Monday, December 31, 2007

Mix Market At The Red Cloth

Mix Market is back!

Well...actually, they returned to action at the end of 2006... But only in the last few months has this female vocal indie band splashed back into my consciousness. A few years back I was really into these guys, but after a while they dropped out of my mind, and the group itself entered a “recharging period” starting 2004 during which they were inactive, until this year they released a best hits album (Zoo Zoo Zoo) and a new album (Shiawase No Elephant).

Just out of curiosity I bought Zoo Zoo Zoo, and, wow...ever have those moments when you find a CD or book or a video that's gathering dust, you've never even unwrapped the plastic, and when you try it out—you're KO'ed cold? You think—why didn't I know about this Treasure? That was the case with Zoo Zoo Zoo. I dug up all the Mix Market CDs I had at home, bought their new album, and downloaded all the old songs I didn't have.

One big thing sets these guys apart—the vocals by Yutty. She's got a singing voice that's natural-sounding but also has flair, a voice that shoots out and fills you up, and that drives forward the band's catchy, ska- and punk-influenced indie rock tunes. She may just have the perfect Japanese girl rock voice. (Taking it for granted that this is an entirely subjective judgment...)

In any case, on Friday night I got to see Mix Market again for the first time in several years. They played at the Shinjuku Red Cloth with three all-girl bands: Falsies On Heat, Noodles, and Pop Chocolat. Falsies: I most liked their fast, punk-ish numbers. Noodles: I hadn't seen live in a while, and frankly, I already thought I'd gotten my fill of their shoegazer rock, but seeing them on stage I was reminded that they're good, especially vocalist Yoko, who pours plenty of emotion into their songs. Pop Chocolat: they were last, and I took a pass on their show this time.

Up third was Mix Market, and vocalist Yutty came on the stage dressed like a day-glo Native American dancer, wearing a golden headband, a big butterfly-shaped cloth ring, and a dress that seemingly contained every color in the spectrum. Raising her arms above her head she unfurled a turquoise-colored towel saying 'Mix Market', and then the quintet dove right into their first song, the guitarists collapsing onto the stage from the very first minute of their set. Between songs, Yutty said that unlike the other three bands, which are all-girl groups, Mix Market is her and a bunch of musai guys—'musai' being short for 'musakurushii', which the dictionary translates as dirty or filthy, but in this case means, jokingly, something more like 'coarse guys that don't have a shred of elegance in them'.

Musai or not, they put on an exciting show; the best song of the set was the title track of their latest album, 'Shiawase No Elephant', which means, 'The Elephant of Happiness'. Her explanation of what the song was about was a bit fuzzy: something about it being about peace, at a time when there's a lot of trouble in both Japan and abroad. But she put a lot of feeling into it, and it was a great rendition of one of my favorite Japanese songs this year. They will be playing again at the Shelter on January 26—I won't miss it.

Here's a music video of their song "Monster", brought to you courtesy of

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Buying Japanese Music

I'm probably not the best guy to recommend where to buy Japanese music—99% of my CDs are purchased at the Tower Records in Shibuya... But there seems to be some interest in this subject, so...

First, Tower Records. Unlike in other countries, where Tower is said to be nothing but a Faceless Corporate Chain (...or, was one—it went bankrupt, right?), the stores in Shibuya and Shinjuku are huge but have a human feel. A big part of the appeal is that the Tower staff hand-write CD recommendations on cards and stick them onto the store shelves—those recommendations are helpful, and it also shows that the place is run by people who care about, and even love, the music that they're selling. (Though they were better about this, I think, before they remodeled and got rid of their Japanese indie section, which I wrote about here...)

In Shibuya there's an HMV store down the street from Tower, another giant store, but I don't shop there much because it has a smaller selection of Japanese music, although I hear it's a good place to buy vinyl.

Shibuya, Shinjuku and other parts of Tokyo also are home to a zillion small record stores. In Shibuya there are lots of little stores specializing in hip-hop, house and club music, many of them in the Udagawa neighborhood (sung about in “Udagawa Friday” in case you're a Capsule fan). It's also home to the cool little indie pop store Apple Crumble Record. Shinjuku, meanwhile, has a number of punk record stores. Here's an article on Tokyo record stores in the 'pop culture travel guide site Jaunted.

Online music shopping-wise, I use Amazon Japan a lot. You can make it display in English by clicking on the 'IN ENGLISH' button on the top right, but the only problem is that it doesn't translate artist and album names that are in Japanese, so if you can't read Japanese it will be nearly impossible to find anything.

For example, let's say you wanted to buy Orange Plankton's classic album from 2003, Mizu No Niwa [Garden of Water]. If you search for 'Orange Plankton' or 'Mizu No Niwa', Amazon will blow you off by saying your search “didn't match any products”. You have to search the terms in Japanese to get what you are looking for. The same goes for all the many Japanese artists and bands that go by a Japanese rather than alphabetical name.

An alternative is a site called CDJapan, though I've never bought anything from it myself. A quick series of searches revealed that you can find, in English, favorite artists of mine such as Asakusa Jinta, Tornado Tatsumaki and Yuyake Lamp—none of which will come up in Amazon Japan via English searches. I'm impressed by their inventory.

You can also buy Japanese music MP3's online. The best site for this that I know is They have a great collection of artists, including personal favorites such as: advantage Lucy, Asakusa Jinta, Luminous Orange, Mix Market, Macdonald Duck Eclair and Swinging Popsicle.

Another MP3 website I've heard about is called HearJapan. It's new but looks promising—I think the challenge for them now is to get a critical mass of artists, so that they have something for everyone, or, at least, everyone that likes indie Japanese music (personally, though, I'd prefer it if you didn't have to log in at the start, but only when you actually decide to buy something. Being able to browse freely is a good thing). Harvey of writes about HearJapan here.

Finally, if you want to listen to some music for free, music that's completely oriented toward MY tastes, you can always tune in to Japan Live Radio, which I updated with new Chara, Mix Market, Coltemonikha, and other stuff. I've made 27 song streams already since I started the radio—it's a Labor of Love.

Let me know if I missed anything, or you know other good stores.

UPDATE: Commenter smashingtofu recommends, which is said to be "very reasonable in shipping". I also like it that they have Korean and Chinese music in addition to Japanese stuff.

Johan Nystrom praises, saying it's great for buying used CDs. Tokyo Recohan is writer Patrick's project.

Also, I should mention the article "Record Shopping in Japan" in the super-cool site TweeNet.


Japanese Mystery File, Entry #385: This train station poster is to tell people that if they want to smoke, they need to go to the Smoking Section (yes, in non-puritanical Japan, you can still smoke outside...). But...why is the featured character a Cigarette-Smoking Bamboo Shoot??

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Advantage Lucy & Round Table At Mona

Advantage Lucy has long had a devoted following, myself firmly in its ranks, and as I listened to them play their last show of the year at Mona Records I thought about what was behind their popularity.

