Saturday, March 31, 2007

Asakusa Jinta, Back From The U.S.

Japanese “hard march” rockers Asakusa Jinta returned from their U.S. tour, and I went to see their first show back in Tokyo. Fans at the Yoyogi Zher The Zoo shouted 'okaeri!'—welcome home.

Sometimes I get overexcited when I see a good band for the first time, only to have my enthusiasm come back down from the stratosphere at the second gig, when the novelty wears off.

This wasn't the case with Asakusa Jinta.

If anything, I became an even bigger fan. Listening to their hard-driving set, my tiredness disappeared like a cannonball over the clouds. Swinging to their retro musical gems, my apathy melted away like an ice cube in boiling water.

Vocalist/bassist Oshow said the band stopped by Austin while South by Southwest was going on, and they played at an alternative festival called 'FXFU'.

“It was at a farm, and on the stage with us was a goat,” Oshow said. “While I was singing, the goat was in one corner, munching on grass. The farm owner said the goat became dumb listening to all the loud music. Our cables went through the grass with animal crap.”

Next to me in the audience were two little girls, and their dad showed them dance moves. They had fun. I like challenging, sophisticated music, but a part of me thinks that the best music is music that kids can enjoy too because it's so appealing and straightforward. Asakusa Jinta draws their inspiration from old Japanese music styles that are fairly obscure, and sound like no other band I know, but even children love their stuff.


Also performing was a band called babamania, who, I just found out reading about them in wikipedia, are 'best-known for their 2003 hit "Wanna Rock", which is known internationally due to its inclusion on the multi-platform video game FIFA 2004'. With a female singer, a male rapper/vocalist (wearing a white tuxedo jacket over sweatpants) and lots of dancing, they seemed to me like an Avex Trax group gone indie.

Before babamania's set, a band from Osaka I wanted to see performed: A.S.P., short for Associate Social Piano ('associate'? So does that mean they will change their name if they get a promotion?). Their female vocalist wore a red beret, a pink dress, golden spandex leggings, and red shoes (or some such combination, I don't remember exactly). They played an upbeat combo of rock, jazz and techno, and the red-pink-gold-clad vocalist was a good singer, though her way of singing, meant to highlight with her vocal skills what a free-spirited and sensitive individual she is, is pretty common these days.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Odds & Ends

*, where I’ve been doing monthly columns about Japanese music, is shutting down. It’s a shame—I enjoyed writing for them and also liked reading the other columns from Montreal, Sydney, Austin and San Francisco. The guides to music scenes were great too. Posts from the past will stay online.

* Live365, which hosts my radio station, has been asked by the Copyright Royalty Board to pay drastically higher royalties. They are appealing this, but if it goes through, that could make it impossible for small-time broadcasters like me to afford it. It seems like a witless move on the music industry’s part—Live 365 actually encourages people to try out new music and buy it (I know I have, listening to other stations—lots!). More on this here and here.

* On to happier news: one of my favorite Japanese groups, Yuyake Lamp, the piano pop band started by former members of Orange Plankton, released its first single yesterday, called ‘Kokoro no Ki [‘The Tree of the Heart’]’. They are doing a solo show at the Shibuya Plug on Friday to celebrate its release, and will hit the road for a multi-city tour from April 4. I haven’t bought the single yet, and will probably pick it up at the Plug show. It’s available here.

* Multi-instrumental art pop group 4 Bonjour’s Parties is also due to release their first album, both in Japan (on May 16) and in the U.S. (on July 23). I’m looking forward to that one too—4BP's tunes are beautiful, mellow and flowing, and it will be a pleasure to listen to a whole album’s worth of their music. Also gorgeous is the album cover (below), which is designed by a Japanese illustrator named Colobockle.

* Some live show photos of mine are used as the dots in this ad for Onitsuka Tiger shoes. This one came out of the blue—maybe I should charge them a fee!

* is now selling advantage Lucy tracks. Available are the album Echo Park and the maxi-singles Hello again and Sunday Pasta. Advantage Lucy is one of Japan’s best bands, and this is a good way to be introduced to their always-brilliant guitar pop.

