members either approaching or at the age of 30, maybe they felt it was time to move on.

It’s sad to think that, barring some drastic change of heart or a reunion, I’ll never again see Orange Plankton play live. Their shows were some of the highlights of my years in Japan. At the least I know that the members will still be making music as individuals.

What I’m left with is the band’s four albums, several singles, a lot of band goods that they made themselves (including an Orange Plankton fan they sold during a Japan tour in the summer of 2004, when the steamy hot weather made it come in handy), and a lot of memories.

I remember: seeing the band for the first time in 2003 at the Shibuya Quattro, and being struck by the way singer Yumi started gently but in only about 10 seconds shot up in intensity to do one of the most rocking pop shows I’d ever seen.

I remember: coaching Yumi on a song in English (“Weather and Music” from Wakusei Note) at the band’s apartment/office, color pencils that Yumi used to draw visual images of songs spilling from the living room table.

I remember: in the southern city of Nagasaki, seeing them playing their hearts out to a gaggle of apathetic-looking teenagers at a hole-in-the-wall club.

I remember: also seeing them in Okinawa, and between shows going to the beach and staring down at the bright tropical fish and sea slugs in a coral reef with them, wondering if experiences like these help Yumi come up with her beautiful songs.

And of course there were the many shows of theirs I went to in Tokyo—so many memories!

It’s sad that they are gone, but I’m glad I met them.

Goodbye, Orange Plankton.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Goodbye, Lost In Found

If you've never heard of a Japanese band named Lost in Found, that wouldn't surprise me. They were only around for a few years, and never released a proper album, though they did come up with a full-album-length CD-R that was quite good (you can listen to song samples from it here). But for quite a while, I was as excited about Lost in Found as I was with actually well-known bands, felt they were something new and would go places, and so now it makes me sad to hear that they’ve decided to call it quits.

They didn’t give a reason for splitting up. Some of the members will play together in new bands, and the name “Lost in Found” will live on as the name of a new independent record label.

Lost in Found was a group of guys and girls in their twenties who already had day jobs but loved indie pop bands like Belle & Sebastian and the Lucksmiths and decided to form a band of their own. The members changed, but the way I remember them most is as a six-piece band that included Mike, a tall Canadian, as the singer and rhythm guitarist, a girl named Mineko as the second vocalist and keyboardist, and another girl named Yukiko on flute, trumpet and synthesizers. On stage, they always seemed like happy beginners, but that was part of their charm.

I first found out about Lost in Found when I took a trip to Seoul to see advantage Lucy and others on an overseas tour; Lost in Found was one of the groups traveling with Lucy. Takayuki Fukumura, the late guitarist of advantage Lucy and Vasallo Crab 75, brought the two bands together, in one of his tireless efforts to befriend musicians and get them connected (how I wish I could have met him at least once!). In Seoul, some of Lost in Found were in awe of advantage Lucy, a popular band with a long career (guitarist Taisuke said he was nervous at first talking to Lucy singer Aiko because he’d only seen her before on TV); Lucy, for their part, saw a reflection of themselves as a young band in Lost in Found, and also liked the relaxed and pure quality of their music, and became big supporters.

From Seoul they went on to play at relatively prestigious Tokyo live houses like the Que and Shelter in Shimokitazawa, in addition to gigs at tiny cafés, and there was talk about their working on an album this year, but I guess that was never to be. Still, I think their album that never officially came out is well worth listening to—I especially like an upbeat song from the album called “Radio 24” that deals with breaking up and contains raw lines like: “One of my friends told me, she started taking Ecstasy, when her boyfriend left her”. Who knows, if you like their sample MP3s, and if you ask them nicely enough, maybe their indies spirit will prompt them to send you a copy.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Real Thing

I go to a lot of rock shows.

Usually, I go to at least one a week, and sometimes four or five. The number of new bands I see at these shows—maybe a hundred a year?

I go to so many for a simple reason—there are few things that grab the heart as a great live rock show, and every time I witness one, I want to go back for more.

But in this deluge of live shows, I sometimes wonder whether a group I gushed about in a past post was really as good as I remember them, or, whether, it’s a case of rose hues having started to seep into my memories, making everything in the past look brilliant and special.

The past couple of weeks I went to several shows where I realized I hadn’t been wrong: the bands I’ve praised were, in fact, great. They were for real.

One such show was Orange Plankton’s at the Roppongi Morph on December 26. I’ve probably written about this quartet more than any other group, and have long felt that their gentle, beautiful, emotion-packed pop music deserves wider recognition. But it had been a few weeks since I last saw them live, and I again started to wonder: were they as good as I described them in past posts, and as I remembered?

Their live show dynamited my doubts. It started with a music video played on a screen on the stage that, puzzlingly, had a quiet Orange Plankton song as background music to a film about a bloody pro wrestling bout. It was somewhere between provocative and in poor taste, but it gripped the audience’s attention. The band then appeared and did a set comprising their slowest, most intense songs including “Mebuki” from the album Wakusei Note, a tune about death and regeneration.

As sometimes happens at great shows, I found my eyes becoming watery during parts of the exhilarating half an hour that Orange Plankton played. My friend Phil, who joined me at the show, accurately described part of their appeal: while singer Yumi, keyboardist Yuki, bassist Tsuji and drummer Tamarou are all outstanding musicians, none of them try to stand out or show off, and instead they all work to create a harmonious musical whole. I’ve seen many bands in Japan but there are few that make me think, like I do when I see Orange Plankton on a good night, that these guys are the real thing.


Another evening that helped me remember why I spend so many nights in cramped, loud, smoke-filled basements was the Mona Records café live on the 28th, featuring Plectrum; Takashi Nishiike, guitarist of Cellophane; and Toshiaki Yamada of Gomes the Hitman. These three groups and advantage Lucy used to go on four-band tours as GAPC (taking the first letter of each band’s name), and their members are all good friends.

All the GAPC bands have been around since at least the mid-90s, have been on major labels, and know how to make the audience rock, even if they are doing an acoustic set like they did at Mona. I wonder whether GAPC will ever do a reunion tour? I’ll be the first in line.