Wednesday, December 31, 2008

NYT On Koenji; Tokyo

FYI, here's a nice, brief New York Times profile piece on the Koenji music scene. All those tiny yakitori joints and pubs do indeed look worth exploring...

Many years ago I considered living in Koenji but ended up in Sangenjyaya instead, and have stayed close to Shibuya ever since. I sometimes wonder how different my Tokyo experience would have been if I lived in Koenji or some different area. And would it have affected my musical tastes?

Koenji, for example, seems to be a good place for progressive, alternative and experimental music. Punk reigns supreme in Shinjuku. As the label 'Shibuya-kei' indicates, pop and electronica are the thing in Shibuya, as well as guitar pop and neo-acoustic. How much does your environment determine what sort of music you like? But I do think the sound of guitar pop bands like advantage Lucy and Swinging Popsicle would have been irresistible to me no matter where I lived in this city.

As I was pondering this I ran into a passage in the Natsume Soseki novel The Gate where the main character is thinking about the walks he takes in the city on his Sundays off, but he still never feels he's figured out Tokyo: “When he comes to the conclusion that, even though he lives in Tokyo, he's never really seen 'Tokyo', he always feels a strange sadness.” I know the feeling. I've made my way through many neighborhoods of this city (a lot of them as part of my gig-going trips...), but because Tokyo's so big, and ever-changing, it's hard to feel like you ever really know the place.

***

Thanks for reading, and for your support in 2008. I hope you have a happy 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2008

GREAT SONGS: advantage Lucy's "splash"

Sometimes a song is so good you don't even need to know what the words mean. I love Elis Regina, though I only know a handful of Portugese words. And I'm a fan of Cantonese and Korean pop, with little clue what the tunes are about. But I still sometimes wonder whether others are as carefree about their lack of linguistic knowledge when it comes to Japanese songs—could a person who doesn't know Japanese enjoy J-pop? Happily, a recent comment someone left on Japan Live confirmed that, yes, a person indeed could.

Commenter rifat1984 wrote: "can you please translate [advantage Lucy's] song called SPLASH...i really love that song but i don`t know the meaning of it".

This also delighted me because I'd been thinking about writing about the song in question, advantage Lucy's "splash". The eighth song in Echo Park, the guitar pop duo's most recent album, 'splash' is a beautiful musical work. But what makes it one of my favorites are the words, and I've been wanting to let people know about them.

"Splash" takes place by an ocean, where the waves and the hot sand remind the singer of a lost friend. She wants to share with him a new song she just created ('I want to send to you a melody that was just born'), but he's 'so far'. It's a touching song in itself. But there's more to it. Like other songs in Echo Park, there's the spirit of a person hovering in the background, that infuses the music and lyrics with emotion.

That person is Takayuki Fukumura, the former advantage Lucy guitarist, who passed away while Echo Park was being made (and for whom musical friends each year throw a show that celebrates his life, as I wrote about recently). I've never directly asked them this, but I think that the person the singer looks for, somewhere in the waves, is Fukumura. The spareness of the repeated guitar passages helps highlight Aiko's soft but feeling-filled vocals.

At the same time I've shared the band's sadness about Fukumura, I've also been deeply moved by all the art that they created in memory of this friend of theirs. I feel lucky I was able to witness the band at work, in that emotional but fruitful year and a half between Fukumura's death and the release of Echo Park. "Splash" is one of their gems during the period.

***

I can't find "splash" on the net, but here's a YouTube video of another classic from Echo Park, "To-i Hi (A Distant Day)":



***

And here are the lyrics, with my approximate translation:

Kazashita te wo afurete, taiyou ga koboreochita
(Overflowing from my hands, the sunlight spills)

splash! Kimi to kuchizusanda melody ga mimi wo kusugutta
(splash, I hear a melody we used to sing together to ourselves)

Yosetewakaesu nami no dokokani, kimi no sugata wo sagashite, utau
(I sing, looking for you somewhere in the waves that advance and retreat)

Oshiyoseru hibi, natsukashii iro ni, nagisa wa nijimuyo
(The past comes back to me and colors the sea)

Hadashide yaketa suna wo kette hashiru dokomademo
(I run on and on barefooted, over the burning sand)

splash! Kimi ni umaretateno melody wo todoketai, so far...
(splash, I want to send you a melody that was just born, [but you're] so far..)

Yosetewakaesu nami no dokokani, kimi no sugata wo sagashite, utau
(I sing, looking for you somewhere in the waves that advance and retreat)

Oshiyoseru hibi, natsukashii iro wa
Kaze ni nami ni toke, subete wo tsutsumuyo
(The past and its colors melt into the wind and waves, and envelop all)

Kazashita te wo afurete, taiyou ga koboreochita
(Overflowing from my hands, the sunlight spills)

Hadashide yaketa suna wo kette hashiru dokomademo
(I run on and on barefooted, over the burning sand)

splash! Todoke tooku toki wo koete
nami no mukou e, sorano kanate e
hikarini sakie, kimi no moto e to, so far...
(splash, arrive, where you are, on the other side of the waves,
at the end of the sky, where light heads, so far...)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Seijin Noborikawa In Amagasaki

Amagasaki isn't the first destination you'd think of when planning a trip to Japan. Right next to Osaka to the west, it's an industrial town lined with factories and not much else to see. But last weekend, I knew I had to be there. A legend was coming to Amagasaki.

The legend's name is Seijin Noborikawa. Widely regarded as one of the greatest living Okinawan musicians, he is a master of the three-stringed sanshin. On a whim, I bought one of his CDs, and was blown away by his sound: the exotic five-note scales, strummed with fiery precision by Noborikawa, gave me visions of a mystical island of Okinawa of ocean, jungle and dark nights.

But Noborikawa, for various reasons having to do with the history of Okinawa and Japan, doesn't like mainland Japan and so hardly ever comes over here to perform. He's 78-years old too—I wanted to witness his art while I still could. So I boarded the shinkansen to Osaka, got on another train that would take me to Amagasaki, and headed to the municipal culture center.

Outside of the 'Archaic Hall Oct', so named because it's octagonally shaped, a long line of people of all ages had formed, from babies to the elderly, and many had the shorter, wide physique of Okinawans. It was standing room-only by the time I entered the auditorium, but I didn't mind because I'm used to listening to music standing up. I was surprised, though, about how much interest there was in Okinawan music.

The four-hour event mainly featured performances by students of 'Noborikawa-style' sanshin playing. In the first set, for example, about fifty sitting sanshin players, with Noborikawa at the center, plucked Okinawan songs in unison.



Always pleasing the crowd were several tiny kids that played the sanshin, sang, and danced, including two brothers aged one and two who performed the eisaa drum dance.

Tetsu Irei, the Amagasaki-based organizer of the event, also did a sanshin duet with his little grandson, who was a prodigy on the three-stringed instrument. When the two dashed through a lightning-speed, electrifying passage, in any place but Japan the crowd would have been up on its feet in ovation, but here everyone waited politely until the end to applaud. The crowd also laughed when Irei scolded his grandchild for yawning on stage between parts.