There must be at least three things:

1. The melodies: Guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka consistently creates some of the most memorable, hummable melody lines out there;

2. The indie feel: Lucy songs have a written-by-the-guy-next-door feel, as if, with some effort, you could write something similar yourself. Though, in reality, well, good luck with that;

3. The voice: Aiko's bewitching voice. It's at once soft and powerful, and has an alluring, spring-clear quality.

The Mona show was an 'acoustic' set, meaning there weren't bass and drums and the amps were turned down, a set-up that highlighted Aiko's singing voice. Being in its presence for the half an hour or so was a fleeting pleasure, like seeing the sky at an hour when the colors are most radiant and varied. The cafe was packed and I stood toward the back, allowing me views of the band on the low stage only occasionally when the bodies in front of me shifted in just the right way, but that didn't matter, because the music was all that was needed to intoxicate. (In addition to winter-flavored songs like “Hello Mate!” they played two new songs and an unrecorded one, and Aiko hinted that an album will be coming out next year. Cross my fingers...)

Round Table (pictured above) organized the event, and as always, their show was energetic and entertaining. The duo has been described as Shibuya-kei, but I felt there should be some other name for what they do, maybe, neo-Tokyo city pop, combining the sensibilities of R&B, soul and Latin with popular Japanese music (or, wait, did I just describe part of Shibuya-kei?).


In the audience: The duo that makes up solange et delphine, who I wrote about recently. They told me they are huge Round Table fans.


Haunted Live House: At the after-show party I heard that many people think the Shinjuku live house Jam is haunted. No one seemed to know why it was or in what way (is that a ghost next to you head-banging?), but this was apparently a common belief. It's pretty rare to meet a Japanese person who doesn't believe in ghosts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Frenesi & Little Lounge Little Twinkle

It took me three laps around a dark bar alley in Sangenjyaya before I found the cafe I was looking for, called Rain on the Roof. A few more laps and the locals may have called the cops, my being a suspicious, dark-coated foreigner. But walking up the steps of the cafe I felt the place was well worth getting lost in the gloom to get to: the cafe appeared to be built in a space that was once the attic of a sake shop, a comfortable wooden hall with a black timber ceiling, and the music was rejuvenating.

One of the acts was Frenesi, a woman who sings whispered French pop-influenced vocals over jazz and bossa nova passages, a description, I'm aware, sounds on paper like something far from unusual in Japan. But she was different—a delectably sweet voice, subtly adventurous music, understated swing...the pieces fit together well. Like when you're eating a lovely cake and enjoying every mouthful while at the same time regretting that it's steadily disappearing, I was enchanted by every moment of Frenesi's show but felt sad that all those moments brought it closer to the end.

Little Lounge Little Twinkle

The other notable act was the trio Little Lounge Little Twinkle. I'd seen this group about a year ago, when they played Ennio Morricone-flavored ensemble pop, but they've rebuilt their sound so that they now combine the irresistible charm of children's music, the elegance and gravity of classical (two of the three are music school graduates—Shunsuke Kida's day job is composing, while Keiko Tanaka is a violist), and the energy and edge of pop and rock. It's a potent, radical combination, and I hope they release a CD soon because I couldn't get my head around all of it in just one live listen, though I did enjoy the music thoroughly. The vocalist Miyuki Asano had a sound toy she called Ichigo, or 'strawberry', which added to Little Lounge's playroom classical pop with its cheap, electronic beeps (among other things, Ichigo featured a rusty robotic voice singing Do, Re, Mi....). These guys and Frenesi show me that the new and innovative don't always have to be grating and disorienting, but can sometimes be beautiful and appealing while also fresh.

(Kida and Tanaka were formerly in a band called LPchep3.)


Tokyo is flaring up in autumnal colors now. The bright yellow-gold of the gingko leaves are especially gorgeous.

Friday, December 07, 2007

10 Randoms

1. I've been getting into the music of pop-ska-rockers Mix Market, including their latest album, Shiawase no Elephant ('elephant of happiness'). The female vocalist has a pretty, laid-back voice.

2. Mix Market will be headlining a not-to-be-missed girl rock event also featuring noodles, Pop Chocolat and Falsies on Heat, on Dec. 28 at the Shinjuku Red Cloth.

3. The Shelter is going to have a show on the 29th that only allows in girls wearing skirts. The next day it will only let in guys, and they have to strip down to their underwear before entering the club. Sounds interesting...

4. A new Asakusa Jinta 'maxi-single' called “Fes! Fes! Fes!” is coming out today (Dec. 8).

5. Fishermen rockers Gyoko is releasing an album called Fish & Peace on Jan. 9. I hadn't realized they released their first album in April—better check it out.

6. Capsule's remix album capsule rmx is pretty good, but of recent albums produced by Yasutaka Nakata I prefer Coltemonikha's 2nd album.

7. Whoa, just realized Capsule has a new album out called FLASH BACK. Nakata is nothing if not productive... And I see they will be playing at an al-night event at Club Asia on the 24th. Should I brave wall-to-wall clubbers to go see them (the last time the Fire Dept. had to shut down the show because there were too many people)?

8. Now I know why the latest Marquee issue is a special on Capsule. Asia pop music critic Ono-san has reviews of the latest Pancakes and My Little Airport albums in the same issue.

9. I can't remember where I heard this, but indie pop band Lost in Found is playing with mellow pop songstress Piana at Shibuya Lush on Jan. 19. I'm a long-time fan of Lost in Found, and have been wanting to see Piana for a while, so, yes, will be there.

10. Advantage Lucy and Round Table are performing at the Shimokitazawa cafe/record store mona records on Dec. 22. Hurry if you want to buy tickets, because it's a small, living room-like venue. The cute picture above is from a postcard given out to advantage Lucy fans at one of their recent shows—it appears to be a self-portrait of Aiko.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Asakusa Jinta + "Pro Wrestling"

Does Asakusa Jinta + pro wrestling = an ideal Sunday evening?

I wasn't sure, but an event featuring one of Japan's best bands as well as Bronco busters and flying lariats sounded unmissable, and so I subwayed to the club Kurawood in Asakusa.

Hang out in Japan long enough and you are bound to run into mild-mannered, smart, well-adjusted Japanese adults who are also dyed-in-the-wool pro-wrestling fanatics. A couple of decades ago the sport was broadcast on prime time TV; it's no longer as big, but there's still a devoted following and the fans are of all ages, classes and social standings. Puroresu exploded into the public consciousness in the 1950's when a wrestler named Rikidozan beat American rivals and thus cheered a war-defeated population (never mind that Rikidozan was actually Korean...). The book Tokyo Underworld has a good passage describing what the puroresu mania was like for ordinary Japanese:

My father was an engineer. He was highly intelligent and liked intellectual TV shows: professional debates on NHK, lectures on science and so forth. He liked to discuss German philosophy: Goethe, Hegel, and others. He was very serious minded and looked down on things that weren't intellectual.

But he became another person when professional wresting came on, especially Japanese versus American. Something came over him. He would shoot his fist in the air, yell, jump up and down, get all excited. It was really strange. I could never understand why an intelligent person like him could watch Rikidozan so much.

To him, I guess Riki was like Robin Hood.

Half a century later puroresu no longer inflames the passions of the masses, but, as I said, it does have its followers—and about half a dozen of their most extreme representatives were there at the Kurawood on Sunday night. SWS student puroresu was their name. To lay the groundwork for the coming bloodshed they rushed out after the first act, Roman Porsche, and laid and taped together blue mats on the ground in the middle of the audience section.

The SWS gang was the Anti-Puroresu, which was their main gag—they were skinny, petite college nerds, who would be stamped like lone ants in an actual pro ring, but even so their wrestling was hyper and quite fierce at times: a gob of spit popped out of one guy's mouth into the air after he was slammed particularly hard on the blue mats, and he staggered back into the dressing room looking disoriented after his bout ended.

