Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Congrats, Swinging Popsicle, On 10 Years

A congrats to Swinging Popsicle for ten years of playing together, certainly not a short period of time, considering that the average lifespan of bands is usually as brief as a small mammal's. The trio played a sold-out show at the Shimokitazawa 440 to celebrate the decade mark.

What's the secret to keeping a band together so long? There's probably no one formula. A funny thing about Swinging Popsicle is they don't seem like a band that ever slept together in a stinky tour van somewhere—even if, in fact, they actually did at some point. They are some of the friendliest musicians you will ever meet, but at the same time there's a refreshing dryness about the three. It's hard to imagine them getting misty-eyed about the sweat and tears of the early years. They are three great musicians who come together for the music, but the rest of the time each leads his/her own life (guitarist Osamu Shimada has his own great band, for example, called The Caraway). They seem very Tokyo that way.

On stage at the 440 show, though, they talked about how it wasn't always smooth sailing, and vocalist Mineko Fujishima said how one time she told the others that she wanted to quit. She said that bassist Hironobu Hirata had replied, in an angered voice, 'Fujishima, that's unfair (zurui)!' Mineko said she couldn't see at the time what was 'unfair' about her decision, but, weeping, she'd thought it over, and eventually Swinging Popsicle overcame that crisis. Good thing too, because otherwise the world wouldn't have had their latest, outstanding album, Go On, or maybe their earlier albums either. Hirata said he didn't really know what he meant by 'unfair' in that case, it was just what popped in his head, but he's glad he said it because it did the trick.

Their show featured all their big hits, and a cheer went up every time a crowd favorite began. Steve of JapanFiles.com guest-played the keyboard for them, adding richness to their live sound. Toward the end two female dancers joined Mineko for a choreographed rendition of “Chocolate Soul Music” from their latest album. They also showed a short musical film featuring Mineko traveling in the U.S., and narrated in English by... yours truly.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sotte Bosse; Kayoukyoku

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm starting to think that SMAP songs are actually not too bad.

To clarify—that doesn't mean I would go out and buy a SMAP CD. Nothing will ever convince me that those guys are anything but a mediocre boy band. But what I'm talking about instead is the songs themselves. I'm beginning to feel that at least some of them are catchy, well-crafted and eminently listenable.

What got me thinking this way is buying an album by the group Sotte Bosse called innocent view. It's an interesting album: it consists of covers of chart-topping Japanese pop songs, but perfomed in mellow-out, acoustic, jazz-influenced ways. The thing that makes this album work is the great vocal performance by Cana, who sounds like she's singing to some pals at some sunny, weekend garden party. (I looked up who she was, and it turns out that she sings for the house/fusion band i-dep. I actually saw i-dep once in a club, but only for a few moments, because the club was an unplesant meat market jam-packed with people, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. I think I should check them out again...) She covers songs like “Hanamizuki” by Yo Hitoto and Yumi Matsutoya's “Yasashisa Ni Tsutsumaretanara”, and often sounds better than the originals. And...one of the tunes she does is a SMAP song, “Yozora No Mukou”.

Living in Japan it's hard to avoid the better-selling SMAP singles, and I recall that NTT bombarded TV viewers with “Yozora No Mukou” for a while in one of their commercials (featuring the SMAPs singing on top of a rooftop at nighttime—none of them ever fell off...). Listening to its Sotte Bosse rendition, though, I was struck by how a different, better vocalist, backed by a skilled band, could make the song shine. This got me thinking, and in the end conclude that it isn't that surprising that a SMAP song minus SMAP would sound good.

The thing is, SMAP doesn't (can't) write good songs themselves, and their management instead hires composers and lyricists to put together the songs for them. These composers and lyricists are the best that money can buy, you'd assume. They are true craftmen of good songs. They create songs that sound decent even when SMAP performs them—small wonder, then, that when real musicians cover SMAP songs, they sound great.

In the West these days, I think there's a general assumption that, for the most part, serious pop musicians write their own songs. After all, songs aren't just about the music, but also about self-expression. You listen to songs not only for the sound, but also for what the musicians can communicate to you through music they wrote themselves. This is an assumption that's shared by the Japanese for the most part. But Sotte Bosse's SMAP cover reminded me that songs written by someone other than the singer can be great too, if craftmen of good sound are behind them.


You never know what will become popular, a 'boom' , in Japan, but it seems that kayoukyoku is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Specifically, kayoukyoku singles from the 60's and 70's are big these days. I think there was a Japanese movie recently that highlighted the pop music genre. And on a recent visit to a Shibuya book store, I found several guidebooks on kayoukyoku singles, including this pictured one that I bought.