* By the way, advantage Lucy disappeared from view for the first few months of this year, not updating their internet page and not doing any shows. It was a bit worrying, but they’re back now—their first show of the year is an acoustic set at a Buddhist temple (!) in Hiroshima (it sounds great, but is a bit of a hike from Tokyo…), and vocalist Aiko has restarted her online diary. It looks like they’re working intensively on a new album, removing themselves from the world like hermits in some coastal cave, to devote themselves to music… Aiko writes that they feel now like first line intro of the Soseki Natsume novel Kusamakura (the internet being the incredible resource that is, I’ve found a translation of the passage):

Use your intellect to guide you, and you will end up putting people off. Rely on your emotions, and you will forever be pushed around. Force your will on others, and you will live in constant tension. There is no getting around it—people are hard to live with.

Perfectionism comes with a price, is what I think she means. I love advantage Lucy for many reasons, and definitely one of those reasons is that they’re the sort of band that quotes Soseki Natsume in their online diary!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gyoko, Michiro Endo, Midori

I was looking forward to Saturday's show at the Yoyogi Zher The Zoo because it was to feature a musician and a band I've wanted to see for a while: Michiro Endo, the former front-man of the legendary 80's punk band The Stalin, and Gyoko, Japan's one and only fisherman rock band. It turned out to be a great evening.

Endo, the second on the bill, played solo. His face was jagged and all sharp angles, like a stone spearhead. Whipping the strings of his acoustic guitar, he shouted sung poems about sex and destruction (at one point he compared the womb to the atomic ruins of Hiroshima), and then let out shrieks at the ends of songs like a bat's scream. A couple of decades after the Stalin days (when he picked fights with audience members and threw animal innards into the crowd, getting banned from most venues in the process), he was still a rule-breaker but with words rather than action. The audience seemed at once moved and uncomfortable; several yelled out his name between songs.

Up next was Midori, an explosive punk-jazz-rock unit from Osaka, with a girl in a sailor uniform on vocals. Now that Limited Express (has gone?) has, sadly, disbanded, Midori will likely be one challenger to their throne as Osaka's wildest zany live band: bands that crowd-surf are a dime a dozen, but this was the first time I saw someone crowd-walk—the sailor uniform girl grabbed the ceiling pipes and stepped over the shoulders of fans during one number.

Gyoko is a trio of fishermen rockers—according to the tale they've spun they decided to start a band when heard Run D.M.C. on the radio waves while on a tuna-fishing boat near Australia. They have a great single out called “Maguro [tuna]” featuring taiko drums and a triton conch, and are due to release their first album in May.

Right away it was clear this was going to be something different: the stage was covered with banners with old Chinese characters on them saying things like “Big Catch”, and there were two giant paper lanterns on either side. The three members made their way to the stage through the audience, and the singer, Captain Morita, raised a long sashimi knife into the air as he climbed onto the stage. He was wearing aviator sunglasses and a tightly-twisted headband, and spent about as much time talking as doing a few songs. But it was first-rate entertainment—you never knew what they were going to do next, and at the end of their set Captain Morita left the stage and came back wearing an actual big tuna head on his face, proceeding to cut it up to give as gifts to the audience, while explaining what each fish part was.

For too many bands a live show is all about themselves: it's an egotistical thing, an opportunity to reveal themselves and their feelings through music, and the audience is expected to understand and be supportive. Not so with Gyoko. Their aim is to surprise and delight the audience, and they succeeded fully at that—I had so much fun I decided to leave before seeing the last band, because I was already sated. We need more bands like Gyoko.

Friday, March 16, 2007

My Charm #11 Girlie Life

My Charm is a magazine for Japanese girls who are connoisseurs of things like afternoon tea, knitting, candle-making, bead jewelry and European movies. It's not a zine I'd usually have any interest in, but the latest issue was different—it came with a bonus, a compilation CD that included tracks by favorite musicians of mine including Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Three Berry Icecream and Contrary Parade. So I sped over to the Libro bookstore in Shibuya, found it in the girl's magazine section (where I was the only guy looking around), bought it and listened to the CD at home as I flipped through articles about cute shoes, umbrellas, bags, buttons, sweets, soup, Paris and stamps.