It wasn't clear what the girls in the audience, about the half of the crowd, thought of this spectacle: there were smiles and laughs, but a lot of them seemed to be forced, strained by the effort to show they understand and appreciate that all this male pretend-violence is all Good Fun. They wore the same expressions during the first act, Roman Porsche, a wacky duo who slammed back shots of Tabasco in between new wave karaoke numbers and shouting really obscure puroresu jokes (the singer gradually took off his clothes as the show progressed, until, Hello!, he let his prick hang out from his bikini pants at the climax, causing the girls' nervous smiles to stiffen). What do I know though, maybe many or all of them loved both the pro wrestlers and the flashing Roman Porsche duo.

On the other hand, the audience reaction to the last act, Asakusa Jinta, was unambiguous: it went crazy like some once-a-year, orgiastic, medieval sake-soaked village festival (until the very end, at the encore, when slam-dancing erupted on the floor and the frozen female smiles returned). Asianica hard marchers Asakusa Jinta may be my favorite live Japanese band these days—that they are making great, fresh rock using old Japanese jinta sounds and that a young audience is digging this is all very cool, but what matters in the end is that these folks truly swing—everyone who gets a chance should see this exhilarating bunch.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hi From LA; Giant Robot 50

I’m in LA—and reading the 50th issue of Giant Robot magazine here, I made a realization—

Which is this: When I was growing up in LA, Japan, and Asia, weren’t that cool. The Walkman was cool, Bruce Lee was cool, Space Invaders and Pac-Man were cool…but the rest of it, not so much, and you grew up wanting to hide your Asian-ness.

Now, a few decades later, it’s a different world—Japan/Asia is cool, and it’s everywhere. One of the biggest surprises I had in recent years was when I went with Swinging Popsicle to the Fanime convention in San Jose and saw hundreds of kids, including whites, dressed up as their favorite Japanese anime characters. How did that happen?

Giant Robot helped explain, in a great article looking at all the Asian-American pop culture trends since the 1950’s, how we went from Asia as uncool to, well, non-Asian kids cosplaying as anime heroes and heroines.

Reading their history line, you see that the Asian pop conquest of the U.S. was a multi-pronged, multi-national effort. Japan contributes with anime, games, horror movies, China/Hong Kong with kung fu flicks and other movies, India with Bollywood, etc. At a certain point, there was a critical mass of good Asian pop culture in the U.S. so that the scale tipped, and Asia was cool. Food is an important ingredient too—in these last few decades Americans really discovered Asian food, and that process went hand in hand with the elevation of America’s view of Asia. One of the commenters in the article, Jonathan Gold, makes this observation about sushi:

When the sushi boom started in Los Angeles, it was extremely important. This was the first time Americans had ever taken to any Asian food, tried to understand the ritual and the context of the food, and engaged the chef in his own language even if the only Japanese they knew were the names of six kinds of sushi. The fact that they would try to learn those six kinds of fish was really important. Once people mastered sushi and mastered the ritual, they mastered the fact that you had to have a relationship with the chef and have personal communication in order to eat in the way you wanted to eat. This opened them up to other experiences from other Asian cuisines and, frankly, also non-Asian cuisines.

So, Akira, Kikaider, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Kyu Sakamoto, Pizzicato Five, Street Fighter II, Hideo Nomo, Aishwarya Rai, Akihabara, sushi, top ramen, pho, and all the rest of it combined to make Asia so cool in the U.S. that, ironically, Americans no longer thought things were radical just because they were Asian:

Articles touting Asian culture being the hot new thing are obsolete because the culture has been absorbed into the mainstream.

Living in Tokyo, or anywhere else in Asia, there’s always the risk of becoming snobbish about local things that make a splash in the U.S., saying this or that is already old news, or the Americans are interpreting it all wrong, and so on, but in being a snob that way, you lose sight of a key point, which reading the Giant Robot article brought out for me: becoming big in the U.S. is a cool thing in itself. The U.S. has an unparalleled ability to suck foreign things into the mainstream, and it’s a huge, influential market. Whereas, in Japan for example, there are fans of Bollywood, Korean cinema, pho, etc., and sometimes one of those shoots into the nation’s awareness, but it’s usually just a fad and is therefore fleeting. The local culture stays the way it is, changing at its own pace—and I think that’s the situation in most countries. The U.S. is different; probably it’s the young-nation, multi-ethnic, immigrant-based, entrepreneurial thing. And Giant Robot is one great gauge for what from Asia is hot or not in the U.S.


The GR folks are also holding a 50th Issue exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA, right next door to the packed Takashi Murakami exhibit at the MOCA (as I was saying on Asian cool…). One happy discovery at the Giant Robot exhibit was the brilliant cartoons of Adrian Tomine, which were on display. His stories are funny and really ring true—I’m ordering his books on Amazon as soon as I get home…

Friday, November 16, 2007

On Teeny Frahoop

A few years ago I wrote a post that asked what ever happened to Teeny Frahoop, a brilliant girl rock band that disappeared after releasing only two albums.

Now I know part of the answer...and the knowledge crushes.

I found their new website, and in a section titled 'biography' was this note about Noriko, their original guitarist and vocalist:

She died of stomach cancer on January 24, 3 years ago.
Though she had splendid talent, she died young, only 27 years old.
The time that we spent with her was not long, but she gave us many things.
She lives in our heart all the time and Rides the Rockin Rocket in Teeny Frahoop! young. I had no idea.

Did they already know something was wrong when they made their second and last album, 2nd Hospital?

It's a classic that represents a stark departure from their first album, Wee Wee Pop, which is whimsical, happy, but rocking. 2nd Hospital is darker and more serious—were pain and depression what gave it its feel?

I hadn't listened to Teeny Frahoop much recently, but after reading about Noriko I began to spend all my time playing their second album on my iPod.

Now the intro of the first song felt even more sad: “I get up early morning, and/ I regret I was born, so that/ I go to bed late night/ I fear a nightmare everynight”.

And the second song is called "Where is cancer?" and ends with the words "Hello, the darkness of night/ Hello, you know my rainy day/ However hard I try,/ I can’t reach it/ I can’t shine."

What did it feel like, being a Japanese girl, in her 20's, in a rock band, but faced with such gloom? The lyrics give you a sense.

Or...maybe not. I might reading too much into the album. It came out in 1999, and under circumstances that I'm not completely aware of, the band disbanded in 2000. I'd like to find out more.

2nd Hospital, in any case, is a great album that you owe yourself a listen if you like Japanese rock. It contains two of the best rock tunes I've listened to in Japan, or anywhere—“Inside Of Theater” and “Ride The Rockin' Rocket”, the song by which the remaining TeenyFras remember Noriko.

Of my many little regrets in life, one is that I was in Japan during the years when Teeny Frahoop were active, but I never found out about them then. The guys at Badbee knew them and saw them live—I wish I could have too.

Happily, they are back now, with a new guitarist named 'Tacco'. That's why I found their website, and the note on Noriko.

They were playing at a show at the Shimokitazawa Shelter on November 4 that featured a bunch of other girl bands from the K.O.G.A. Records compilation Good Girls Don't! Neo. I couldn't wait for the show—the compilation opened my eyes to a lot of bands I'd never heard of before and are great, but most of all, I wanted to see Teeny Frahoop, a group whose music I've loved for years. (They contributed a touching new song called 'Tiny Filled Hope' to the K.O.G.A. omnibus album.)