***

Noborikawa, the legend, was a tiny man, who cracked jokes (he explained he played sitting down because 'as you get older, little by little you get so you can't get it up') and talked at length in incomprehensible Okinawan dialect. But in spite of his small physical stature, he dominated the stage with the gravity of an old master. Watching Noborikawa play the sanshin without strain, as if it was a natural thing for his body to do, I felt the weight of a long life devoted to the instrument. At one point his disciple Irei said Noborikawa had stopped drinking because he got cancer (he'd been smoking and drinking since he was a little kid in Okinawa), and his doctor told him he'd die if he didn't quit. Hearing that made me glad once again I made it to Amagasaki.

At the end of the event Noborikawa presented awards to students, but warned that he might not be able to read all of the citations because he didn't go to school. And, indeed, he stumbled over some of the kanji. I went out and bought a biography of his, and found out that it's not that there was no school for him to attend, but that there was a school but he skipped classes most of the time so he could practice the sanshin to impress his older friends. Sometimes he went inside Okinawan tombs to practice without being bothered (and no doubt giving a fright to any passersby who heard the sanshin strains from inside the tomb...). He was still a kid during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII, and climbing on top of a tree he was impressed by the sight of the gleaming B-29 bombers flying in for their muderous missions.

When the war ended, the people of the devastated island tried to recreate older, better days, and also express their sorrow, by singing and playing the sanshin. They had to make the instruments themselves out of tin cans and sticks. Later, the islanders found out that cut-up parachutes stolen from the GI's made for sanshin coverings that were almost as good as the traditional snake skin. This is the world in which Noborikawa developed his art. It's like the blues of Okinawa.

***

One final thing: at the event, some of the young performers did a skit recreating the mo-ashibi, the late-night youth get-togethers, up in the hills, that used to be a common thing on the island. They acted the parts of guys and girls sitting together, singing and strumming the sanshin over food and liquor.

The Noborikawa biography I read, however, suggested that these parties weren't quite as innocent as portrayed in this skit. One of the things about these gatherings was that when a guy and a girl took a liking to each other, the two would slip away from the party into the darkness, for a more intimate encounter. Marriages were arranged by parents in those days; at times, as a result of what happened at these parties, when the new wife met her husband she was already carrying a child. That sort of thing scandalized the upright islanders, and good kids weren't supposed to attend mo-ashibi. But Noborikawa couldn't resist the sound of laughter, youthful conversation, song and sanshin notes wafting down from the hills, and so he snuck out of his home to watch. And a sanshin player was born.

***

Here's a YouTube clip of Noborikawa playing a six-stringed sanshin (rokushin?):




***

I found this guy in front of a sushi restaurant in Amagasaki: a Hanshin Tigers-loving sushi chef!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Munekyun Arpeggio 2008

Every year, on November 26, advantage Lucy, Vasallo Crab 75 and other bands gather together for a musical event called Munekyun Arpeggio, which celebrates the life of Takayuki Fukumura, guitarist and founding member of Lucy and VC75, who passed away on that date in 2003. 'Munekyun' was a favorite word of Fukumura's—it's that feeling you get when a cute or lovely thing bulls-eyes your heart. And the pop arpeggios that he wrote still make people feel munekyun. This year at the Que for the event were Karenin, Swinging Popsicle, and, of course, advantage Lucy and VC75.

All throughout the event there were subtle reminders of Fukumura's life. Advantage Lucy guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka played a cheap purple guitar and red amp that Fukumura once used. He played all of Fukumura's arpeggio parts. You could see vocalist Aiko become a little tearful while singing their newest song, “Shiroi Asa”, which she dedicated to him that night, and which contains the line: “Itsumo omotteta yorimo, kimi wa zutto soba ni itanda (much more than I always thought, you were always close by)”. Vasallo Crab 75 performed one of their best songs with a signature arpeggio part of his, “Vicious Circle”, from the album “Breathe”, the last VC75 album that Fukumura took part in. At the end of the show all the musicians got together to play a couple of his songs that they dug up as demo tapes left behind in his house. They joked that, by performing his unreleased songs like this they are making him into some sort of legendary figure, like John Lennon, even though he was a normal, funny guy, who, whenever he ordered ramen would transform the noodle soup into what looked like a failed chemistry experiment, dumping in vinegar, pepper, red ginger and so on until the soup's color was unrecognizable, and that's the way he liked it.

It was one of those rare, miraculous events where every act was excellent: the mellow pop/folk of Karenin (its singer Mike Matuszak also is a member of Tokyo indie pop group Lost in Found); the super-smooth R&B and rock of Swinging Popsicle; the sublime guitar pop of advantage Lucy; and the crowd-moving funk/pop of Vasallo Crab 75. A few times the musicians said they thought Fukumura was there listening to the performance, and I got the feeling that wasn't just a figure of speech but that they meant it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Miniskirt At The Apple House, Or Hut Of Bells



After seeing Japanese-German indie pop band Miniskirt for the first time in years last night, I was exploring the Web and unearthed this brilliant video of theirs. I love the part from 0:29 to 0:34 where band leader Edgar is singing at a sloping street of old homes somewhere, and a considerate Japanese lady in the background, seeing that a foreigner is being filmed, immediately moves out of the way to give the camera an undisturbed view. The cut at 0:24 to a cheering audience following footage of one of their shows is also inspired.

Miniskirt's Edgar, universally and affectionately described as a henna gaijin—a weird foreigner—is a film buff. He bought a projector so he could watch his one-movie-a-night on a big screen at home. He also bought a $5,000 Sony video camera to help make videos like 'Read Each Other's Minds', above. When I saw him at the show in Ikebukuro, he was setting up that camera on a tripod to film his show. Seeing me, an old acquaintance, he assigned me to be his band's video cinematographer, a few minutes before the gig was to start. I hadn't touched a video camera for decades, but I think I did OK—the only problem being that I didn't know that you could move the camera up and down in addition to sideways on the tripod, severely curtailing my ability to zoom in on the performers, and also limiting the camera moves to a monotonous left-to-right, and then right-to-left again. The Last Waltz, it was not. But maybe it was fine as a minimalist, indie effort...?

The venue of the event was a new cafe called Ringoya in Ikebukuro, the name sounding like Japanese for 'apple house', but rendered in the kanji as 'the hut of bells'. It was a comfortable cafe, all the guests asked to take off their shoes at the entrance like at a regular Japanese home, and good curry was apparently served, though I didn't try it myself. Its only problem, which it shares with similar venues, is it becomes cramped right away when people start coming in because of all the tables and chairs, and it was packed last night.



Miniskirt's Edgar had come up from Kyoto, where he's now a serious member of the Japanese academia, the other part of his life when he's not busy composing great indie music. Also performing were the duo Loyal We, Lost In Found, 4 Bonjour's Parties, and, from Australia, the Motifs (the wind and vibraphone section of 4BJ pictured below).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lost In Chinatown

I was supposed to see Mix Market and a promising young band from Aichi prefecture called SpecialThanks tonight in Yokohama, but I got completely lost on the way to the club near Chinatown and ended up missing it. My Tokyo live house knowledge doesn't extend to Yokohama, and I also have a pathetically underdeveloped sense of direction (for example, after having been there several times, I still managed to get lost on the way to the Basement Bar in Shimokitazawa, with a friend in tow...). The venue, F.A.D., I'd been to a few times before, but my mistake was to take the Tokyu line rather than the more familiar JR; I became disoriented emerging from a strange train station, and the vague, scribbled map I brought along didn't help matters. Soon, I was wandering deep in the belly of the Yokohama Chinatown, realizing for the first how big it was. Making things worse, on this first day of a three-day weekend, a significant chunk of eastern Japanese households appeared to have decided to get Chinese food in Yokohama, and the crowds slowed the search. After doing a few laps of the town and taking in the sights, I concluded that the live house probably won't be found anytime soon, and called it an evening.

