Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Limited Express Says Bye To Drummer

“The best thing about Limited Express is you know at least one of the members will be hurt by the end of the show,” said a friend of mine right before rock band Limited Express (has gone?) hit the stage at the Shimokitazawa Shelter Tuesday night.

I’m pretty sure he was joking, and fortunately none of the three Limited Express members came away from their gig with injuries, but you could see there was an element of truth to his remark.

At different points in their hyperactive, musical potluck party of a punk rock show, each one of the trio climbed on to various unstable objects on stage such as the bass drum and a steel bar separating the band from the audience, before hopping back down to safety. The risk of a fall was probably highest for the guitarist, whose glasses fogged up seconds after the show began, giving him nearly zero visibility behind the frosted plastic of his spectacles.

But they made it through the show okay, and in truth there might have been a bigger risk of bodily injury in the audience section, where Limited Express-heads pogo-ed ever more energetically as the show progressed: all through the gig, the bouncing ponytail of a female fan in front of me threatened to pogo into my eye sockets.

When Limited Express returned to the stage for an encore, female singer/bassist Yukari, dazzling in an orange gown, said with emotion that this will be the last time the band will sound like this (because it was the drummer’s final show as a Limited Express), before the band exploded into a song with the possibly blasphemous title of “the Sacrificial Jesus Christ”. At the very end, as the group left the stage, she gave the drummer the slightest, shyest, quickest, most Japanese hug imaginable.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Eastern Youth At Shibuya Quattro

When I first got into Japanese rock, one of the groups that pulled me in deep was a trio that played passionate, uniquely Japanese punk rock, and their name was Eastern Youth.

But like I often end up doing, in my excitement at finding a new great thing I overfed myself with their music, until I was too full, and after a while I listened to Eastern Youth less and less, and eventually their CDs began gathering dust in my disk rack.

Somewhere in my mind, though, these guys’ music lived on, and there was a desire to see them in person, on stage. I finally got that opportunity Wednesday night at the Shibuya Quattro.

I went to the Quattro with some dread as well as anticipation, to tell the truth. Dread, because it appeared the show was sold out, and a packed Quattro event is one of the least comfortable leisure activities I can imagine in Tokyo—it’s like listening to live music on a morning rush-hour train. Once there, it was as bad as I expected, and on top of that the air was a toxic fog of cigarette smoke, the waste product of an assembly of chain smokers. Maybe it’s something in the punk ethos, the inclination to self-destruction and the decadence, that makes all these guys nicotine freaks.

When the three young middle-aged guys that make up Eastern Youth hit the stage and started playing, I was amazed at how their music transformed these fans. There was some mosh-pit action near the stage as would be expected, but what struck me was the way the fans sang along, en masse, to the Eastern Youth songs, loudly enough it sounded like an echo to the singer’s amplified voice. And Eastern Youth songs don’t have bonehead lyrics. The songs, all in Japanese, are poetic, often using a Japanese that is old-fashioned like something out of literature or the spoken arts. It was wonderful to hear a bunch of punk kids singing along to their musical poems.

The singer and guitarist of Eastern Youth, Hisashi Yoshino, has a shaved head and wears black glasses with a strap. He doesn’t look like a rock star. He sang with a look of suffering, his gaping mouth curving downward at the edges, and veins on his neck bulging. Their songs sometimes started out mellow, Yoshino playing the guitar alone and like a blues-man singing words that came into his head, before they exploded in volume and emotion.

At one point, as Yoshino plucked the guitar before the start of a song, he improvised a tune about awamori, the Okinawan liquor. He sang, take away the awamori, I don’t want to see another drop of it, if I drink it, by midnight I won’t even know what I’m saying, I’ll find myself cheering loudly the Japanese female curling team on TV (out of nowhere, they went to the Turin Olympics and beat the Italians, Brits and Canadians).

Later on, he sang about a weightier theme, the weightiest theme of them all—death. When you die, you won’t go to heaven, you won’t go to hell, you won’t become a ghost, you will just become nothing, can you dig this at all, he sang. The audience stood still, as if they didn’t know how to react.