But then, life intervened.

Something serious came up that made me, heart full of regrets, unable to go to the Shelter show at all.

At least I've heard that Teeny Frahoop will play again sometime in the middle of the year, and I have my heart set on going to that show.

In the meantime, I have two great albums of theirs plus a new song to keep me happy. How sad it is that Noriko passed away so young... but what she left behind is precious, it adds color to life, and I want to thank her, so much, for what she was and what she did.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Indie Event "Closer Vol. 2" In Shinjuku

A tearful Tokyo evening: at Shibuya station a high school girl was consoling her weeping friend; further down a bawling tot was tugging at her mom's hand; at the platform was a poster of a TV drama featuring two girls and a guy, all moist-eyed; flashing on the Yamanote line's in-train TV was a commercial showing a woman shedding tears at a bar, and a chivalrous man sliding a chocolate across the bar to her, to help lift her spirits.

In the background to all this was an unending, chilly autumn drizzle: was that getting everyone down?

But in spite of the miserable weather, or maybe to escape it, indie music fans flocked to Shinjuku Marz and Motion to an event called Closer Vol. 2 that featured eleven bands. The performances were split up between the two live houses, and you could go back and forth between them, stopping off outside to get a bite to eat or buy cheaper drinks at nearby convenience stores if you desired. That's an improvement on the Tokyo live house convention whereby you can't re-enter the club once you leave, meaning you are stuck there until you see the act you came to see.

I ended up watching the uhnellys and henrytennis at the Marz, and Yucca at Motion.

Unnellys was a girl on drums and a long curly-haired guy on bass and mini-trumpet, both of which he looped with a pedal to create dense dub phrases, over which he rapped in rapid-fired Japanese. He had a lot of stage presence, and the two really got the crowd going with their funky jazz-rock-hip hop—a wool-capped girl in front of me began swinging her head up and down like a charmed cobra at one point.


Henrytennis, after them, kept up the momentum. The septet call themselves a tribal, new wave prog ensemble, and to me a lot of their music sounds like free jazz, except composed and with pre-planned structure (is that paradoxical...?). Once they started they didn't stop until the end, going from quiet to over-the-top, and in one climactic fermata the female keyboardist sustained a jarring, dissonant chord for a long moment that never seemed to end, as the others jammed like the world was coming to a close, and the crazed audience members all got naked and spun around a bonfire lit up in the middle of the live house...

Well, not quite, but that's what it felt like.


Yucca played at the Motion, and between songs explained what the event Closer was all about: there's a lot of great indie music in Tokyo, but too few events where all these groups are showcased, in an atmosphere of freedom; they therefore got together and organized this event, and hoped more like this would follow. Remarkably, considering the usual quietness of Tokyo audiences, the fans cheered and yelled out encouragements as Yucca spoke. It was moving to be at an event where everyone was indie, and proud to be so.

A congrats to Shinada-san, Yucca's drummer, who played for the first time in eleven months after fracturing her back and going through rehabilitation. She led the band (who call themselves children of Sonic Youth and Stereolab) in a rocking performance, and the packed house loved them. During one song break, she told everyone that this was her comeback gig after her injury and thanked everyone for watching, but on this tearful Tokyo evening, she was dry-eyed, with dignity, as she said this.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Music From The Martian Tornado

If band names were accurate, Japan's Music From The Mars would be called something like Music From New York Circa 1974 because they are basically a prog/fusion outfit and aren't all that extra-planetary. Which isn't to say that Music From The Mars are boring: they mix together rock, pop, funk, soul, jazz, Latin music etc. and concoct a fresh sound. Seeing them at the O-Nest I also found out the quartet are all fabulous musicians, ripping through solos easily like someone frying eggs for breakfast. In front of the stage was a college kid from Hosei University who had invited MFTM to perform at his school's festival and he was totally getting down—hooray for students with good musical taste.


Music From The Mars are a hard act to follow, the unfortunate position that Tornado Tatsumaki were in, and their act did appear understated at first. But after a while, the double-tornado flavor came through. I'm not sure why Tornado Tatsumaki ('tatsumaki' means 'tornado') aren't that well known outside of Japan: they are a delightful female vocal pop group with a twist, playing easy-to-swallow melodies that contain secret musical ingredients from exotic style locales; fans of advantage Lucy, Spangle call Lilli line and Luminous Orange should enjoy them. I liked them even more because after the show, even though they are now sorta-Big-shots with a major label, they came up to the bar floor of the O-Nest and mixed freely with their friends and fans.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Favorite Of 2007 - 4 Bonjour's Parties

My favorite J-music album so far this year is 4 Bonjour's Parties' debut effort, pigments drift down to the brook, a work that's so different from anything I've heard before that it made me want to go and listen to the group's favorite musicians and influences, to get a sense of their origins. I listened to Yo La Tengo, Broken Social Scene, Architecture in Helsinki, Belle & Sebastian and others that they list as favorites, but that didn't help me much in figuring them out, and there were only trace signs of influence. 4 Bonjour's Parties are original.

They are like a pop chamber orchestra, but one in which almost everyone plays more than one instrument, with the female vocalist Tomomi Shikano handling, for example, the flute, accordion, piano, cello and glocken. (It's fun to see them at shows, changing places during songs to play new instruments, looking like a sliding-block puzzle being solved on the cramped stage.) All the musical colors they produce with their panoply of instruments such as vibraphone, trombone and accordion mix together and drift like streams of sound in their mellow, long songs, the melodies often taking surprising turns, but never in a jarring way—'pigments drift down to the brook', the album's title, is an apt description of their sound.

One of the songs I like most on the album, “Ruins”, starts out dreamily with a keyboard and repeated guitar note, is soon joined by a vibraphone and then flute and trumpet, and it isn't until the minute-and-a-half mark that a female voice is introduced. The remarkable thing about the song is that while it's long, lasting 6 minutes and 43 seconds, there isn't much variation in dynamics and emotion—the feel of the first minute of the song is maintained throughout—yet even so it hooks you. That must be due to the way that the various sounds, including the voices, appear, fade out and intermix without rest—it's 'pop chamber music'. And all 10 songs on pigments are of this nature. (You can listen to the intro of “Ruins” on their MySpace page.)

Frankly, I'm not quite sure how 4 Bonjour's Parties pulled this album off. From what I understand, their song-making is a collaborative effort between the seven members, and the songs are ever-evolving, so the tunes could very well have turned out mediocre and chaotic. Instead, they are beautiful, and the album as a whole has a unified feel. Is one of their members a visionary that was able to lead and shape this musical venture? Or are they just a group that works very well together, so that multiple opinions actually improve, rather than worsen, the final product? I'm not certain, but I get the sense that this band is a rare example of the latter.

It will be interesting to see how 4 Bonjour's Parties follows up on this album. They could keep the sound and feel of the first album, and come up with another collection of laid-back, color-filled, gorgeous songs like pigments. I'm hoping, though, that they will try new things, go on new adventures. They should be able to succeed at that, and give us more fresh music that surprises and delights.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Call And Response Event At Koenji 20000V

“You've come at exactly the wrong time!” Ian said to me as I stepped in late to the event he'd organized.

