Saturday, June 30, 2007

Favorite Five CDs Of 2006

Better late than never?

I actually wasn't planning to list my favorite J-music CDs of 2006 because, well, truth be told, 2006 wasn't a great year. The bands I like most, like advantage Lucy and Spangle call Lilli line, didn't release any albums last year (and one beloved band, Orange Plankton, called it quits). I didn't make many fresh discoveries of new groups either.

But there were SOME good CDs, so here's a Favorite Five list for 2006:

5. Yucca
The Orange Sun In My Room

Yucca, which released its second album last year, might just develop into a fantastic band in the same league as, say, Stereolab. Listening to Orange Sun, I feel a similar pleasure—about their newness, adventurousness and catchiness—as comes from doses of Stereolab. The two-guy, two-girl quartet says they are influenced by acts like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Pastels and, yes, Stereolab, and you hear those groups' echoes, but Yucca has its own musical signature. I like the way they describe themselves in their myspace page: “we love music, calm and impulsive, sophisticated and chaotic, and much beer.” I'm especially a big fan of drummer Ayako Sinada's feather-soft playing, which in a great song like “Mere Theory” in Orange Sun is as light as the sound of waterdrops popping on a hot frypan.

4. Quinka With A Yawn

I struggled to come up with words to describe the immediately appealing sound of this album by the one-woman unit Quinka With A Yawn, until I read a Japanese review comparing its songs to lullabies. Yes! Quinka's tunes are indeed like tunes to lull a child, thought up on the spot by a playful elder sister, who possesses a soft, earthy voice. She creates ever-changing gentle melodies with toy pianos and other musical instruments from the play-room, and continues playing after you've fallen asleep, the melodies entering your dreams.

3. Cornelius

When Cornelius's first album in five years came out in late 2006, I gushed about it, saying that it must be the best J-music CD of the year. I still think Sensuous is great, but... to be frank, I don't listen to it that much. Sensuous is an album that needs to be listened to from beginning to end, enjoying the way that Keigo Oyamada develops musical themes, starts out quietly with the gorgeous “Sensuous” but gradually goes out on a limb with more experimental numbers, before bringing it back to mellowness with a cover of Dean Martin's “Sleep Warm”. I don't listen to Sensuous for its singles, because they don't make much musical sense without the context of the album as a whole: in fact, I usually fast-forward those Sensuous tunes that pop up on iPod shuffle.

2. Tokyo Incidents
Adult Pour Femme
(or, Tokyo Jihen, Otona)

Rock of Japan has been posting a cartoon strip featuring two J-rock fans shooting the breeze, and in one recent installment one of the fans says that a lot of snobbish indie Japanese rockers claim they could care less about Shiina Ringo, and the other is surprised and says how can that be, Shiina is the best. And he's right. Shiina is staggeringly talented and has one of the most distinctive singing voices in Japan, a divine wail, a voice that is both young and old-sounding. That voice is at the center of her band Tokyo Incidents (or, Tokyo Jihen in Japanese), and their second album Adult Pour Femme (or, Otona). It's a bewitching voice that could make you listen to it all day regardless of the quality of the backing music; happily, Adult contains several knockout pop tunes, including “Shuraba”, “Tomei Ningen [Invisible Man]” and the passionate closing number “Tegami [Letter]”, a tune about growing up and becoming an adult, and clearly one of the best singles out of Japan last year. Overall, Adult is the more accessible album than Tokyo Incidents' debut effort, Kyoiku [Education], and is a great album that, yes, Rock of Japan, even indie snob-types should check out.

1. Asakusa Jinta
Sky “Zero”

Once in a while a new album comes out of nowhere that opens up doors of fresh, unexpected possibilities—Sky “Zero” is such an album. The first time I listened to it on my iPod, walking home at night, the swinging number “Gokuraku Rock” came on, and suddenly, the world became a brighter, happier place. Passersby appeared to me good people—they were fellow countrymen of this amazing band. I put “Gokuraku Rock” on repeat and danced home (in my mind).

What makes Asakusa Jinta's music special is that the band digs up old Japanese popular music styles such as the march, kayoukyoku and jinta brass bands, and combines those with more modern styles like rock, ska and rockabilly, to create a new sound. The tempos are fast and the bass-line heavy (the ska influence), but on top of that a horn section and accordion lend their tunes a nostalgic feel. It's a musical fusion—one that sounds great. Probably, other Japanese bands have tried something like what Asakusa Jinta is doing; I don't, however, know any such band that is as good as Asakusa Jinta. Soul Flower Union sounds superficially similar, but I think they are different: SFU's thing seems more of picking and choosing old and traditional musical styles and using them in their songs, whereas AJ's aim is to actually update great old styles to a contemporary sound.