It was sad because on the way over to Yokohama I listened to Mix Market's 'Shiawase No Elephant', was reminded what a great song that was, and was hoping it would be performed. SpecialThanks also seemed interesting and I didn't know how often they made it up to Tokyo.

Let this be a lesson for visitors planning to catch a gig in Tokyo (or Yokohama)...The clubs are often in obscure buildings in alleys in the middle of nowhere, and the city is laid out in a chaotic fashion as it is—apparently it was designed to get invading armies lost, something that I have no doubt is historically accurate. You need a good map for the smaller live houses. Study up on Tokyo Gig Guide.

Anyway, does anyone know how to get from the Motomachi/Chinatown station to F.A.D.? Should I have even been walking through Chinatown in the first place??

Friday, October 31, 2008

Duglas, Yeongene, 'Tokyo Bandits', Advantage Lucy At The O-Nest

Very sadly, I missed advantage Lucy's 'one man' album-release show at the Que on the 24th, but the next night's gig at the O-Nest with the the BMX Bandits' Duglas Stewart, who was visiting from Glasgow, almost made up for it (though, if the world were perfect, I would have preferred to go to both...).

Great bands like advantage Lucy talk to you on stage, through their music. It's not all notes and beats. And we go to shows because we want to have a musical conversation.

In advantage Lucy's case the talk was a relaxed, quiet one, like you have after a big night. It was a short set starting with the somewhat sad song “Shumatsu (weekend)”, about spending weekdays alone and waiting for a weekend meeting (and now that Saturday had arrived, indeed, we got to meet advantage Lucy).

Apple-chomping, professorial-jacket-wearing Duglas' musical conversation might have been about making music into something to be shared rather than exclusive, with an international group of friends. So he brought with him from Seoul Yeongene, the singer and keyboardist of an indie band called Linus' Blanket, and joining him from Tokyo was Taisuke Takata, vocalist and guitarist of Plectrum, two long-distance friends and brilliant musicians.

I was touched by their rendition of 'Sing', the tune made famous by the Carpenters and written by Joe Raposo (who is no longer with us but whose music will live on for a long time, Duglas said), and which I believe I was forced to sing in a chorus in elementary school, but looking at the lyrics now I have to marvel at how simple and beautiful and inclusive the words are. Especially the line, “Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear/ just sing, sing a song” should be a rallying call for independent bands everywhere. (Though, having said that, I do think that it usually takes lots of experience and dedication before a band becomes able to 'talk' to the audience, as discussed above.)

The O-Nest was packed and the crowd cheered when popular BMX Bandits were played, sung with plenty of gesticulation by Duglas. It made me giggle a bit, though, that one of the lines in a much-applauded song was something like,'I don't care about fashion, all I want is passion', sung of all places in Shibuya, the nerve center of the Shibuya-Harajuku-Daikanyama Intensive Youth Fashion Production Zone.

At least part of the crowd probably had come specifically to see Yeongene, who's become an even more charming stage performer since I first met her in 2004 in Seoul, this musical prodigy who apparently can play back songs on her piano after just one listen. Duglas obviously adores her—he said he and his bandmate both wanted to write a song for her to sing, after she visited them in Scotland, and so they ended up writing a song together, which Yeongene sang at the O-Nest, a lovely tune. Tall, nonstop-gesturing Duglas and petite, shyly stage acting Yeongene made a fun-to-watch duo.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spangle call Lilli line's Isolation

Spangle call Lilli line told me in an interview a few years ago that their next album will be something that challenges the listener and explores new territory. They lived up to what they said.

Heard within the first couple of bars of Isolation, the Japanese post-rock trio's latest album, is a new sound for SCLL—the grand piano. Until now they created their long, flowing songs mostly with the standard rock instruments: electric guitar and bass, synthesizers and drums. In Isolation, SCLL has gone acoustic. And the piano, played by a woman named Keiko Miyazawa, is a constant presence in this album, weaving melodies and accompanying Kana Otsubo's vocals. Another Ms. Miyazawa (sisters?), Hiromi Miyazawa, plays the violin and cello.

Spangle call Lilli line and acoustic mix well. The first song, “Inc.”, which is just the piano and Otsubo's singing, evokes jazz at a hotel lounge somewhere; mixed in is the noise of a bar crowd. Except this is hotel lounge in some parallel universe, where, playing unnoticed at the keyboards is a Blue Note jazz great. “Quiet Song” a few tracks later, is a longish song that slowly builds to a beautiful climax, like all those old tunes in albums like Or and Nanae, but a companion to the crescendo is, again, the piano. Strings are a flourish to the melody of the tune “Short Films”. And so goes the 37 minutes of Isolation, a short album that points to new doors of possibilities for pop.

This isn't actually the first acoustic SCLL. Their only live album, 68scll, featured a string section, which infused their classics like “Nano” and “Super Star” with even more sonic color. The trio's compositions already covered a wide expanse musically; it made sense to add to their depth with more instruments. But even with these new sounds, it's still obvious that what you are listening to is Spangle call Lilli line. At the interview, the band said their sound's true essence is the singing voice of Otsubo, and that indeed identifies the music as SCLL. It's that soft, clear voice that's a constant in SCLL albums, flowing through the jungle of their sound colors.

An unexpected album that adds a new dimension to SCLL, Isolation is my favorite album so far in 2008.

***

To add to the surprises, I've just found out that Spangle call Lilli line isn't done! They're releasing a second album in November, called Purple, and it and Isolation will mark their decade as a band. They said in their website that one of the two albums is supposed to evoke the feel of an old black-and-white movie. I assume that's Isolation. They also say that one album will come as a big surprise to old SCLL fans. I'm assuming again that this also refers to Isolation, but I'm very much looking forward to listening to Purple to find out.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sukebans Vs Ladies (?) In Halcali Girigiri Surf-Rider




Commenter san told me about this Halcali video for their song "Girigiri Surf-Rider" and I thought it was the greatest thing and watched it about 50 times in a row, but then when I told a friend about it, she didn't really get it.

So, maybe a few words of explanation are in order. First off, obviously it's a parody of "Beat It". But the gangs are girls rather than guys, and the first ones, seen in the cafe, look like suke-ban, with their long hair and exaggerated school girl uniforms. 'Sukeban' is a combination of 'suke', a derogatory term meaning 'woman', and 'bancho', school toughs.

The group that clashes with the sukeban I thought at first was supposed to represent Ladies, but now I'm not so sure. Ladies are the girl counterparts of the bosozoku, motorcycle gangs, and the ones in the video looked like they were in a biker-like get-up, but when I google imaged 'Ladies', the fashion was different--long, loose, primary-colored coats and pants--so maybe that's not what they are, and they either represent a delinquent subculture I'm not aware of, or the video creator just dressed them up that way to create a vivid contrast to the sukeban that would suggest the two groups aren't the best of friends.