“Right before this was a girl indie pop band...and right after this is digital hardcore!”

Call and Response's Ian apparently felt bad that I missed the evening's only Japanese girl indie pop group, a genre that he seemed to think I'm obsessed with. Hmm, wonder what made him think THAT!

In any case, though I was disappointed to miss the girl group, I actually ended up thoroughly enjoying the digital hardcore guy, Non-poli Radical. Over loud sampled sounds and music, he screamed repeated slogans, as hyperactive video images of cops, Bush, warplanes, bombs, etc., flashed on a screen behind him. The cartoon and collage images reminded me a bit of the animation in Yellow Submarine, though this was about a thousand times more manic and disorienting. I especially liked a song (?) called “Art School Asshole”. Multi-media music shows are good—everyone should do them.


Next up was tacobonds, a time-signature-change-abusing, “hard psychedelic”, neo-prog quartet who are regulars in Tokyo's underground music scene. They aren't exactly super-showmen on stage, but the music is fast, tight and unpredictable enough to keep the audience's attention, plus the drummer should be declared a Living National Treasure for awesome technical prowess.


Band #4 was MIR, a girl bassist in a bunny rabbit cap, and guitarist and drummer guys both in white overalls. They alternated between sentimental, kayoukyoku-like ballads and hardcore explosions. At one point, the bunny rabbit girl screamed that, “Of all the religions, Capitalism is the most barbarous!”, to which I thought, yes, but it's also the 'religion' that bought you that nice headless bass...


The band I most wanted to see was the last act, Hyacca, 'A Hundred Mosquitos' from Fukuoka, because of the positive reviews I'd read of them, and they WERE good, but I don't exactly remember in what way, because by that time I was tipsy from the cheap wine that was on offer for 100 yen a paper cup. (Not to criticize, but when I sipped the wine at first I thought it was sour and maybe had been left out in the sun too long, until I realized that's just the way it normally tastes...Still, I got used to it after a while, and it did the trick on the inebriation front.)

“Have you all drunk the cheap wine?” asked the girl vocalist Mosquito, in a rust-red dress, and we answered Y-E-E-E-S. From that point, the wine seemed to gradually go to her own head, so that in a few minutes she tipped over an amp tower, and at the end she was crawling around on stage, ripping out the strings of her guitar and creating spontaneous found-object artwork with the effect pedals. Ian said they were overcompensating tonight because their show the night before didn't go well for some reason I didn't quite hear and wouldn't have remembered anyway at that point, but that 'overcompensation' sure made for fine entertainment!

The event was at a Koenji punk live house wallpapered with band stickers called the 20000V, and part of the reason I was late was because I got lost on the way over there, but it was pleasant wandering Koenji's streets, with ramen stores galore and one-counter bars and old izakaya's all over the place.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Can't Wait For Micro Mach Machine's 1st Album

A demonic anime trio (one of them holding a bloody ax, and wearing a guilty, zigzagged smile). A Satanic conjurer, unholy light flashing from an outstretched arm, a funeral photo of a dead bunny in the other. An irresistible, mach-speed pop punk tune, one minute and 51 seconds in length, featuring twin J-girl vocals...

This video by Micro Mach Machine is radical!

And squeaky-voiced J-girl pop punk will take over the world, one day.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Tokyo Incidents, Sold Out

That was fast.

Tickets for the latest live tour of Tokyo Incidents (a.k.a. Tokyo Jihen), Shiina Ringo's band, went on sale on the 29th, and everything sold out in a matter of minutes. In Tokyo, tickets for all four nights at the Zepp, which holds 2,700 people, are gone. Reading some of the fan sites, it sounds like buying the tickets on the official first day of sales was a last resort--before that there were various escape routes, like applying for the tickets through the official fan club or taking part in contests, in order for fans to get their hands on that coveted prize, tickets to an actual Tokyo Incidents gig.

Ho hum. I'm a fan of Tokyo Incidents and Shiina Ringo, but I still find the way that big major-label artists like Shiina do shows disappointing and un-musician-like. They basically only perform live when they release albums (this latest tour comes after the band's 3rd album, Variety, or Goraku, hit the stores), and, by playing only once in a while, raise the scarcity value of their appearances. Buying tickets becomes tough, thus elevating the mystique of the performer.

But it's so contrived. What's the true worth of a musician that doesn't perform often? Not much, in my opinion. Which is why I'm an indie fan. I'd like to see Tokyo Incidents one day, but what silliness to come up with a detailed battle plan to get tickets, when you can see great shows every night of the week at the Que or O-Nest or Shelter, etc. And besides, the security staff at the Zepp are going to be little Blue Meanies anyway, hovering over you to spoil your fun...

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Enigma Of J-Hip Hop & Lantern Parade

Japanese hip hop is an enigma.

The first mystery is why it became big in the first place. When listening to U.S. hip hop records, most Japanese listeners probably understand little of the rapid, slang-filled, rapped English words. They are missing out on a lot of the poetry of rap. Yet, in spite of this, the music inspired some guys enough to rap themselves, and to create a scene. Why was that? Was it just the sound, beat, attitude, fashion, etc.?

Then there's the question of what they want to achieve with the music. They need to rap in Japanese, because you can't handle rap's verbal, poetic acrobatics in any language other than your own. But that means most people abroad won't know what the Japanese words are about, and they won't listen, because, again, understanding the poetry is key. So, Japanese rappers won't ever really be able to go back to the U.S. artists that inspired them and pay homage by saying, listen, this rap was inspired by you.

Japanese hip hop artists are internationalists, in that they absorb music and fashion from all over the world. But they are domestically-oriented in that they can only hope to have Japanese audiences for their music (assuming there's rap involved, and it's not just DJ music).

Probably someone out there can explain these issues, though I assume the answers to what motivates these guys will be murky and complicated, as questions of motivations often are in Japan.

In any case, hip hop is big in Japan, as you see when walking through the streets of Shibuya and witness the unending stream of kids in over-sized, primary-colored tanktops, baseball caps, and sagging jeans. I've been wanting to check it out more, but haven't had much chance to, partly because the hip hop scene occupies a different part of Tokyo life than the rock and pop scene that I frequent. Hip hop events are at dance clubs and are all-night affairs, whereas the rock shows I go to are are live houses and end by around 10PM. (One time, however, I did go to an event that was billed as a female rap battle and was called Kokudo No Onnatachi—a pun on the movie series, Gokudo No Onnatachi, about the wives, Onnatachi, of the yakuza, a.k.a. Gokudo. 'Kokudo' was rendered as 'the way of the Black'. It didn't quite live up to my expectations, and I left after a couple of hours, because there was little rapping, and mostly DJing.)

I haven't been that into the J-hip-hop tunes I've listened to, but then, on a recent visit to Tower Record Shibuya, I ran into an album that excited me: it's by a one-guy unit called Lantern Parade, and is named Zessan Zessennchyu (translated to something like 'The Praiseworthy Battle of Tongues').

Lantern Parade isn't in the Japanese hip hop mainstream, and the music has an independent feel (and indeed, the album is released by Rose Records, Shimokitazawa luminary Keiichi Sokabe's label, rather than a hip hop label). The sound is different from 'normal' J-hip-hop's sampled R&B, reggae, etc.: there's some of that in Zessan, but the sound sources seem more eclectic (using acoustic guitar and strings, for example), and dark. And whereas the typical Japanese rapper imitates the delivery of his American counterparts, Lantern Parade's rapper doesn't so much rap as chant poetry without an excess of emotion. But what's really striking about Zessan are the lyrics—vivid, disturbing, nihilistic and, yet, at the same time, life-affirming (or, at least, life-exploring).