For the most part the CD features Japanese city pop with easy-to-swallow melodies and well-behaved instrumental arrangements. The one big exception is Hazel Nuts Chocolate's “Jenny's Discothequa”, a hyperactive tune that sticks out in the compilation like a Disco Queen would on a stage full of ballet dancers. (Hazel Nuts' singer Yuppa also contributed to the magazine a manga about her losing her favorite favorite eraser.) Another good track is “Love Prologue” by a duo called Sucrette, a lounge pop number with pizzicato violins, vibes (?) and a French-influenced whisper-voiced female singer.

If you are in Japan you should be able to get your hands on My Charm #11 Girlie Life with its great, mellow-out compilation album in a big bookstore near you. If you aren't, I'm not sure where you can find it, but I'll be playing many of the tunes on my radio in coming weeks.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Japan Live Radio Updated - With New Logo!

In case you didn't know, I have an Internet radio station called Japan Live Radio, where I play Japanese songs I like and write about in these pages. I've been trying to update it a few times a month, putting in old personal favorites and new tunes I've discovered. The latest installment includes new songs by piano pop units waffles and Quinka with a Yawn, new material from arty rockers Good Dog Happy Men, a single by Shiina Ringo, and the usual liberal servings of perennial favorite artists like advantage Lucy, Spangle call Lilli line, Macdonald Duck Eclair and Luminous Orange.

I've also updated the station with an exceedingly cool logo, designed by Akira Muramatsu, the gentleman behind the album artwork of the latest advantage Lucy and Vasallo Crab 75 releases. Profuse thanks to Mr. Muramatsu for the logo, which I love! I marvel at how some people can create such snazzy art with just shapes and colors.

P.S. If you like the music on the radio station, could you, maybe, just keep it on all day once in a while...? Not that it makes any difference, but it would be sorta neat if the total listening hours for the station reaches 1000 hours for one month, and it's close to that. Muchas gracias!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Asakusa Jinta At Shibuya Quattro

In these cold months in Tokyo I've discovered a great band that warms my soul. Their name is Asakusa Jinta.

This septet takes old Japanese popular music, mixes in rock, rockabilly and a teaspoon of punk, and cooks up a sound that is both nostalgic and brand new. The 'jinta' in their name refers to brass bands that were active in the Meiji and Taisho eras (that is, 1868 to 1926), and horns and saxes, in addition to an accordion and a pumped-up double bass, are key ingredients in their songs. Their music sounds like modernized versions of old Japanese movie music (you can sample some of their tunes here).

Most Japanese bands borrow from western music styles like rock, blues and hip hop, but very few tap into Japan's own home-grown musical traditions. Asakusa Jinta does, and succeeds brilliantly. My next rightround column, due out on Monday, is about Asakusa Jinta--take a look if they interest you.

I went to see them at the Shibuya Quattro last week, and had such a good time I forgot what a cramped, smoke-filled hell-hole the Quattro is when it's packed (which it was). I was surprised to see that despite Asakusa Jinta's retro sound, the audience was young, mostly people in their twenties--was this a sign that Old Japan is becoming trendy? There were a few guys in rockabilly outfits, and one girl in a kimono with skin as white and smooth as ivory.

Asakusa Jinta is led by vocalist Oshow, who plays a golden double bass that's souped up to explode notes with maximum impact. Martial metaphors come to mind when trying to describe his bass sound--distant bombs, machine gun rounds... He's surrounded by a girl on sax, another girl on accordion, a trumpet guy, a guy that plays brass (including a sousaphone), and electric guitar and drums.

They play music that if it doesn't make you dance you should go and see a doctor. The crowd did what looked like Okinawa-style dancing, with both arms in the air, palms facing the ceiling and wrists twisting to the rhythm. For the encore, the horn section marched into the audience like some sort of ultra-hip chindonya ensemble, while Oshow did a solo on-stage. The front-center of the audience section dissolved into a mass mosh pit, and in spite of the incongruity of people slam-dancing to neo-Japanese popular music, I shared their sentiment.


Asakusa Jinta is touring in the U.S. in March, so don't miss them if you are in one of the big Americas cities they will be playing in, which are:

Cambridge, MA on March 10 at T.T. The Bear’s
New York on March 11 at Knitting Factory
Philadelphia on March 13 at Khyber
Chicago on March 14 at Empty Bottle
Austin, TX on March 16 at Elysium
Los Angeles on March 18 at Knitting Factory
San Francisco on March 19 at Independent
Seattle on March 20 at Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room

More information here.