The climactic show-down happens in a container port. First to attack is the biker jacket girl, flinging a couple of darts. The sukeban chief blocks those with her school bag, and you'll note that on the bag is a sticker saying "Namennayo"--don't treat me lightly. This alludes to the Name-neko, kittens in bad kid school uniforms that took the islands of Japan by storm in the early-80's (as seen below).

After a group dance battle, just as the duel between the two gangs' leaders is about to turn serious, Halcali stumble over to save the day. All they need to do is show them the moves to the Girigiri Surf-rider dance, and then peace will reign in this teenage town, with former rivals getting down together. As one YouTube commenter put it: "halicali can stop all conflicts with the power of dance". Go Halcali!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Nikko; Bug Noises; The Divine Warlord

Do the Japanese have a unique ability to enjoy the singing of autumn insects? It's something people say around this time of the year. I have no idea whether it's true—I'm a connoisseur of these evening insect sounds, but then again I've been in Japan for so many years that I'm definitely 'turning Japanese', and have no idea whether that's normal...But really, I do think there's something haunting and musical about the repeated calls of bell crickets and other insects in autumn nights. As Madame Sei Shonagon said, the evenings are the best part of autumn.

***

I got to thinking about bug noises during a trip to Nikko, where I stayed at an inn that had an outdoor hot spring bath which, in the silence of the night, became something like a concert hall for crickets.

Despite my more than a dozen years in Japan it was my first time in Nikko, in one of those, 'I live in Paris but have never been to the Eiffel Tower', or 'LA's my home but I've never been near the Hollywood Walk of Fame' deals, where a place is such an obvious destination to visit that you assume you will make it there eventually but don't.

In any case, Nikko is famous for the Toshogu, the shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. It's a gaudily-decorated, gold-filled building complex, quite unlike the 'wabi sabi' understatement of other major Japanese shrines and temples. At the local bookstore I picked up a book called “The Mystery Of Toshogu” which I read in my free time, and it had some fascinating explanations and theories about the shrine.

One of those was the issue of why Tokugawa Ieyasu, a warlord, was able to be made a 'god' by his descendants and to be enshrined in Nikko. The book said that in Japanese history, it wasn't unusual for someone with exceptional ability to be venerated as a divine being after his death; even the Shinto gods were thought to have started out as humans. One problem is that the word 'god' may be a somewhat misleading way to translate the Japanese term 'kami'—the Japanese word has more the sense of an extraordinary natural phenomenon, rather than an all-powerful creator of the world (and, in fact, big natural things, like mountains, have been worshiped in Japan as 'gods').

Tokugawa, as someone who was able to bring to an end the warring states period (even if on the coattails of his predecessors Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi) and launch an enduring era of peace, was worthy of becoming a god. In fact, he actually put it in his will that he wanted to receive that divine status, choosing to stay in this world, in Nikko, to make sure everything's going fine, rather than taking it easy in the Pure Land Paradise. Which, to the modern reader, seems like quite picky and ambitious directions on how to spend the afterlife...

At Toshogu, there are many sculptures that symbolize the peace that Ieyasu brought about. There are sculptures of the kirin, pictured on the label of the beer of that name, a hooved mythical creature that only appears when a sage is ruling and hides away when a tyrant is on the throne. There's also the baku, a creature with an elephant-like trunk; it eats nightmares, so samurai lords had it illustrated on pillows. It also eats iron, and when there's war and the metal is taken away to make weapons, it goes hungry. It too is, therefore, a symbol of peace. The Youmei gate in Toshogu has sculptures, in addition, showing scenes of children playing—something they could only do in peaceful times.



The book also talks about why Nikko was chosen as the site of Ieyasu's main shrine. To simplify the argument, one significance of Nikko is that it's directly north of Tokyo, the home of the Tokugawa shogun. A northern position was where the protector of people traditionally resided—ancient Chinese and Japanese palaces were on the northern end of towns. A ruler in the north has his back to the northern pole star, which hardly moves in the sky, and lends to him its unmoving stability. In any case, by being enshrined north of Tokyo in Nikko, Ieyasu would be able to look over his descendants as a divide protector.


Ieyasu was actually buried at first in Kunouzan in present-day Shizuoka prefecture, before his remains were moved to Nikko, in line with his will. The book says this is noteworthy because on the diagonal line between Kunouzan and Nikko is Mount Fuji, and 'Fuji' is similar in sound to the Japanese word for 'undying', 'fushi'—the path between Kunouzan and Nikko may have symbolized the passage of Ieyasu from living to divine status. Kunouzan, for its part, might have been chosen because directly west of it (following the path of the sun, an important object of worship in Shinto) is Ieyasu's birthplace, and going further, Kyoto.

Who knows whether this stuff is on the mark, but it's interesting to think about it while seeing the sights of Nikko.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nirgilis & HALCALI At The Unit

The Daikanyama Unit was bad-mouthed in my Tokyo live house post, but having been there on Sunday I have to say it wasn't actually that bad. The staff was even polite (shock!). Still, in the end, I prefer grungy little clubs with character like the Que and Loft.

***

I was there to see an event called Spoon Market, organized by the group Tokyo Pinsalocks and featuring a number of girl bands, including the ones I was especially interested in, Nirgilis and HALCALI.

Nirgilis is a synth-pop trio consisting of a girl vocalist and drummer, and a guy bassist, with all three in charge of synthesizers and programming. Japanese sources sometimes describe them as a 'mashup band', but I'm not sure how accurate that is—their hit tune “Sakura” did overlay a version of “Amazing Grace” to the main melody, but other than that, most of their songs seem pretty straightforwardly pop.

What's special about them is the vocalist Acchu Iwata's singing style, which, to borrow from one of their song titles, is 'coquettish'-sounding, and also intuitive, emotional and sensual. Some of their song lyrics are rather steamy, so maybe their aim is to be sexy, in the true sense of the word. I was curious to see what they were like on stage.

Acchu, wearing a head-patch shaped like a hand, was petite, like some sort of Hobbit pop idol. She did laps across the stage and threw her arms up in a V, like a medal winner. The band was a lot more noisy and intense than I expected having listened to their albums, and often plunged into digital jam sessions.

One of my favorite Nirgilis songs is called “Thank you for the special day!!”, which is about seeing a perfect show by a favorite band. At the end of their gig, my enthusiasm level wasn't quite that high, but it was still good and I was happy to have seen them.

***

HALCALI came on a little later. They're a girl hip hop duo comprising Halca and Yucali (Halca + Yucali = HALCALI), and they made a splash a few years ago as a 'Japanese high school girl hip hop unit'; according to their website, the two met each other in a dance class when they were elementary school kids, and they were discovered at a 'female rapper audition'.

They're an adorable combo—Halca, tall, long-haired and pretty, while Yucali being little, short-haired and cute. They had on striped shirts, Yucali's in pink and Halca's in yellow, with illustrations of bananas on the front.

HALCALI's show was worlds apart from the typical Shimokita or Shibuya rock/pop gigs I see. Of course, it was hip hop, but going beyond that, the emphasis on dancing, acting and moving on stage, one girl coming forward when rapping while the other moving back, and so on, was fresh and fun to watch.