Band leader, bassist and vocalist Osho (a stage name meaning 'Buddhist priest') is the visionary of the group, and also the person that most lends Style to Asakusa Jinta. He has the charismatic presence and voice of a pre-War silver screen star. I had a chance to interview him once, and was struck by how devoted and serious he is about old Japanese popular music as well as the culture of Asakusa, an area of Tokyo that until then I didn't think of as much more than an old town for tourists to see. He said Asakusa is a place where Old Japan lives on, and is his primary source of inspiration. His band's music has made me want to explore this town more, listen to old records sold in stores there, and then have a drink or two later in one of its izakaya's. Sky “Zero” can do that to you—watch out!


Other albums I liked include Spaghetti Vabune's Guitar Pop Grand Prix, which, as its title suggests, is guitar pop goodness; the self-titled album of the Caraway, the band of Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada; and waffles' Kimi No Mahou [Your Magic] (though the waffles' work doesn't change much from album to album, leading me to wonder whether they've already come up with their perfect formula, or whether they should experiment more); and the eclectic vocal magician Nikaido Kazumi's Nikaido Kazumi No Album.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Perfect Wasted Time W/ 4 Bonjour's Parties & LIF

Wasted Time (what a name!) is a bar in Shibuya, to the right of a forked road whose corner contains, incredibly, both a police box and a soapland. I went there to see 4 Bonjour's Parties and the temporarily-resurrected Lost In Found.

The basement bar was small and crammed with tables, and you had to squeeze between people to get from one end to the other. But I didn't mind. A lot of friends were there, the music was great, and the atmosphere was a happy one.

This was one of the many shows 4 Bonjour's Parties were doing after the release of their first album, Pigments Drift Down To The Brook, an outstanding work—artful, gentle, color-filled post-rock compositions.

4 Bonjour's Parties shows are like watching a sliding-block puzzle being worked out: seven musicians, usually all stuck on a small stage along with a xylophone, synthesizer and a table with a Mac, and everyone except the drummer and bassist plays two or more instruments, so they are constantly sliding from one position to another during songs, going from guitar to xylophone, or flute to mini-accordion, and so on, and each time the pieces move, there's a new sound. They are one of my favorite live bands in Tokyo at the moment.

4 Bonjour's Parties


The indie pop band Lost In Found broke up last year, but have come back to life this month to do a couple of shows. Though they used to play at established clubs like the Que, they were always the most fun at little venues and cafes, where they were relaxed, enjoying themselves, and interacting best with the crowd. I don't mean to belittle them as a band—quite the opposite, I loved the spontaneity and un-fakeness of their Wasted Time gig, and they got me thinking anew about live music.

One thought: is there any need to seek out something more, something bigger than a comfy neighborhood bar gig like this? Or, is this the ideal? Surrounded by friends and acquaintances, listening to good music, even if the players are unknown. People who write about music are often looking for the next big thing, and unearthing the next big thing boosts their ego. But what's the point? If the music is good and you have fun, what more is there to ask for? I sometimes daydream that that's the juke joint view of music.

Lost In Found


I was thinking these thoughts as I talked to Mike, the singer of Lost In Found. I told him this is a nice event, and I hope there would be more like it.

“Yeah, I'd like to do it again and again,” he said.

Then, a few seconds later:

“I'd like to do it once or twice more.”


“You can't re-create something,” Mike said.

That stuck in my mind, because I've felt that too. I become excited about a show because it feels like opening doors to a new world of unimagined music, to new possibilities, but in fact what's behind that perfect gig may have been a set of positive coincidences that will never quite come together in that way again.

That's true enough, and in line with my experiences, but the tough thing with that is, to then continue having elevating musical experiences you have to hope for new, beautiful surprises all the time. A challenge. Maybe it's possible though. My hope is that even when I'm a wobbly old geezer, I'll have shows like the Wasted Time gig to look forward to.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Vasallo Crab 75 & cruyff In the bedroom At Que

Vasallo Crab is evolving.

In the beginning they were two guitar pop guys who home-recorded a dreamy, mellow-out album called Flip Turn. Half a dozen years later, Vasallo Crab 75 are six people that move between pop and disco/funk, and are premier showmen. At Sunday's show, marking the release of their new mini-album Twelve Rays of Light, singer Daisuke Kudo brought about four trilby hats on stage, fussed big time about trying them all on during songs, tossed one into the audience, and, as the ensemble stopped playing he bowed deeply as he took off one of the hats, to reveal his skinhead.

Arm stretched, he held out the hat for a long, long, long time. Then, right at the moment he bent his arm back and plopped the pork pie back on to the parietal, guitar, bass, drums, keyboard all came back like an explosion. A scripted but still delicious moment. The crowd also went wild when violinist Kawabe-san ripped through a spiderweb-like Bach solo, as he always does, midway between a funky tune.

