Friday, September 29, 2006

Japan Live Presents, Volume 1

I organized a music event in Tokyo and, without intending to, seemed to have transported the spirit of an American gig into a Japanese club. It wasn’t like a normal Japanese show, where even punk audiences have been known to be as quiet and well behaved as those at a classical concert. My guys were there to party. A gang of gaijin inebriates took over the rear area next to the bar and held shouted conversations about every subject under the sun, except about the music that was playing in front of them. The Japanese closest to them were annoyed about the ruckus but also looked resigned to the fact that that’s just the way foreigners are. And several of the foreigners, for their part, told me later that they loved the music, and I took their word for it.

I wanted to make the event on Saturday night, the first installment of Japan Live Presents (produced together with Philipp Potz), freer and more relaxed than a typical Japanese show, and I think I succeeded. Guests could move in and out of the show at a bar called The Baron, so they could step out to the streets of Nishi-Azabu and Roppongi if they wanted during the gig and come back later. In Japanese events, you usually can’t get back in once you leave. Parents brought their children and sat together in front of the stage—something you don’t see that often at Tokyo gigs. And if people wanted to talk rather than listen raptly to the music, that was fine too.

But music was the key ingredient of the event, and while maybe I shouldn’t sing the praise of the bands too much considering I invited them all myself, still I have to say all their performances were dazzling. If I was there as a regular member of the audience I would have loved the evening too. After all, the three groups, Three Berry Icecream, Yunn & Yuyake Lamp and 4 Bonjour’s Parties, are among my favorite bands. And I’m also a big fan of DJ Kamaage, who spun records between sets.

Three Berry Icecream, the musical unit of former Bridge member Mayumi Ikemizu, played first. At gigs Ikemizu invites friends to perform, and these pals are also great, veteran musicians—at Japan Live Presents the six-person band included the leader of Little Lounge Little Twinkle, the keyboardist for Orangenoise Shortcut and the violist who once played in Rocky Chack’s Mori-No-Orchestra. Three Berry Icecream, as the name suggests, plays sweet, happy pop songs, but their orchestration is solid and imaginative—I especially liked the duets between the accordion and viola, which sounded like something out of a Paris street scene.

Yunn & Yuyake Lamp

Next up was Yunn & Yuyake Lamp, which is composed of three of the four members of the defunct Orange Plankton, a favorite band of mine that I’ve written about more than almost any group in these pages. Tonight the band had invited along a flutist and a pianist, allowing the vocalist Yunn to focus on singing rather than also playing the piano. This was as I desired—Yunn is a good pianist, but she really shines when she stands facing the crowd as a singer, crouching, jumping and dancing to create with her body the visuals to the words she’s singing.

At first after Yunn & Yuyake Lamp was formed they played all new songs, as if to emphasize they are a different entity from Orange Plankton, but recently they’ve become more comfortable looking back at their old days, and have been playing Orange Plankton tunes at shows. They did two at Saturday’s show, including “Mebuki”, the elemental, stirring finale to the album Wakusei Note. I was also surprised and delighted to see in the audience Yuki, the former pianist of Orange Plankton.

The last band, 4 Bonjour’s Parties, was the most popular with the foreigners in the audience, based on comments I got from several people during the show. And I could see how their long, mellow, chamber music-like post-rock compositions would probably be most in tune with the preferences of certain segments of mature, hip music fans. 4 Bonjour’s is a remarkable group—they have seven members, each of whom play several instruments—even the drummer sometimes switches instruments and plays the sax! The small stage wouldn’t fit them all so that some instruments, like the xylophone (!), had to be placed outside of the stage. The band is working on their first album and it would seem worth it for these guys to tour abroad when that’s done, though carrying all those instruments with them would no doubt be a logistical nightmare.


All through the first two acts or so I had a stomachache, brought on in part from downing two ice-cold pints of beer on an empty stomach, but also probably a result of nervousness as the organizer. Still, it was a lovely feeling to be able to introduce a few of my favorite Japanese bands to people that had never heard of them, and I want to do it again.

Monday, September 18, 2006

My Little Airport's Naughty Album Covers

My Little Airport is a great Hong Kong indie band I've discovered recently. But rather than talk about their music (which is minimalistic and 80's New Wave-sounding), I'd like to bring your attention to the covers of their two albums. They are pretty naughty.

The cover of their first album, the ok thing to do on sunday afternoon is to toddle in the zoo, features two girls in school uniforms of pure white blouses and aqua skirts. The girl on the right is rubbing her cheek against her friend's with eyes closed dreamily. Her friend's expression is somewhere between blissful and about-to-burst-out-laughing.

The back-cover shows the two in a near-embrace, with faces close enough to be in a kiss.

This is a sort of scene I seldom saw in my school-days, and if it's a common thing in Hong Kong, well, I wish I grew up there rather than where I did...