It also made me think that, at a certain point, a 'show' became for kids not just an occasion to sing and play musical instruments, but also do coordinated dance steps, in HALCALI's manner. It mustn't be a coincidence that you see so many groups street dancing to their reflections in building windows these days. Dancing became a natural part of musical entertainment, and people enjoyed showing off their moves on stage. Whereas, for many people of my generation (thirtysomething or so), the common understanding was that bands don't really dance, at least not the good ones, except as a joke. Dancing was an extra variable you had to put into the performance; why not just do your best singing and playing music? But maybe now that would be considered by my succeeding generation as plain and sorta boring.

In any case, HALCALI was skilled at all they did, rapping, singing, dancing, and getting the crowd moving—Yucali repeatedly told everyone to come closer to the stage, “even all you people standing in the back like strangers”—and I thought these two should play in the U.S. in an anime festival or something, where the fans would lap them up. But then, woops, I checked later, and it turns out that they already did that earlier this year, though the fans would no doubt want to see them again. (One final thing about HALCALI: some of their rhymes blow my mind, for example I would have never thought of rhyming 'aka jutan (red carpet)' with 'Azabu Juban (a shopping district next to Roppongi)' as they do in one song!)

***

Filled with regret I left the event before Tokyo Pinsalocks hit the stage, due to other business to attend do. They are a great group and nice people... Next time...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Murmur, advantage Lucy, Caraway, Lost In Found

Facing pounding rain as I headed out to see advantage Lucy and others, I remembered a line from the Lucy song “Smile Again”: “I realized there's no rain that never stops (yamanai ame nante nai to kizuita)”. And, indeed, by the end of the Basement Bar show, the downpour had run its course.

***

There were many friends at the Basement Bar. Watching the show next to the stage was Three Berry Icecream's Mayumi, whose music advantage Lucy grew up listening to. Mayumi's daughter was also there—she's known these bands since she was a baby. But where once she danced and called out the names of favorite singers, now, in elementary school, she ducked behind the stage and plugged her ears during the loud parts.

The evening's headliner, Murmur's Mai Tsuyutani, was an advantage Lucy fan from when she was a teen-ager. She was too shy back then to say hi to the band and tell them she's learning to play the guitar; hearing that, Lucy guitarist Ishizaka gave Mai's mom (who had taken her to the show) a guitar pick to pass on to her daughter as a souvenir. Mai says she still has it, in her little treasure box at home.



Lost In Found, the first act, toured Seoul together with advantage Lucy in 2004. They were always good, in a cute amateurish way, but in a few years' time they've developed into great, fun live band, at once relaxed and energetic, and featuring one of the prettiest-sounding guy-girl vocal duos around. They've become a band I want to see every time they play.

Act two was Caraway (the top photo), Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada's other band. Swinging Popsicle and advantage Lucy both hit it big in the late-90's, and they considered each other as rivals of sorts back then, in a good way, but now, a decade later, they are good friends. Swinging Popsicle's vocalist's husband runs the Nakano pasta joint where advantage Lucy filmed their “Sunday Pasta” video. (By the way, my friend David Cirone has published a photo collection of Swinging Popsicle. It's full of gorgeous pictures of the bands, plus two interviews, one by me. If you're a Popsicle fan, check it out! Info here.)

***

Outside the club before the show, a mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine, was being carried around, bounced up and down, when a fight broke out. One of the fighters was a guy in dreadlocks; his challenger grabbed his dreads, and he latched on to the challenger's hair too, so the mediators found it impossible to pull them apart, and all the revelers stood and watched the the spat in silent disgust. It must have been all the drinking that prompted the fight—fights happen from time to time at festivals, where adults often drink continuously from the early afternoon. The crowd was unhappy the festivities were sullied by a fight. But, I couldn't help thinking that maybe one thing being celebrated at a matsuri like this was the elemental nature of humans, not only love and fertility, but also fighting and destruction, so the spat wasn't completely out of place...

Friday, September 05, 2008

Big Musical Harvest In September


September is shaping up to be a bountiful harvest month for Japanese music.

First off, there's a not-to-be-missed CD release party at the Basement Bar on Sunday (the 7th) featuring advantage Lucy, Caraway (Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada's band), laid-back indie pop stars Lost in Found, and the headliner, Murmur. Murmur is the sparkling solo guitar pop unit of a girl named Mai Tsuyutani, who just released her first full-length album, the outstanding The Afternoon of the Marble Design. If you like advantage Lucy you should check out Murmur—she is an admirer of that great band, and is influenced by them, but still manages to create a sound that is original and fresh. I'm a fan and friend of all four of these groups, and expect to party with them that night until dawn.

Meanwhile, Call and Response Record's Ian is throwing a two-night gig on September 12-13 at the Koenji High to mark the release of the wild concept CD I mentioned in a previous post, a complete cover of Wire's Pink Flag album by indie Japanese bands. 14 bands are to play over the two night—sounds like it will be a blast.

On the album front, advantage Lucy is releasing a new album! But rather than a completely new work, this CD will be a rarities-type album: various tracks that appeared on compilation albums, out-of-print singles, and, in one case, a nice song called “Windy Sunny Friday” that was only sold as mini-disc downloads at convenience stores, or something like that. Some advantage Lucy snobs (they exist) sniff that they already own most of these songs anyway, and indeed, I have almost all of them too (except “Windy Sunny Friday”—only long-time hardcore fans have a copy of that; I've only been listening to Lucy since around 2001—wait...'only'...? What year is it now??) , but it's worth buying this one because all the tracks are re-mixed, apparently, and it's a nice thing to have all these rare gems like “Photograph” and “Weekend Wonder” on one disc. The album is called Sept papillons ont pris leur envol, and will go on sale on Sept. 17.




Another great piece of news is that a week later, on the 24th, beautifully melodic post-rock trio Spangle call Lilli line will be unveiling a new album, Isolation. Their website calls it “a monochrome tale that is dedicated to the end of the world and all lovers.” Hmmm... Maybe that will make more sense when I actually hear the album... I interviewed SCLL a few years back, here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Supersnazz Work-Out At The Red Cloth

I was thinking of the health benefits of going to rock gigs as I watched Supersnazz play at the Red Cloth. Head-banging, pogo-hopping, arm-thrusting, slam-dancing—all those must count as mild to moderate forms of exercise. The thick fog of cigarette smoke in the venue, however, is probably not what the doctor ordered. And the beer, if drank to an excess, will likely go on the debt side of the health ledger as well. The Supersnazz fans, if I can add, were a real beer crowd. Different music genres give rise to varied tastes in alcohol, so that, a few weeks earlier when I saw indie pop groups Vasallo Crab 75 and Risette at the Red Cloth, I noticed that various colorful cocktails were the drinks of choice. (And here, another digression: I've long wondered why punk kids so often drink happoshu, that vile, wannabe-beer beverage. Are they making a fashion statement, symbolically allying themselves with the proleteriat, by buying that cheap stuff? Or do they just not have a lot of money? At the Red Cloth last night I became more convinced that it usually must be the former, because at the club, you have three choices of beer—Ebisu draft, canned Kirin, or canned Coors—and, incredibly, some guys chose Coors... Over draft Ebisu, offered at the same price... Coors is, to me, in about the same league as happoshu, and the only reason I can fathom for someone choosing it over Ebisu or Kirin is they want to make a misguided fashion statement that they're rockers with American tastes... Anyway, moving on...) Supersnazz is a loud band, and the possible long-term damage to your hearing can't be considered healthful. But, the psychological well-being you feel watching such an excellent band play—surely, that must be good for you. So, adding everything together...I have no idea what the answer is.