Wikipedia gives two definitions for kayoukyoku: the wider definition, which is any popular Japanese music with vocals, and a narrower meaning, which places it someplace between regular pop music and enka in a map of vocal-centered music.

What got me interested in kayoukyoku was a display of old single record covers at Mona Records that I saw recently. I loved all the colors: solid blocks of primary colors, meant to attract attention. The covers also inevitably featured the singer, wearing a stage smile. There was a nostalgic appeal to these record covers: something you might have found as a child in a dusty corner of a import goods store, and the record looked ancient even then. But at the same time, looking at these records now, the cover art was exciting in a pop art way. I could see myself becoming a collector of these singles.

There's some sort of cultural force that makes people suddenly consider past eras as fresh and trendy: we've seen that happen in recent years with the 50's, 60's, 70's and the 80's. Maybe that's at work with the resurgent popularity of kayoukyoku: some people started playing the old songs, or showing old record covers and photos, and suddenly it snow-balled into a major trend. I mean, check out at the outfit in the photo at the top: how fantastic the look is, even though it's like something that's buried somewhere deep in Mom's closet!

But I also wonder whether kayoukyoku's popularity is a reaction to the current music scene. Like everywhere else, Japan's music scene is fragmented: people have very specific preferences in musical genres and listen to little else, and there aren't many national superstar musicians whose songs everyone knows. That's a by-product of the internet era and the explosion of media from which you can get music. But perhaps there's nostalgia for the days when everybody listened to the same songs on the radio or television, when the singers behind the kayoukyoku singles were true stars whose songs everyone from grannie to your kindergartener brother knew by heart. Is there some unconcious longing to get back to those days when society felt more unified?

And I wonder whether Sotte Bosse's popularity can be explained, at least partly, by this longing. Their album's songs aren't quite as universally known as the best-selling kayoukyoku singles were in their time, but they come close. Are those songs the final gasp of a unified Japanese popular culture? Maybe there's a desire on Japanese listeners' part to keep those tunes alive, even in a different guise.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Advantage Lucy In The Aquarium

Well I didn't actually see advantage Lucy at an aquarium and was at the Club Que as usual, but that's what I felt.

In spite of the amplified sound and the crowd, there was the peace of staring into the water, watching creatures going around.

Maybe it was all the old, familar songs played, like “Citrus” and “Metro” and “We Go”, as well as the mellow vibe of the audience.

Vocalist Aiko's eyes looked moist for much of the show, for reasons I didn't know. Was she moved there were so many people to see them, at one of their first gigs in a while? Or because there were Korean and Chinese names on the guest list, come all the way to Tokyo to see the show? Or was it just the music?

I felt a part of something, but at the same time felt separated from the stage, a charmed space, like the marine world behind the glass.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Japan Live In Taiwan (Grass Festival)

For the second year in a row I went to Taiwan to attend a music festival, this time Grass Festival, featuring dozens of of indie Taiwanese bands. My aim was to see as many of those bands as I could—while I enjoyed last year's Formoz festival tremendously, one of the things I regretted was I didn't check out more of the local groups (I spent a lot of time hanging out with Three Berry Icecream from Japan, and seeing the city). This year I was determined to focus on the local musicians.

Grass Festival is the brain-child of a guy named Yichin, who runs the indie Taiwanese label Silent Agreement. It took place about an hour and a half train ride south of Taipei, in the grounds of an elementary school that must qualify as having one of the world's most beautiful natural surroundings for a grammar school—between jungled hills and a blue-green sea.

Yichin set up the main stage next to the school's soccer field (thus, 'Grass' Festival), and placed other stages on the beach and the school auditorium (the one in the photo above with the portrait of Sun Yat-sen) and made classrooms into movie screening areas and a 'DJ class'. He also invited artists and craftsmen to set up stalls around the grass field to sell their goods. And he got something like 40 bands and solo musicians to play, all in one afternoon and evening (including my friends Yuyake Lamp and a group called Marikov from Japan).

I've been writing recently about wanting to see more events that aren't the usual, commonplace live house gigs, and by that standard, Grass Festival was ideal. I mean, this event took place at an elementary school in the Taiwanese country-side, brought together several dozen bands hand-picked by the owner of a super-cool Taipei indie label, and also allowed you to look at and buy arts and crafts made by locals. There wasn't much more I could ask for in terms of experiencing something new and different.