Meanwhile, on the cover of My Little Airport's second album because i was too nervous at that time are a couple lying on a bed, looking smilingly into each other's eyes. The girl is lightly-dressed, which isn't surprising considering Hong Kong's heat and humidity. The guy, however, isn't wearing a shirt. What are these two kids up to??

When you flip the CD over to the backside, you see the room where the bed is, with a desk and on top of it a computer, whose monitor shows a picture of...

What IS that a picture of?! A guy looks to be helping a girl remove a piece of her clothing...

The funny thing is My Little Airport's songs themselves aren't scandalous or naughty, though there is one song on the second album called "i don't know how to download good av like iris does" (AV standing for adult video).

I like these album covers but I have to confess I don't know how to read them. Are they a joke? Or are they meant to provoke? Or does the band see something romatic or aesthetically pleasing in these photos, enough that they wanted to make them their covers?

My confusion is compounded by my perception that the Chinese are relatively conservative when it comes to public discussion of sexual matters. But maybe my perception is out-dated, and/or it doesn't apply to independent artists working in a big, modern city like Hong Kong. (Though I'm guessing the 'good adult videos' that Iris downloads in the song mentioned above are Japanese rather than Greater Chinese in origin...)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Yunn & Yuyake Lamp + Comedian + Actors

Most Tokyo live music shows feature only music acts, but some are more multi-disciplinary. Yunn & Yuyake Lamp’s event on August 30 was a good example of the latter.

In addition to several pop groups, Yunn invited a standup comedian, put on a spoken word act by two actors, and had friends sell their artwork on the side.

The comedian, who goes by the stage name Collagen Haigo Man, was living proof that it’s never easy to make it in show business: his main subject was how unsuccessful he’s been and how he’s watched his comedic contemporaries earn fame and become fixtures on TV. But, in fact, he was very good, with the smooth spoken delivery of a rakugo-ka, traditional comedians who are some of the best speakers of the Japanese language. The day after this event he left for a Japanese tour, with the first stop being…a show in someone’s living room in Yamanashi Prefecture.

The spoken word act featured an actor and actress talking about a boy and a girl growing up together, falling in love but then the young love being cut short by the death of the girl, while a video screen behind them flashed various images of childhood and summer. The act was a bit on the sentimental side, but the actress was a true tall Japanese feminine specimen of beauty (I just found out googling that she plays the role of a ‘different-dimension physicist’ in Ultraman Mebius—cool!).

I think Yunn & Yuyake Lamp’s basic stance is to welcome all sorts of musicians, artists and creative types into their fold, rather than carve out clique-like boundaries on the types of music and arts they will tolerate, and this night was a reflection of that. Their own show, as usual, was also deeply satisfying. Just to remind you that Yunn & Yuyake Lamp will be one of the three groups playing on September 23 at the Japan Live Presents show, which is sure to be a blast, so you should try to make it!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mark Your Calendars: Sep. 23 Japan Live Presents!

Tokyo residents: Mark your calendars for a music event produced by Japan Live, on Saturday, September 23--Japan Live Presents Volume 1!

Featured will be three fantastic Tokyo pop groups:

4 bonjour's parties, a seven-person ensemble that plays chamber-music-like indie pop influenced by Glasgow indie music, post-rock and electronica;

Yunn and Yuyake Lamp, the mellow piano pop group led by the Chara-esque vocalist Yunn, formerly of the quartet Orange Plankton (which sadly split up earlier this year);

And last but not least, Three Berry Icecream, the sunny neo-acoustic musical unit of Mayumi Ikemizu, who has played in influential guitar pop bands like Bridge, Daffodil-19 and the Bachelors.

This will be an evening for true music lovers: these groups create gorgeous tunes using everything from accordion to clarinet, flute, trombone, viola and glockenspiel, in addition to the usual guitars, bass and drums.

The event will be at the Nishiazabu Baron, a bar-restaurant that serves home-brewed beer and delightful tapas. Show starts at 7PM, doors open at 6:30 PM, and cover charge is 2,500 yen, or 2,000 yen if you reserve tickets with me--please send an e-mail to gonglinjian at yahoo dot com with your name, number of tickets desired, and, if possible, which band you most want to see.

Visitors to Japan: If, by coincidence, you are visiting Tokyo on September 23, and want to see some live music, come by to The Baron, which is about a ten minute walk from Roppongi station. In fact we will let you in at a discount price if you can provide evidence you are a genuine visitor by showing us a recent Japan tourist visa stamp in your passport!

I hope to see you there to celebrate autumn equinox with some good music.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My "Inside Tokyo" Column

I've started writing a monthly column about Japan's pop music scene for the San Francisco-based indie music info website, and the first installment, about a road trip to see an advantage Lucy show in Nagoya, is now up, here. It's an interesting new website, bringing together blogs about the music scenes of Montreal, Sydney, San Francisco, Austin, Tokyo (that's me) and a lot of other subjects. Take a look!