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.