Sunday, April 23, 2006

U.S.-Bound Swinging Popsicle At 440

I wasn’t well-versed in the complex ritual of claiming a reserved ticket and getting into the club at Shimokitazawa’s 440, so even though I got there right at the opening time at 7PM last night to see Swinging Popsicle, I was very much at the end of the line.

Apparently, if you’ve reserved a ticket, you’re supposed to go to the club at 6 in the evening, to be issued a numbered ticket. Then, at 7PM, the staff lets people in according to the alphabetical letters and the numbers on those tickets: “All A’s and all B’s up to 20 can now enter”, etc. It was very meticulously done in a distinctly Japanese way. If you hadn’t gotten a number at 6 though, your place was at the tail end of the queue. And, in the looking glass world that Japan sometimes is, if you were on the guest list, you were allowed into the club at the very end, even after all the clueless ticket reservers like me who hadn’t showed up at 6 to take a number (the reason being that paid customers should get in before people on the guest list, who are seeing the show for free—whereas, in the U.S. and elsewhere, wouldn’t people on the guest list go in first?). So, my friends Steve Laity and Yaeri, who were both on the list, had to wait until the last minute to enter the club.

This all matters because the 440 is a café club, which means you watch events seated at a table and the earlier you get in, the better your seat is. If you get in too late, on the other hand, you may end up watching the show standing uncomfortably between various café furniture, feeling on your back the unhappy stare of a sitting customer whose view you are blocking… Fortunately, Steve and I found open space on steps right next to the stage, and we ended up with an up-close view of the Swinging Popsicle performance.

I’ve written several times before about Swinging Popsicle gigs, so I’ll keep this simple: the trio is always a joy to watch, three veteran musicians who pump out sweet and spirited pop songs with expertise, and last night’s show was no exception. I’ve described singer Mineko Fujishima as a soul diva in a petite Japanese woman’s body, and that was true. She said later she was nervous during the gig because it was the band’s first in a few months, but it didn’t show at all. You can listen to song samples of theirs here.

Swinging Popsicle is headed to San Jose, California in late-May to play at an anime convention called Fanime, along with the Japanese bands Guitar Vader, Miami, Goofy Style, Poplar and Up Hold. If you are in the Bay Area and are interested in the music (or if you are somewhere else and wouldn’t mind traveling to listen to some Japanese music), I highly recommend going. I, for one, am traveling from Tokyo to attend the event—maybe if you are there, I’ll see you.

The band also said they will be performing with advantage Lucy on July 16, once again at the 440.



Advantage Lucy and Swinging Popsicle are two of my favorite Japanese groups.

Next time, though, I’ll know to get my number at 6PM.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Caraway & Ex-Bridges At The Shelter

Guitarist Osamu Shimada had a fever of 38.2 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit) when he hit the stage of the Shimokitazawa Shelter with his band the Caraway, but you wouldn’t have known it if you were at his show. It was a performance that made me suddenly remember the things that drew me into Tokyo’s indie pop scene a few years ago: guitar sounds as bright as a sunny Southern California day, melodies as catchy as those of the first album you ever bought, and as much energy as your first all-night party with friends.

Shimada is also the lead guitarist of pop trio Swinging Popsicle, and listening to the way he crunched out precise and color-filled Caraway guitar solos in spite of his fever, I saw one big reason why the great Swinging Popscle has remained popular a decade after exploding on to the scene—its super guitarist. Shimada's other band, the Caraway, is due to release its first album in June. Can’t wait!

The Caraway


Long before either Swinging Popsicle or the Caraway was formed, in the early-1990’s, there was a neo-acoustic group called Bridge, whose music still influences Japanese bands, and whose members have continued with music, most notably the singer Hideki Kaji. At the Shelter show two bands featuring former-Bridge members played: Three Berry Icecream, of whom I wrote about recently, and Chicago Bass, which includes Mami Otomo, Bridge’s former singer. Both were good.

The evening, in fact, became a Bridge reunion of sorts, because, standing at the back of the tiny club watching the shows was the man himself, Hideki Kaji. I did a double-take when I saw his familiar face in the audience, and many fans went up to chat with him and take photos with him after the show. You have to understand that for many in Japan’s indie pop scene, Kaji is about as big as they get—I imagine there are a good number of people out there who would rather meet him than any number of major label Japanese ‘stars’. I didn't chat him up, though, because I'm not that familiar with his work, not owning any of his solo albums. Maybe next time though...

Chicago Bass

Saturday, April 15, 2006

4 Bonjour's Parties, Kitsune No Kai, Juke Joint

Kitsune No Kai

Hanging out at the Shibuya O-Nest on Thursday night watching 4 Bonjour’s Parties and other bands play, the thought came to me that these guys are turning the club into something like a juke joint.

The way folks in the American South go to juke joints to play the blues, the music lovers at the O-Nest were there to unwind and have a good time through music, after a long day. When each band’s set was over, the members streamed back into the audience to see the other groups and to chat with friends. None of them locked themselves up in the dressing room, refusing to mix with the fans.

Though the evening proceeded according to a schedule, and all the bands must have rehearsed beforehand, I didn’t get the sense that everything was scripted, like I sometimes do watching bands who take each show seriously as another small step in their musical careers. Nothing wrong really with the serious bands, except that they lack spontaneity, which, come to think of it, isn’t right at all.