Supersnazz played both old songs and all the tunes on their new album, Get Down. They have great stage presence, reflecting the fact that they've been rocking for 18 years. As I understand it, they were heavily involved in the U.S. alternative scene in the early 90's, around the same time that American hipsters figured out after discovering Shonen Knife that there is a rock scene in Japan and some of the bands there are even all-girl, and Supersnazz ended up recording an album with Sub Pop. Although I enjoy Shonen Knife, I think Supersnazz is better. A bit obscure, but their old song in the Diode City album, “He's the One”, I think is one of the most perfect rock 'n' roll songs I've ever listened to. More on that some other day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Perfume's Gravity, Before They Took Over Japan



Who could have guessed it, watching these white-dressed dancing trio at an Apple Store in Osaka, that they would one day take over Japan? What a remarkable video: it shows Perfume before they made it. Greeting the crowd, A-chan says, like every up-and-coming Japanese artist or band, that cliche: 'We hope you at least remember our name by the end of the show'. Now, in Japan, only a cave-dwelling hermit wouldn't have heard of Perfume. Witness how sparse the crowd and applause are—now you can't easily buy tickets to see them at the Budokan. And a few people even walk by the stage, ignoring the act—I wonder if they've realized now who they blew off?

One of the ingredients of Perfume's phenomenal success must be the drama of their emergence. Legend has it that after years of a lack of mainstream recognition (they started when they were 11 or 12), just as they were about to call it quits they hit the big time. I don't know how accurate that account is, but it is true that, very unusually for a Japanese pop act, they make it one of their selling points that they toiled in obscurity for years before becoming popular. It seems to be a story-line that appeals to a lot of people.

Another thing that fans say about this video is it shows that, no matter how small the crowd or venue, the trio puts in a full effort, the implication being that that sort of seriousness is what made them popular. And they certainly aren't taking it easy. I don't know much about dance, and am not sure how good they are in the grand scheme of things, but for the sort of dance they do they certainly seem to have sharp moves that are a pleasure to watch (especially those robotic moves at the start, from around 0:15).

They are performing a song called 'Inryoku', meaning 'gravity'. There might be something like gravity, caused by Perfume, now so huge, that draws me into this video...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Waffles, Freenote, Obon, Advantage Of Being An Indie Fan

After all these years it's still a trip to go to a live house and find, standing next to me, one of those musicians I've listened to with love for so long. That's an advantage of being an indie music fan—though, to you, a musician is other-wordly, a genuis that creates sounds that energize and brighten your days, that person hasn't yet become inaccessible, disappearing into the haze of fame. Instead, this person, who is like a Beatle to you, is someone you can talk to. It's an asymmetry between your appreciation of the artist and the world at large's lack of recognition of the same person. So, it's always a shock when, after seeing a favorite band's show for the first time, I see the musicians walking across the hall like normal guys, even though in my estimation they are anything but.

I had one of those moments when, after the Waffles and Freenote show at the Que, I went to buy the Waffles' new singles, and the people that sold it to me were...the band's vocalist and guitarist. Wow...

At their show they played those new songs from the singles as well as old tunes, including “Rhythm” and “Tokyo”, the latter of which singer Kyoko Ono dedicated to all of us who stayed in the city during the Obon holiday.

***

Freenote is a band I was expecting to hit the big time a few years ago but that hasn't quite happened, which means we can see them at a little place like the Que rather than all those horrible huge music halls. And that's a treat, because Freenote's vocalist Chikako Hata—that girl can sing. She's got an earthy voice that nevertheless soars.

Between songs, talking about Obon (when most Japanese go back to their hometowns to worship their ancestors), she said her home is a Buddhist temple in a small town and when she was a girl she made her granddad promise her that she wouldn't be wed to another Buddhist priest. Seeing that she's a rocker now in Tokyo, maybe that promise was kept. I saw her at a post-show party a little while ago, and found her in person to be super-polite—wonder if that's a result of her upbringing in a Buddhist temple home, the thing she wanted to escape when she was a kid?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Formoz, The Festival A Typhoon Blew Away


(Photo credit: 4 Bonjour's Parties)

How sadly fitting it was that on the last night of the final Formoz festival ever, a typhoon hit the island of Taiwan, nearly closing down the event. Many acts scheduled to play that night canceled, and only the die-hard fans showed up, wrapped in plastic bags (I wasn't one of them...).

This was the last year that the Taipei music festival was to be held, bringing down the curtains on summer festivities that started in 1995. The stated reason was that the Chinese cultural park that hosted the festival was being torn down, so the festival would have to end too. But it's hard to believe that's the whole story. Exhaustion among the organizers, money problems, or other reasons? I have no idea what the truth is, but it was clear attending this year's Formoz that this festival had seen better days. I mean, looking at last year's Formoz, the organizers were able to attract from Japan such big name acts like Ging Nang Boyz, Quruli and Anna Tsuchiya. No one of similar stature was on the bill this year. Does anyone know what the story is? In any case, I got the feeling making the rounds of the several Formoz music stages and looking at the acts that, although there were lots of good bands playing, the festival itself was going out quietly.

One interesting thing, though, about the festival this year compared with the one I attended two years ago was that there seemed to be a much more prominent place set aside for political activists, including those protesting against Burma/Myanmar and calling for a free Tibet. Maybe it was because this was a few weeks before the start of the Beijing Olympics.

On the other hand, what there wasn't a lot of at this year's Formoz festival was: booze. A lot of the sections didn't even sell beer, and I didn't see any other sort of alcohol at all. I was surprised about this because one of my most vivid memories of Formoz 2006 was how good the beer tasted while listening to music in the sultry Taiwanese evening.



I have to confess that because it was SO hot I didn't check out exhaustively the Taiwanese bands on display, so, for example, I missed 1976's show, and the only act that I really enjoyed was Go Chic, mentioned in the last post. Writing from a perspective of near-complete ignorance, I wonder how the indie music scene in Taiwan is going these days. I stopped by the Eslite music store to check out the Taiwanese music CDs, but didn't notice that much that was new. However, this post says that there's a quite cool-sounding music festival in southern Taiwan, so maybe there's interesting stuff going on that I just don't know about, which wouldn't be surprising.

As I wrote at the start, Typhoon Fung-Wong blew into Taiwan exactly on the third and last evening of the Formoz festival, and though I briefly stopped by because 4 Bonjour's Parties from Tokyo was scheduled to play that night, I decided to turn back after a while of getting wet. Maybe if I were an idealist in my twenties or teens, the poor weather would have infused the event with even more meaning, that here we all were, not letting a mere typhoon get in the way of enjoying great music. But these days, in most cases, I prefer to be safe and dry.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Go Chic At Formoz Festival

Anyone heard of Go Chic?

I saw this 5-girl, Taiwanese disco-punk group at the Formoz Festival in Taipei, and was quite blown away.