This wasn’t typical entertainment. It wasn’t at all a normal Tokyo rock show. In some ways it was discomfiting, like running into a naked stranger. But it was clear many in the crowd were responding. Eastern Youth’s songs, after all, are about heavy themes: knowing life is of limited duration, but not being able to squeeze the most out of it, seeing beauty, but knowing it’s fleeting, and so on. Here was Eastern Youth’s lyricist talk-singing possible raw drafts of future songs, before diving into songs that the fans all knew.

Toward the end, he talk-sang about how when he plays the guitar, he doesn’t even need a drop of alcohol, the guitar makes him drunk, and he can continue like that for hours. For the couple of hours at the Quattro while Eastern Youth played, despite having only consumed a tiny cup of beer that was the Quattro’s pathetic excuse for “one drink”, I felt drunk too.


You can sample some of Eastern Youth's songs here.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Jimmy Pops Video On The Web

Check out this cute/surreal animated music video by K.O.G.A. label pop band Jimmy Pops (click on the green box on the page to watch it). You can see a couple of images of the band toward the end of the video, somewhere between the bicycling comb-over guy and the chameleons... There are also some sample songs and a few videos of their live performances. K.O.G.A. is good about providing free sample content like those on the Web, which is a welcome thing.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Ken M, Band Flier Analyst

Anytime you go to a rock show in Tokyo, you get a stack of fliers at the door advertising upcoming shows, events and new albums.

Some people consider these fliers a nuisance, and chuck them right into the trash bin. I, however, consider them a treasure trove of information.

Like the way a Kremlinologist would have studied photos of a May Day parade to see in what order Soviet leaders are seated, I go over these fliers with care.

They not only tell you what shows are around the corner, and who has released new albums, but they also reveal stuff like which band is friendly with which other band, and what kind of venues a band is playing at and how often, providing a sense of that group's career choices and degree of success (are those things interesting? Well, they are to me...).

The fliers are also often wild, colorful art objects--you can tack them up on walls for interior decoration purposes, if you are so inclined. Here are a few fliers I was given at a couple of shows I went to recently:

First, the flier above, "Attack From the Back Position"--I love this one! It totally grabs you. The green armed, purple haired slacker monster is wearing a NOFX T-shirt, suggesting that the bands playing at the show are into that kind of punk rock. Even if that's not your thing, you still have to love punker fools who decide to name their band Brassier Hook (as in 'bra strap'...Romeo Rocks and Spitball Spiky are also good names for rock bands).

I don't know any of the bands in this flier above, but I like this cartoon/expressionistic picture of the guitarist.

This guy scares me a bit... I hope this is meant to be humorous.

I found myself strangely drawn to this show, my appetite whetted, I'm not sure why...

A cool illustration of a spaceman on a kid bicycle.

A flier for mothercoat's first album Interphone, which I'm planning to buy, and their Japan tour (I hope I can make it to at least one night of those shows). If you look carefully, one of the little guys has a cable coming out of a mighty strange place...

These guys had a good show the other night at the Shinjuku motion.

A nice illustration of a Tokyo (?) street at sunset. This flier is for a band named Doburoku, Japanese for 'moonshine sake'.

A couple of classy fliers. The second one advertises a show by Northern Bright, a band I've been wanting to see for a while.

This one looks futuristic in an Asian way.

Barbie Attack Doll(s)
! A great name. And I like the photo of the kid holding up a Gibson Les Paul in a park somewhere.

Nice pink art.

Apartment is a band I've heard good things about, and have wanted to check out.

A minimalist flier by Shugo Tokumaru.

A hand-written, hand-drawn flier aimed presumably at conveying a homey mood.

Again, a very home-made flier. Interesting figures in the middle, especially the one with the big horn...

The Kitchen Gorilla's announcement of their first solo show is completely hand-written.

And here's another flier for Kitchen Gorilla's solo show on March 20 at the Yoyogi Zher The Zoo. They REALLY want you to go, and you should, if you are free and you like good rock.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Kuki Kodan At Shibuya Quattro

Kuki Kodan is an unusual band. A Japanese indie pop group that’s been around since 1997, they have a decent following even though they’ve never released a single big hit album. In fact, they seem opposed to the very concept of hit records: many of their past works are limited issue tapes, LPs and CDs, putting a ceiling on the amount of their recordings they can sell, and making it hard for new fans (like me) to find their old stuff. They of course also don’t have any singles that climbed the charts. And they hardly ever play live.