Between songs, the clarinet-playing front man of 4 Bonjour’s Parties talked in squeaky imitation-woman voice for reasons only known to him, causing the other members to giggle. It didn't matter to them that they were on a stage facing several dozen people--they were going to have fun regardless. Their manner might have been annoying if not for the fact that their silliness was followed by their gorgeous, slowly flowing pop music, which sounds classical at times in part because of the wind instruments the members take turns playing (clarinet, flute, trumpet, trombone and sax). You can hear sample songs of theirs here.

I also liked a band called Kitsune No Kai, which means something like ‘party of the foxes’ or ‘meeting of foxes’. They played songs with names like “The Lamb of Finland”. The event program described them as "Japan's Belle and Sebastian", but they also reminded me of Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star. These foxes have recently released a series of three CD singles, which I’ll have to listen to.

Also playing was Shugo Tokumaru and a band called toy. Unusually for a show at the O-Nest, many in the audience listened to the shows sitting on the floor. Also unusually, the DJ put on some Bach between two sets.


The other day I stumbled upon the website of Yu Hirano, the founder of the rock club Loft, arguably Japan’s most important live house, and in one of his columns he wrote something I agreed with completely. Hirano was talking about the beginnings of the Loft, and how at first he wanted the club to be something more than a place where people pay to watch bands play. Instead, the Loft would be a hang-out where people meet and talk, with tables and food, and live music would just be one ingredient and bands wouldn’t necessarily play every night but only when the Loft felt the bands were good enough.

That wasn’t how the Loft turned out, Hirano admits: to compete with other live houses, the club eventually cleared out the tables to pack more people in, and they started booking bands every night. But his ideal club is still a small place for people to meet and to create something through those meetings, and to accomplish this he says he recently opened a new, smaller live house called the Naked Loft. Again, what I think he is aiming for is a juke joint—a place where people aren’t divided clearly between musicians and listeners, but where the two mix, and make something new, or, at the very least, have fun together.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Yunn & Yuyake Lamp, At Yoyogi Gauss

Yunn and Yuyake Lamp is the piano pop band formerly known as Orange Plankton, minus pianist Yuki. I was a devoted fan of Orange Plankton, but had missed the first couple of shows of Yunn, and finally got an opportunity to see them at a tiny new club called the Yoyogi Gauss.

One of the cool things about Orange Plankton was it had not one, but two girls who took center stage at shows: Yumi, the singer, and Yuki on piano. Watching the two interact musically was always an electric experience. But with Yuki gone, the spotlight was squarely on Yumi, and it revealed what a powerful presence she is, by herself, on stage: I’ve seen hundreds of bands in Tokyo, but in very few are there vocalists whose presence is magnetic like this soft-voiced and petite woman. She seems to breathe in the music around her and exhale it in the form of song.

They played all new songs, which sounded a little more rock compared with Orange Plankton's pop, and in most Yumi played the piano, though I got the sense that she wouldn't mind leaving the confining space of the keyboard and piano stool to dance the expanse of the stage.

The two skilled musicians in the rhythm section, bassist Tsuji and Tamarou on drums, had let their hair grow long enough to tie in ponytails, a new look that reminded me of old Japanese artisans. My non-drug-induced vision was of Tsuji and Tamarou as sculptors of Buddhist statues and Yumi their artistic inspiration, a glowing, golden Idol.

This is band I’ll be following—you can listen to some of Yunn’s song samples here (Yunn is Yumi’s nickname) and a couple of Orange Plankton’s songs are now on the playlist of Japan Live Radio.


I went to Yunn’s after-show celebration at a nearby izakaya(a Japanese bistro), and there found out that, by coincidence, four friends of the band, who didn't know each other before meeting each other through Orange Plankton, are from the big northern island of Hokkaido. Like most Hokkaido people, they all have beautifully white skin (you might think the Japanese are homogenous, but they aren’t really—people in Hokkaido look quite different from darker complexioned folks in the southern island of Okinawa, for example). They were also free spirits in that way people from lands with lots of open space are, and they insisted that fish tasted better in Hokkaido than in Tokyo. I like that sort of mild, good-humored regional chauvinism you encounter often in Japan.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Japan Live Radio!

One thing that has long frustrated me in keeping this journal is that I'm writing about all these excellent indie bands that aren't well known outside of Japan (and, sometimes, even here), but I know that many readers abroad don't have a way to listen to their music. Most Japanese indie CDs are either hard to buy outside of Japan, or, simply, unavailable. But, for various reasons, I've been against posting MP3s on the site.

Then, recently, an idea-bulb lit up in my head: why don't I set up an internet radio station and play songs of bands I like? Which is what I've done:

The first program has a bit more than three hours of music by the pop bands I write a lot about. I won't be a daily radio DJ: my plan is to change the programming every few weeks, and vary the themes a bit every time, and I'll let you know when new programs are up. I'm new at this and am not sure whether the radio will work properly, and know, for one thing, that for technical reasons the sound quality isn't the greatest at the moment. In any case, any feedback you can give me on the radio would be highly appreciated. (And, of course, if you discover some awesome band you didn't know about as a result of Japan Live Radio, defnitely let me know!)