They're like Japan's Perfume, but in another life, gone bad—kicked out of talent training school after getting caught smoking, or staying over at the boy friend's house, or sniffing thinner, they decide to form a punk band instead. In Taiwan. And they recruit two more girls.

All the heat and sweating might be what caused this murky fantasy to pop into my head, but they WERE all dressed in different-colored plastic cocktail dresses, outfits that Perfume might conceivably be seen in, and from far away from the stage where I stood, Go Chic's vocalist looked vaguely like Nocchi and the synth player like A-chan.

Except this Nocchi lowered her pink dress to reveal the black bra underneath, and danced that way for the rest of the show... OK, they have more in common with wild-girl vocalist Japanese punk groups like Limited Express or Midori, and I was a bit surprised to see something like that in Taiwan; while I know almost nothing about the music scene here, the groups I have seen up to now have mostly seemed earnest and understated, and not at all in-your-face like Midori. I also read here that another Taiwanese group, White Eyes, is the same sort of deal, and I was sad to find out that I missed them when they played earlier in the day...

Go Chic call themselves an electronica/hyphy/psychedic group, but there were also early punk, new wave, slow hard rock, funk and synth/disco sounds at the Formoz show. During the faster numbers the crowd in the front pogo-ed and slam-danced, while the Go Chic girls splashed beer on them and the black-bra vocalist kicked stage divers back into the pit... What would have the planners of Formoz's venue, a park with exhibits aimed at teaching kids Chinese and Confucian values, have thought if they'd seen this debaucherous spectacle on the premises??

***

P.S., I love how Go Chic say in their MySpace page: “BTW: it's go "sheeeeekkkkk" not chick, duh!”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Japan Live TOKYO LIVE HOUSE GUIDE

You're going to a music show in Tokyo. You wonder what the venue is like. You've come to the right place.

This post is about Tokyo's music clubs, which are called live houses. There's an incredible number of them—everything from huge venues that house thousands of people, to two speaker holes-in-the-wall. They are mainly located in the big shopping districts—Shibuya, Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa—but some are in quieter areas too. This post lists the main live houses, and the interesting smaller clubs and cafes. It's not a complete listing; some places I've neglected to mention because I forgot to, or didn't know the place, or didn't like it. Let me know if you think I should add any clubs.

NOTE: Directions to these clubs can be found in Tokyo Gig Guide. Tokyo Damage Report also has a list of punk clubs and other weird venues. I also wrote in the past about how to go to these clubs.

SHIBUYA

O-Nest: The O-Nest is probably Tokyo's most exciting live house now. It's a small venue that attracts artists that are innovative and accessible but haven't hit the big time yet (Spangle call Lilli line would be one example). O-Nest is also well designed: it has separate stage and bar floors connected by a stairwell overlooking Shibuya's love hotels, and it's one of the few live houses that lets you leave the club and re-enter it later. But though it's a good club I've found one strange thing about the O-Nest, which is it seems to have a high incidence of shows that look good on paper that end up being duds. I've probably left in the middle of more gigs here than anywhere else. Maybe that's a result of their hosting many new bands whose skills haven't caught up to their novelty and the hype surrounding them.

Quattro: I dislike the Quattro. But I have to go there once in a while because some musicians only play there. It's a Soulless Corporate Live House (SCLH). The sound and light systems are outstanding. But everything else is mediocre: the venue has no atmosphere; the staff are apathetic or worse; and the 'one drink' that you have to pay 500 yen for is about the size of free booze samples they hand out in department stores.

La Mama: I've only been here once or twice, but it's a decent live house with an easy-to-see, wide stage.

Eggman: Similar to La Mama. It's one of Shibuya's older live houses, and I think it's seen better days.

O-East & O-West: Sister live houses of the O-Nest, these two are for bigger acts, and they're both Soulless Corporate Live Houses (SCLH's), like the Quattro.

O-Crest: Size-wise it's between O-Nest and the two big O's, it's also basically a mini-SCLH.

Ax Shibuya: One of Tokyo's biggest live houses, it's a SCLH. But you gotta go there to see acts like Perfume.

Deseo: Next to the Yamanote train tracks, this is a live house for bands that are starting out. It's a Dive House—a live house that's a dive.

Yaneura Shibuya: This place has been around for ages, and it's the definition of a Dive House: witness within its walls the unending struggle between unruly, inebriated youth and surly staff.

Cyclone: Sister live house of Yaneura, it's also a true Dive House. My friend Dr. I once said this is a club for juvenile delinquents.

Chelsea Hotel: A relatively new live house, it looks like a lobby of a cheap hotel(in line with its name?), and attracts decent bands.

Aoiheya (blue room): This is a fun live house run by a chanson singer, and is designed according to her tastes (vines handing from the live stage ceiling, etc.).

Lush: A very hard to find live house, Lush hosts decent bands.

Tube: In a small alley near Tower Records, this a small but pleasant and well-designed space.


SHIMOKITAZAWA

Que: Sometimes called one of the three great live houses of Shimokitazawa, along with the Shelter and Club 251, the Que is THE club for guitar pop, power pop and all manners of melodic, not-so-hard rock. It's the home turf of groups like advantage Lucy. The Que is also one of the few smaller live houses that don't force ticket sale quotas upon performers, and its events are generally of high quality. In spite of its prestige, though, the club is small, with only one main room, and can get very cramped at sold-out shows.

Shelter: Just down the street from the Que, the Shelter is the place for hard rock and smarter punk. It's a Dive Bar, but in a good way—they host rockin' bands, and the fans are into the shows.

Club 251: About midway in musical taste between the Que and Shelter. It's probably also fair to say that of the top-3 Shimokitazawa live houses, it's number three.

440: Right above 251, and run by the same people, this is a cafe club with chairs for the audience. The acts are generally mellow, with a lot of acoustic sets, and post-Shibuya-kei groups often play here. If watching a show here, make sure you aren't late, because then you will have to stand and there isn't that much space...

Basement Bar: This club is nearly impossible to find, hidden behind the beer cartons of a liquor store off of the main Shimokitazawa drag. It's a small live house that hosts decent events.

Mosaic: A fairly new live house, Mosaic is good because it has a bar on one floor and the live stage under it, letting you escape for a drink if an act is bad.

Mona Records: Like 440, this is a cafe club, but one with more character: the space is designed to look like a living room, and the area where musicians play is a raised floor where audience members take off their shoes and sit on the floor like in a traditional Japanese home (even the musicians play shoeless!). The bands featured at this club are pop, jazz, acoustic and mellow, mellow, mellow. Mona Records also sells CDs, has its own small label, and hosts small art exhibits—it's one of the more interesting clubs in Tokyo.

Garage: On the other side of the tracks from the Shimokitazawa Big-3, the Garage seems to mainly feature genki, straightforward youth rock groups. It's a small venue, and being right in the middle of a true residential area, the staff will, with fervor, chase you away from the premises as soon as shows end.

SHINJUKU

Loft: The Loft isn't Tokyo's biggest live house, but it is certainly its most legend-filled: having opened in 1976, the club has over the years featured some of Japan's most popular acts such as Southern All Stars, Boowy and Judy and Mary. The events held here are still of generally high quality. The Loft moved to Kabukicho from Nishi-Shinjuku in 1999—the live house now is a comfortable space with separate stage and bar floors, but be sure you don't get lost in the building that houses the Loft, because most of the other establishments in the building look pretty questionable...