Here, for example, are some of the words to the song “Hana” ('Flower') [translated by me]:

People who come up to you at train stations and offer to tell your fortunes
People who get friends into network marketing schemes
People who cut off their arms and legs for fashion
People who drink golden 'holy water' with delight
School principals who give girls enemas
Ambulances that run over people

Yes, each of us is a single flower in the world

That last line is a reference to a saccharine but hugely popular pop song by the unavoidable SMAP. In Lantern Parade's case, however, the individuals who are extolled as flowers are involved in cults (the part about train stations is talking about the obsessed-eyed cultists who come up to you outside of big stations and offer to read your hand-fortunes) or have sociopathic fetishes.

In that first part of the song, Lantern Parade sounds cynical about optimists who paint the world in colors of goodness; but then in the second part, the lyrics turn more introspective, and the rapper sounds unsure about who he is and what he wants to do.

Not many can say, “I have nothing to lose”
I know I can't

He concludes this part of the song again with the declaration that each person is a flower, but this time the meaning changes: he seems to be saying there's beauty in the fact that we're uncertain beings, who might very well become degenerates rather than respected citizens.

And so go all 15 songs in Zessan, combining dark, dreamy, adventurous music tracks with the rapper's word-play, rhyme and vivid poetry that explores unlit corners of the psyche and society. It's an exhilarating ride, but, to return to the original topic, the words are in Japanese, so I'm not sure how much a non-speaker will get out of it. Another sad consequence of the destruction of the Tower of Babel...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Yuyake Lamp, At The Bank And On The Train

One wish I have about the Tokyo music scene: I'd like more events to be organized at unusual venues, rather than at the same old live houses and clubs, and in that regard, this weekend was ideal—I saw shows at an old bank in Kyoto and aboard the Arakawa-sen streetcar in Tokyo. Both were events featuring piano pop trio Yuyake Lamp.

The first was Friday night at the Museum of Kyoto's performance hall, which used to be the Bank of Japan's Kyoto branch. In creating this hall, the museum moved the entire Bank of Japan structure from wherever it was before to a space next to the main museum building. The ceiling was high, causing natural reverb during the performances, and there were tall pillars and a 2nd story balcony; it was a majestic hall, named an Important Cultural Asset, where bankers and businessmen of old must have met to mull important affairs of the day. Now, a few decades later, this sanctum of Finance had been taken over by a couple of dozen amplified-music playing young adults.

In the audience, though, were a good number of the middle-aged and seniors, maybe relatives and family friends of Quesa, the Kyoto-based female singer/pianist who organized the event. I wasn't sure what the older folks thought of the evening—they were mostly motionless and expressionless. This wasn't their music. To their credit, Yuyake Lamp were able to rouse even the elders through their music and interaction with the audience. A lady in front of me turned to her partner and said what a pretty voice the singer has. Which is true, but vocalist Yunn also has a way of filling every phrase and word and syllable of her songs with meaning and emotion, and I'd like to think the crowd responded to that. The last act of the night, Quesa, was a vocalist with a strong, beautiful voice too, who sang vivid, imagistic pop tunes. (I thought 'quesa' was Spanish for 'cheese', but it's actually 'queso', and the unit name doesn't actually mean anything. So much for five years of Spanish in school...)


On Sunday was Yuyake Lamp's Arakawa-sen live. Arakawa-sen is Tokyo's only surviving public streetcar line, traveling from the college-town of Waseda on the west to Minowa in northeastern Tokyo, a neighborhood that is like a time-warp to pre-1980's Japan. Yuyake Lamp set up a couple of small amps in the one-car train, connected those to a keyboard on one end of the train and to an acoustic guitar, while the drummer tapped on a cajon, and a flutist joined them. They played and talked during the whole fifty-five minute trip.

There were lots of smiles on board: smiles in response to the music, to the friendly, intimate atmosphere of the train, and the strange sensation of listening to wonderful live music on a commuter train that traveled through everyday scenes of a Tokyo Sunday afternoon. I saw outside the car window a crowd of revelers carrying a mikoshi; a guy riding a bicycle heading for kendo practice with a bamboo sword and a bag filled with armor; and lots of people of all ages on the streets and on train platforms doing a double-take after realizing that live music is coming from a streetcar.

This was the opposite of the live house experience, where, walking the stairs to a dark hall, you remove yourself from everyday life to focus on the music. The street car live WAS everyday life, but with live music in the background blending with the everyday scenes, and lending them an artistic feel (like something in a movie). Although by the end of the trip I was a bit dizzy due to the motion, I found I enjoyed the streetcar live much more and in a much different way than I expected.

Yuyake Lamp said they want to continue doing unusual events, and one idea they've floated is to do a show on board a hot-air balloon. If it happens, I may have to overcome my fear of heights just to be able to say I once saw a rock show in a balloon...

Friday, September 07, 2007

No Mo' Mono

Went to the Mono and Envy show at the Ebisu Liquid Room last night to try to expand my musical horizons a bit... but my effort flopped. Both bands are popular with the alternative Japan music crowd, Mono playing instrumental post-rock and Envy, an artistic hard-core. Unfortunately, I just couldn't make it through Mono's set and left before Envy started.

I know Mono has lots of foreign fans, especially in the U.S., where they tour constantly (Rock of Japan has several years' worth of praising gig reviews, for example), and I could see at the show that they have their brilliant instrumental moments, but, heaven help me, their songs are SO predictable. Start quietly and slow. Gradually build up in intensity and speed. Climax! Return to quiet and slow. Repeat this 10-minute cycle 5 or 6 times. By the 2nd or 3rd cycle, I was nodding off. If, just once, they varied things a little by, say, doing a straightforward 5-minute tune, it might have broken my monotony, encouraging me to stay. But that didn't happen.

It also didn't help that Mono was one of those bands that say NOTHING on stage, not even their band name. They didn't even have a mike on stage! Call me old-fashioned, but I want to at least hear a few words from the band I came to see. I'm not expecting rakugo here: just a brief greeting is all I ask for. Otherwise, without any interaction between the band and the audience, what's the point of a live show? Why not just stay home and listen to your i-Pod?

Having watched so many shows over the past few years, I think my supply of patience is running low. There is one upside to leaving a show early, though, and that is the feeling of freedom you get when you step out of the live house into the streets of a Tokyo night that is still young. But I do wonder what the Envy show was like...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Humming Parlour Event At Cyclone

At an event organized by my friends, the guitar pop group humming parlour, I met Patrick of, who's since written a nice review of the show here. He was at the event to see the first performers, solange et delphine (pictured above), whereas I was there to see humming parlour and Caraway (guitarist Shimada pictured below), so it was a happy coincidence that we ended up in the same live house (Shibuya Cyclone) on a Saturday night.

I enjoyed Patrick's favorites, solange et delphine, a stylish sampled-music unit who, I was surprised to find out, usually plays as a jazz ensemble (which I'd be very interested in seeing).