Even so, or maybe partly because they perform live so infrequently, and no fan therefore wants to miss a rare gig, several hundred people showed up at the Shibuya Quattro to see Kuki Kodan (it’s pronounced something like ‘Kooky Koh Dunn’ and means ‘public corporation of air’). It’s easy to tell who the Kuki Kodan fans are in the crowds of Shibuya. Like the music they enjoy, these people are mild-mannered and unpretentious. They look like they just came from a knitwear exhibition. Or had some tea at a patisserie/café. They might have studied foreign literature in school; they certainly read lots of European authors in translation. Kuki Kodan is what they listen to late at night in their apartments, quietly, surrounded by their photography books, small art objects and European posters, thinking about the day that passed and the future they wish for.

Mellow-out music that appeals to people like these is what Kuki Kodan plays, and they lived up to their relaxed reputation at the Quattro. Yukari Yamazaki, the singer, sat in a chair throughout the show, facing the audience diagonally. As she sang she occasionally lifted her arm slowly, or turned to face the crowd; dancing or making the beat wasn’t for her.

They did about five songs, and then took a 15-minute break. Yamazaki told the audience she ate an egg sandwich during the recess, but missed out on the tuna sandwich. One of her band-mates said he’d buy her a tuna sandwich later; so let’s focus on the show for now. And so it went for a couple of hours. Was this show worth a fairly expensive 3,500 yen? It was. In some of their songs, Yamazaki was able to evoke the joy, sadness and colors of everyday life with her unforced but emotional singing, and I got a better feeling for what all the hardcore Kuki-heads saw in this band.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

MISSWONDA At Shinjuku Motion

I’ve wanted to see songstress MISSWONDA ever since I read about her in chipple.net and bought her album Wonderful Tangent, and so I was happy to see she would be playing with Ricarope and Macdonald Duck Éclair tonight at a new club called the Shinjuku Motion. MISSWONDA brings together an 80’s New Wave synthesizer sound with the singer’s whispering vocals like those of old French pop stars—it’s a combination I’d never heard before, and works well.

But before MISSWONDA’s set, I got to see pianist/singer Ricarope for the first time in more than a year. One of my very first entries in this journal was about Ricarope, and I’m a big fan of hers, but because she doesn’t do many shows (she’s an English teacher by day, a job that keeps her busy) and because of schedule conflicts on my part, I’ve been unable to see her live for a long time. Her show was as upbeat and energetic as I remembered. Before doing a song called “Radio”, she explained that the song was about the fact that she listened to Ben Folds Five on the radio and that made her want to do music.

MISSWONDA was next, and as she came on stage I was struck by her appearance: she’s a tall, long-haired beauty, and there was something Greek goddess-like about her. When she sings she hardly moves, making her seem statuesque. There was an echo effect on her vocals, causing her whispery voice to sound like it’s descending from way above, from somewhere maybe in the heavens high above the office buildings of Shinjuku.

Between songs she said a few words, and her spoken voice was fragile-sounding as her singing as she said: “Isn’t it cold? Lots of people have caught colds, and I did too, even though I don’t usually catch colds. I drink a lot, like one bottle of wine a day, but then I stopped drinking and I caught a cold, so I thought maybe I should drink again…” A whispery-voiced singer who stays healthy by imbibing wine…there was definitely something other-worldly and regal about MISSWONDA.


Tonight’s show was held to celebrate the release of an album by the band Macdonald Duck Éclair, who played last. I stuck around to listen to a few of their tunes, but their brand of beepy techno just isn’t my thing. Before them, however, a band I didn’t know anything about called Yucca performed, and they were a happy discovery for me.

The quartet’s flier says they were influenced by U.S. indie rock and post-rock but that their chief passion is pop music, and indeed they sound a bit like a pop version of Sonic Youth. These guys were astonishingly amateurish in their stage direction, the members getting mixed up about who will say what between songs, and at one point they had to start a song over again because the guitarist forgot to turn his guitar on, but their high-energy, hypnotic pop jam music more than made up for that.