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 chipple.net 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." But...wow. 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.