It was fun to see guitar pop groups like humming parlour and Caraway and mellow, well-behaved guitar pop audiences in a hard rock hell-hole like the Cyclone, with graffiti everywhere, artfully sticker-covered toilets and snarling, attitude-overflowing staffers (the Cyclone's relatively low rental fee was a main reason it was chosen as the event's venue). When I bitched about the staffers' attitude to my friend Dr. I, who was in the audience, he said, "Oh, well, this is a live house for furyou (juvenile delinquents). What did you expect?"

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Upcoming Shows That Will Rock My World

A few upcoming Tokyo shows that excite, surprise, interest, tempt, fascinate, blow my mind, etc.:

Piano pop trio Yuyake Lamp is releasing a new mini-album, Yuyake Ballad, on Aug. 29, and to mark the occasion they are throwing, on Sunday Sept. 16, a Tokyo Streetcar Live!! The show will be on an Arakawa-line train, Tokyo's only remaining streetcar line--I don't think I've ever been on it and have no idea what listening to a gig on a streetcar will be like, but it's such a wacky idea and, besides, Yuyake Lamp is one of my favorite bands, so I'll definitely be aboard. If you are in the area and are interested, you can send for tickets here--the deadline is Sept. 10.

Spangle call Lilli line, back from a long hibernation, is doing a double-header show at the Shibuya O-Nest on Oct. 27. More info here. Actually, if you were in Taipei for this year's Formoz Festival, you might have already seen them do their first gig after their hiatus. Anyone? (Unrelated, but I've heard that Ging Nang Boyz was at Formoz too, and vocalist Mineta did the Full Monty on stage again, and got in trouble with the Law AGAIN for that--and in the report I read he gave the Taiwanese cops some lame excuse like, 'oh, I didn't know that that was illegal in your country...'! My internet traffic blipped up for a few days, and I wondered what was behind that until I saw that everyone was googling "Ging Nang Boyz" and ending up at my post about Mineta's last scuffle with the law, in Japan. Funny guy, that Mineta... I'm really starting to dig some of Ging Nang's music, btw, but that's a topic for a future post...)

The girls of macdonald duck eclair (who I gushed about here), Yuki and Michi, are DJ-ing on Saturday (Sept. 1) at an Usagi-Chang Records event in Shibuya. Info here on Tokyo Gig Guide. I wish I could make it, but I'm going to a friend's event that night in the same part of town, at the Shibuya Cyclone, featuring Humming Parlour, Caraway, ghq and solange et delphine--this will be a blast too. If anyone goes to macdonald duck eclair and talk to them, could you please beg them make another album? I need a new macdonald duck eclair fix.

Osho, the vocalist/bassist of hard-marching retro-ska rockers Asakusa Jinta (whose album Sky "Zero" was my #1 favorite of 2006) will be playing in one of several RC Succession cover bands at an RC Succession cover night at the Kichijoji Mandala on Sept. 9. What is RC Succession? Grass-Hopper! You don't know what you are missing! RC Succession is one of the greatest Japanese bands of the 70's and 80's, and was led by Kiyoshiro Iwamano, the make-up-wearing, electro-shocked-haired middle-aged guy who appears on Japanese commercials and music programs from time to time.

And finally, something that has truly blown my mind: several years ago I wrote a post about a girl rock band called Teeny Frahoop whose two albums I loved, but who seemed to have disappeared without a trace. I wondered who they were, and what became of them. They left the scene in a different era, around 2000, before the internet was so big and MySpace and mixi and blogs had sprouted all over the place, so it was harder to get more info about them, making them all the more enigmatic.

Anyhow, one day when I was looking through the website of K.O.G.A. Records, Teeny Frahoop's old label, I saw an ad for an upcoming K.O.G.A. event, and one of the bands listed was ... Teeny Frahoop! Also, Patrick of was kind enough to point out that another K.O.G.A. girl band compilation was coming out, featuring new tunes by Hazel Nuts Chocolate and Micro Mach Machine, and when I looked through the other artists playing on the compilation, I saw the name ... Teeny Frahoop!

So...does this mean Teeny Frahoop is back? I can't wait to listen to their new song and see the band. Maybe it's not that unusual for a band to make a comeback after a few years' away from the scene, but to me, this is huge, unexpected news, as if a new planet was found or there was actually a little room I didn't know about in my apartment, or something like that.

Friday, August 17, 2007

GREAT SONGS: Qypthone's "Chez Nice"

Whatever happened to Qypthone? It looks like the lounge/electronica/pop unit still exists in the sense that their website remains up and they haven’t announced they’re quitting, but they haven’t done any shows or released any new songs in quite a while.

Maybe their disappearance is merely the latest episode in their interesting career. When I first saw Qypthone (pronounced Kip-thone) in the late-90’s they did gigs at regular live houses like the 251 in Shimokitazawa, but stood out due to their vivid stage presence and eccentricities. I recall seeing them wearing Mao jackets and fezzes in matching dark colors; as she sang, the tall, model-like vocalist Izumi Okawara did this dance where she swung her elbows up and down, as if they were being pulled by a puppeteer. Then, one day, their live house gigs ended; they became a club band, and eventually their performances became limited to a monthly appearance at the Organ Bar, a small club in an alley in Udagawa-cho, Shibuya. Recently, even that has stopped. (However, band leader Takeshi Nakatsuka has become a well-known solo musician, and is apparently very popular in the club scene. He does a lot of DJ gigs.)

As their venues changed, so did their musical style. Their first album was straightforward, if a bit whacky, pop; later albums like Modernica in the House and Montuno No. 5 added styles like lounge, Latin music, jazz and electronica to their sound palette.

I went to one of their Organ Bar shows a few years ago, and came away from it with a sense of why they made the transition from live house to club. At a Japanese live house you play on a stage to audiences that you don't know; often the crowds are quiet and not very responsive, due partly to shyness and self-consciousness. An event at a small club like the Organ Bar, on the other hand, is more like a party—people know each other, they interact, and they actually dance along to the songs. I could see how a club event might be more enjoyable for performers. For an audience member, though, if you don't know anyone at the club you are liable to feel like someone at a cocktail party who has no one to talk to (which is how I felt at the Organ Bar event). The anonymity of live house audiences sometimes has its advantages.

I like the Qypthone of the early live house/weird pop era better than their later club period. Their later albums sound good too, but you can tell they are drawing heavily from trendy club music styles—Qypthone in the beginning sounded like no one else.

One of my favorite tracks of theirs is from the first, eponymous album, and is called “Chez Nice”. I like to think of it as a 'Shibuya-kei blues' song because it combines the casual stylishness of Shibuya-kei music with what might be an unconscious borrowing from blues—lines in the lyrics repeated several times to make an emotional point.

The song is about a relationship that has ended, but not without regrets. After a whimsical musical intro containing much whirring sounds, Okawara sings the repeated line, “I don't know why I came to see you today, I'm wondering can I leave”. Once that line sinks in through repetition, she goes on, “See, I might still love you/Even [if] I don't find my favorite bread in the fridge/Can you explain to me?/Don't you care for me any more sweet heart?”, after which she suggests they go together to Restaurant Nice, a favorite spot for the lovers, one assumes, in former days.