Having watched them for several years now and seeing them evolve, I got to thinking about the Stage, that magical space. The place that frightens even the most accomplished performers, from Elvis on down, and reduces them to nervous desperation before the show starts. The VC75 crew are ordinary guys in person, but they change when they shout out together in the dressing room and climb up to the stage. Does that space bring out something in them that is usually concealed? Or is it all an act? When I saw them the first few times, their performances were still rather shy, and I've heard people say they like that old, understated, guitar pop Vasallo more than the current crowd-pleasing, funk-infused version. I don't agree with that; they won't be going back to their old guitar pop roots, but they are creating something new instead, and I feel it's some of the most compelling live music being performed in Tokyo these days.


Before Vasallo was shoegaze/dream pop quartet cruyff in the bedroom, who I hadn't seen for several years. They are a good band but what helps them stand out is the Cheshire cat-grinning, flirtatious cool of the lead singer, who had an aura of someone who's been a lady's man since his earliest youth, and probably was one reason why the audience was about 70-80% female. He's a big soccer fan, as seen in the choice of the band's name and the big red Gamba Osaka sticker stuck on the front of one of his guitars.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Japan Live Radio Updated - New Music

Japan Live Radio's upkeep has been neglected in the last few weeks because of the "DJ's" private busy-ness and also his lethargy coming from gloominess that the RIAA may ruin this whole thing (see here for details; I'm not sure what the latest on this is), but I've finally updated it, with new music from Swinging Popsicle, 4 Bonjour's Parties and Piana (great new works all--hope to write about them soon). Enjoy, cheers.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

What Happened, Tower Records Shibuya?

The Tower Records in Shibuya has long been my Grand Temple of Music in Tokyo.

This seven-floor, bright-yellow-walled structure contains one of the world's most extensive collections of music CDs on sale, including whole amazing floors devoted to classical music and jazz, a big space for hip hop, soul and R&B, separate floors for Japanese and western pop/rock, and so on. In these days of and MP3's, Tower Records Shibuya is a place where you can still feel the thrill of going into a record store and getting lost in row after row of music discs.

Tower Shibuya's Second Floor is the holiest space for me in this grand temple, the place I head to first during my weekly pilgrimages, because this is where the record shop keeps its Japanese music CDs. How many discs have I bought on this floor, after listening to a sample CD, or reading a staff-written recommendation, or seeing a nice-looking CD cover, or after hunting down music by a band I saw at a gig somewhere in Tokyo?

Tonight, though, I went to the Second Floor and saw that they re-designed its layout. I didn't like what I saw.

The biggest change is that they've gotten rid of the indie music section, and mixed the CDs from there into an expanded J-Pop space. Which, I can see what the reasoning might be: Japanese music is Japanese music, whether it comes from a major or an independent label, so why separate them?

But, understanding that, I'm still displeased. For one thing, my scientifically not-very-rigorous evaluation of the CDs in the new, expanded J-Pop section suggested that while Tower did put a lot of indie CDs in there, they also got rid of many dics that used to populate the J-Indie space, including some of my favorites.

Another thing is, I already miss the feel of going into that indie section. When you entered those few rows, you knew you were in a world of records by up-and-coming, non-conformist Japanese musicians, many of whom were (or at least seemed) more interested in making good music than money, and in any case weren't taking orders from big corporate records labels. Sure, a lot of the CDs in that section were terrible, and some of them you couldn't imagine why anyone would buy when you saw their poor taste in cover art. But in some ways, that added to the appeal: it suggested that Tower was keeping its gates wide open to new music, a good thing in itself, and there was always the possibility that that one random disc you bought of an unknown band, because of its attractive cover art, would be an unexpected masterpiece that only you and very few others knew about, at least until that artist made it big...

I knew the corners where to look for recommended new CDs, which you could listen to on headphones. I knew the locations of piko piko future pop CDs, the indie compilations, and the discs by artists that were creating buzz and being talked about. Sometimes I'd wander into the major label section with its gaggle of over-produced, rip-off 3,000-yen discs, but I knew to return to the indie section, where bands taped hand-written intros onto the shelves of their new releases and left fliers for future events.

The indie section had its own atmosphere. It felt like an independent store within a mammoth shopping center. I assume that Tower, which has stayed afloat in Japan but must be struggling due to falling CD sales nationwide, felt it needed to make its merchandising more 'rational', partly by getting rid of the waste of the indie section. But I feel uncomfortable about the changes, feel they will become less of a trend-setting place where the newest and best music is introduced to the world, and their Second Floor will become just another McStore for J-Pop.