The festival wasn't perfect, however, and one of those imperfections for me was: nature. Taiwan is a sauna in the summer, and the sunlight is much stronger than in Tokyo. I attended Yuyake Lamp's rehearsal on the beach stage at 9:30 in the morning, and already, the sun's rays were piercing. The humidity caused sweat to pour out of me and wash away the suntan lotion, exposing my skin directly to the sun and turning me into a true Red-neck by noon. By 12:30, when the festival started, the combination of the sun and the heat was almost unbearable. The locals were smart though: many of them had brought big umbrellas to sit under during the hottest hours. Every inch of the shaded space around the stage was taken over by people escaping the sunlight. The beach stage was especially bad around noon: it was like watching a rock show in the Sahara. (Ironically, the band playing there at 2PM was called STAYCOOL...)

So, my concert-viewing activity in the early afternoon hours consisted of me standing in the sunlight as long as I could bear it so I could see the acts from the front, then scurrying for cover behind the stage, looking for someplace to sit in the shade. I did like what I heard though—a lot. One group I enjoyed was called Zhe Wei Taitai (這位太太), which I think means 'this wife'. They consisted of two female singers, who moved back and forth between melody and harmony parts, which were sweet and soothing, over an indie pop sound.

Zhe Wei Taitai

Almost every Taiwanese act I saw at the festival either played sitting down, or if standing, the performers didn't move around that much. I wasn't sure whether the lack of stage action was because the musicians invited to the festival were like that, laid-back, or whether performers in Taiwan generally have a low-key stage presence. My impression was that the musicians and audience valued most the vocal music parts, maybe more than the instrumental music or stage presentation, and that meant that moving around on the stage wasn't key. Taiwan seemed to be singing culture: every taxi I rode played popular Taiwanese songs (often old ones) on the radio, and the local Eslite record store had a big selection of enka CDs.

One unusual thing about Grass Festival was its, so to speak, Peter Pan quality. The theme of the festival was 'elementary school', and because this was its second year, it was officially called something like 'Grass Festival 2nd Grade'. They stamped on your arm a cherry blossom sign, the sort that a Taiwanese teacher might stamp on a well-written essay or error-free math quiz. And, I didn't see this myself, but between sets on the grass field, the organizers apparently had the audience do calisthenics or other types of school yard activities. Part of the reason for all this was because, well, the festival took place at a grammar school, but I wondered whether there was also nostalgia about childhood at work there, and if so, whether that was a big thing in Taiwan, or at least among the generations that went to this festival.

About 4PM it started to cool down, so that the umbrellas to avoid the sun could be put away, and the beach stage became comfortable, and then pleasant. Around then Marikov, a guitar group from Japan, played their 'urban folk'. Yuyake Lamp performed at 7PM, just as it was turning dark. By coincidence, fireworks went off above the stage just as they started, and because vocalist Yunn hopped around so much, almost losing her breath and becoming drenched in sweat, someone brought up to the stage tropical juice drinks for her and the two other players. It was a great show, one that I hoped created a few new fans of the band in Taiwan. Yunn said it was one of the best shows she'd done, and that she would remind herself of it to feel better if she ever became dejected about something.

Yuyake Lamp

Nylas, an interesting electronica trio consisting of a western guy and a Taiwanese guy and girl, played after Yuyake Lamp. I could only watch them part time because I was also involved in Yuyake's post-gig festivities, but I liked what I saw of Nylas. (Though, and this isn't Nylas' fault, I always feel that computer-based or DJ-based music performances are limited by the fact that the performers have to stay at a table, looking down at their equipment rather than the fans. Maybe someone should invent a movable desk that hangs from your shoulders that lets you walk around on stage...)

We left at 9:30 to take the second-to-last train back to Taipei, but because the train came by only every hour or two and practically everyone lived in Taipei, the train going back was as crowded as a rush-hour commuter express. Even worse, there happened to be another festival taking place that night on the same train line but closer to Taipei, and the revelers from that festival got on, making the train jam-packed with sweaty, sunburned humanity. The railroad personnel had to stop many people from getting on to our train because it was already filled to capacity. Incredibly, though, those people left on the platform, now having to wait another hour or more in the humid evening heat for the next train (and was there any guarantee that they could get on that train either?), rather than rioting or even complaining, started waving at those already on the train, waving 'bye bye, bye bye', and those inside the train waved back too. It was a strangely moving closing scene of a long day.

(Thanks a lot, E.J., Powei, Jelly and Cathy and Jubow of Dolly's Pillbox, for your great hospitality in Taipei!)