And that's it. Simplicity. Yet I think it's a great tune because just with those few words, you can visualize it completely: a Tokyo girl goes to her ex's place, but she doesn't know why she's there, or what she wants. The theme is a general one that anyone can relate to: a relationship that is ending but you aren't sure if you want it to. But the setting of the song is specific—the Japanese girl is modern and westernized, judging by how she talks about her “favorite bread in the fridge”, and she is a Tokyoite who dines at a French place called Restaurant Nice. Yes, I knew people like that, whose lifestyles were like the girl's, and who went through things like she did. The song brings back memories of Tokyo in the late-1990's, like few others do. (You can listen to it on Qypthone's MySpace page, here.)


“Chez Nice” is an actual restaurant in Nakano, Tokyo, and the Qypthone album included a map to get there. I wanted to check it out, so one day a few years ago I took a trip to Nakano in search for it. But when I went to the neighborhood where Chez Nice was supposed to be there was no sign of it, and after wandering a bit I gave up and went home. Later, I found out that the restaurant had gone out of business.

However, nearby in Nakano is a pasta joint called Orient Spaghetti, where advantage Lucy once filmed their video for “Sunday Pasta” (I think it's available on YouTube). Orient Spaghetti is a cozy, tasty pasta diner, with a staff that has superb taste in music. If you are in the area and are in the mood for Italian, be sure to stop by.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

GREAT SONGS: capsule's "do do pi do"

The duo capsule gets undeservedly negative reviews from some foreign commentators, who call them Pizzicato Five clones and so on. I couldn't disagree more—in my view capsule is one of the country's best bands, a unit that creates some of the most catchy, attractive and inventive songs out of Japan these days. Toshiko Koshijima's soft, lovely vocals are a key ingredient: her voice gives me synesthetic visions of faded pastel colors. There's a reason so many fans showed up to their gigs once that the fire department had to be called, to deal with the appallingly overcrowded hall—all those fans can't be wrong (though the fact that capsule doesn't do that many shows, and that they chose a smaller-than-appropriate venue didn't help matters).

Over the past few years capsule's music has been evolving from Shibuya-kei lounge pop into Daft Punk-like electronica. My favorite album of theirs at the moment, L.D.K. Lounge Designers Killer, released in 2005, finds them at about a mid-point in this evolution, and they take the best of both genres: the attractive melodies of pop and the crazy beats of electronica. The album includes great tunes like “twinkle twinkle poppp”, “tiC taC” and “Glider”. But one stands out for me, and it is called “do do pi do”.

In brief, the subject of this tune is: to diet or not to diet. A banal topic? I don't think so. In prosperous Japan, a country in peace, this is one of most important issues for the young.

The lyrics succinctly describe the conflicting desires:

Kawaiku natte, oshare shitaishi
(I want to become cute, and dress up)

demo chocolate toka, a- tabetai
(but I want to eat chocolate and other things)

One chorus simply describes what the protagonist wants to eat:

Pumpkin pie, pancake, ice cream soda,
Pumpkin pie, ice cream candy, French toast

And she goes on to say that all those tasty treats have a “magic” that makes you want to consume them. But she has to ignore these desires, so she can become “cute, and dress up”.

In the intro of the song, the protagonist explains what led to this meditation on dieting to begin with:

“Mo-sukoshi yasetara kawaiinoni” to
Kimi ni iwaretakara, Komatta...

(You said “You'd be cute if you were a little thinner”
And now I'm troubled*)

*'Komatta' is a hard word to translate.

(Seemingly not the most sensitive boyfriend in the world...)

What makes this song so great, in my opinion, is that this is such a fundamental dilemma—whether to give up on all those tempting, beautifully-crafted, heavenly-tasting delicacies out there in the interest of losing weight, or to yield to the desire, ignoring the calories—yet there aren't many songs dealing with this topic, especially not with such detailed lyrics, gorgeous melody, or imaginative beats .

Indeed, even though it's a song about, in a sense, hunger, there isn't anything dark or depressing about the tune, and instead, it's upbeat and sweet. It could be that the song wasn't meant to be a serious examination or whether to diet or not, and was instead created as a fun song, sort of a joke, or maybe just as a filler. The lyrics, after all, were written (as with all the other songs on the album) by Yasutaka Nakata, the male half of the capsule duo. And if you've ever seen a photo of vocalist Koshijima, you'd know she is a doe-like slender girl for whom losing weight should be the last thing on her mind.

But still, in spite of all that and despite the fun feel of the song, when I hear the way that Koshijima wails “Tabe, ta-i (I want to eat)” in a repeated chorus part, I do get the feeling that she, an envy-inspiring fat-free Japanese girl, really identifies with the girl in the lyrics, and in the end that makes this tune compelling.


YouTube is running several music videos by capsule, if you are interested in their sound.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bluebadge's Eclectic Musical Extravaganza

Bluebadge Label is a nerve center of Japan’s guitar pop scene, so when I heard about their annual music event at the Shibuya O-Nest I was expecting an evening dominated by crisp, vernal melodies of the Prefab Sprout variety. That didn’t turn out to be the case--'guitar pop crazy summer vol. 2' was quite an eclectic extravaganza.

The closest to guitar pop purity was the Caraway, Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada’s band, which went first, playing as a trio without a drummer, and where Shimada showed he's just as mind-blowing a guitarist on acoustic as on electric.

On the other end of the spectrum was the third act of the night, Eel, a girl from Osaka who combines soft girl pop vocals with raucous techno/electronica. For much of the show she stood motionlessly at the center of the stage, while a trio of male dancers hopped around her, wrapping themselves up in an American flag, tying each other up with plastic cords, and in general making up for the main performer’s statuesque stillness with hyperactive stage antics. But during the last song she sprang to life and pulled audience members on to the O-Nest stage for a mass dance session. (Somewhere in the picture below is my friend Dr. I, who boasted later that he always wanted to stand on the O-Nest stage, and tonight he finally got the chance.)


Hazel Nuts Chocolate

Between acts, two girls in yukata, marino and Hazel Nuts Chocolate, did ‘DJ Live’s, which were simply their singing over recorded output like at a karaoke. Still, one doesn’t see comely Japanese lasses in kimono singing in DJ booths every night... I liked the way that marino put two plastic, watering-can-shaped handbags on the turntables, so they spun around and around while a toy bear (or monkey? can't remember which) in front of her pounded on a drum. Hazel Nuts Chocolate's Yuppa played a new song that will be released in a K.O.G.A. Records compilation in early-September. A new K.O.G.A. compilation with a new Henachoco tune....that's two pieces of good news.



Spaghetti Vabune

The other two bands, Spaghetti Vabune and Clean Distortion, both seemed to be more on the rock side than pop in their shows (even though Vabune's last album was called Guitar Pop Grand Prix).

It had been a while since I'd seen either, and while the final act of the evening, Spaghetti Vabune, did a fantastic, fun set (at one point they passed around a huge, pink bunny mask that they wore while they played), what stayed in my mind was the gig by the quartet Clean Distortion.

It was a ridiculously rocking set for a guitar pop event, and, in fact, vocalist Jun Inoue apologized between songs: "This is a Bluebadge event, and here we're playing like this." Inoue's lips twitched during the songs, like some sort of explosion warning. The band was as tight as your standing space in a rush-hour Odakyu train. The lead guitar blitzed through solos effortlessly, like he was making toast for breakfast.

It's as hard to describe how great a show like Clean Distortion's at the Bluebadge event was as it is to put in words what an explosion sounds like or the feeling of the heat of fire. Still, it does inspire a fool like me to keep trying.