Marz/Motion/Marble: All on the same block near the Loft, these three live houses are run by the same people, and sometimes events are held at a number of these clubs at once, letting you go from one to the other (and allowing you to get food and cheaper drinks at convenience stores en route, if you desire). Marz is a sparkling new club with a fancy light system. Motion is a small live house suited for minor indie bands. Marble, I haven't been to.

Jam: Shinjuku Jam is another of the older Shinjuku live houses, but, while its rival, the Loft, has turned into a Big Deal, the Jam remains a Dive House, a live house that is also a dive. Still, some people like the Jam for that, and it certainly has character. I've heard that the Jam is haunted.

Red Cloth: A fairly new live house, the Red Cloth is an attractive, small venue that's decorated in a vaguely Chinese fashion. From my experience the staff is generally friendly, and the indie events held here are often good.

ACB Hall: A total dive house, for punk kids.

YOYOGI

Zher The Zoo: Run by the same people as the Que in Shimokitazawa, Zher The Zoo features bands that are very similar to those at the Que (Luminous Orange played here, for example). And no, I don't know what the name means.

KOENJI

Club Liner: Managed by a member of the comic punk group Telstar, Club Liner is a small club that brings in a lot of decent indie groups, many of them probably the Telstar guy's pals. Club Liner is also one of the first live houses, as far as I know, that divided its space into smoking and non-smoking sections (cigarette-smelling clothes and stinging eyes are constant occupational hazards for Tokyo club-goers).

Club Roots: This is a tiny club in an interesting building with an Okinawan theme, including an Okinawan restaurant and a culture center. Roots also serves awamori and a limited number of Okinawan fast food.

20000V: This is a Dive House (a live house that's also a dive), but one of those that's hard to dislike if you have a taste for dives.

Los Angeles Club: Went here a long time ago, don't remember what it's like, but am pretty sure it was a Dive House.

Enban: This is supposed to be a record store/cafe, but it's not clear whether it actually exists. I once passed by the place it's supposed to be, but didn't see anything except a window, from which some sketchy looking characters stared down at me. It could be that the Koenji guys are just putting me on, and this club is fictional—you have to watch out for Koenji people...they are sometimes of somewhat suspicious character...

SANGENJYAYA

Heaven's Door: In the middle of a peaceful local shopping district with little stores and eateries is this home of tattooed, body-pierced head-bangers and punkers of all stripes. Heaven's Door is the epitome of a Dive House (a live house that's also a dive), but one that you are sort of glad exists, in the same way that you appreciate there being brutal carnivores in the great outdoors, in addition to gentle creatures such as sheep, deer, zebras, etc.

Grapefruit Moon: If you're headed to this lovely cafe and are starting to worry whether the directions are wrong—could a music club really be in a little street like this with vegetable and fruit shops and fish sellers?—don't fret, and keep on going, because you're almost there. Right next to a bathhouse, Grapefruit Moon often features laid-back indie pop bands.

AKIHABARA

Goodman: Goodman is the place to go for prog, post-punk, smart indie-type bands. There seems to be a lot of affinity between the Goodman crowd and Koenji folks—maybe because it's connected by the Sobu line?

KICHIJOJI

Star Pine's Cafe: Not much to say about Star Pine's Cafe except that it's a nice-looking, two-storied club.

Mandala 2: A cafe bar that's pretty characterless. Good indie bands sometimes play here, however.

DAIKANYAMA

Unit: I've never been here, and hope I don't ever have to, because the place exudes bad vibes: unsmiling staff who appear authoritarian in the way they make show-goers line up before shows, and so on. It's too bad because this club attracts a lot of fashionable, post-Shibuya-kei-type groups that look interesting. I imagine that the Unit is basically a SCLH (Soulless Corporate Live House).

HARAJUKU

Astro Hall: Not a big fan of this place...not sure what the management here wants to accomplish except to squeeze money out of young people there to see trendy bands. It's a mini-SCLH (Soulless Corporate Live House).

EBISU

Liquid Room: This big club used to be in Shinjuku in a scary building whose floor would bounce up and down with the crowd as they bopped to the music...The Liquid Room is now in a bright and shiny new building near the station, but it's a true SCLH (Soulless Corporate Live House)—I once saw a security guard stop someone from passing out live show fliers TWO BLOCKS from the club, after a show. What sort of authoritarianism IS that?? Still, a visit to the Liquid Room is inevitable once in a while, because they host a lot of great Japanese and foreign artists...

Guilty: I went here ages ago to see Fugazi, and don't remember a thing about it. A big regret in my life is that I saw Joe Lally at the Freshness Burger near the Guilty but didn't say hi to him.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

GREAT SONGS: Chara's "Time Machine"



Will Chara ever again write a song as good as “Time Machine”?

Having casually followed her career in the years since the song came out, I have to say I'm not hopeful. But, then again, “Time Machine” is one of the best Japanese pop tunes of the late-90's, so wishing for a repeat performance may be asking too much of her.

At the start I should note that Chara is not by any stretch of the imagination an 'indie' musician, the focus of these pages: she has recorded with Sony since the start of her career, and the album containing “Time Machine”, Junior Sweet, was a million seller. But she's so influential, even among independent musicians—along with Shiina Ringo and Yuki, she must be one of the J-pop trinity of inspirational female singers—that it doesn't feel strange to write about her in an indie context.

The reason for Chara's influence is her unique, unmistakable, strange yet beautiful singing style. In “Time Machine”, we get a full serving of it. I remember when I first listened to her, I was skeptical but fascinated. Chara sounds like no other, a grown-up singing in a whispery, whining voice that resembles a young girl's, but with the maturity always apparent in the background. It seems like a highly intuitive singing style, sounding that way because she thinks it's good that way, and not because she's following any rules.

Listen to the way she starts “Time Machine”, alternating between hopeful high notes and quieter, low notes, like a sigh: to me, she seems to be painting a musical portrait in white and black. It's a broken heart song: she's talking about feeling betrayed by false promises of unchanging love, and that a time machine to return to the former good days isn't showing up. Except, it's ambiguous as to whether the lover has really disappeared from the singer's life; she sings about holding a needle and thread that could tie them back together, and ends the tune with a line that what's needed is for 'you' to feel love again.

I don't like the video of this song much, though it's good it's on YouTube so people can listen to the tune. Like most videos of songs you listened to a lot before seeing the video, the image just seems wrong. Its premise is that Chara is looking back in sadness to the happy days she spent together with actor Tadanobu Asano, her husband in real life. The problem is that the scenes showing Chara and Asano flirting around leave a much stronger impression than the scenes of her sad introspection, so the video ends up seeming to be a celebration of their relationship. And, of course, most Chara fans know she's happily married to Asano, so the sad parts aren't believable.

My image of this song is less star-studded—it's about an average girl in some random Japanese town, thinking back in her room on better days. Well, OK, that probably wouldn't provide much material for a video...but to me, that's the right image. I almost wish that a person listening to “Time Machine” for the first time on YouTube just listen to the words and not watch the images...

One last thing: the other day I was watching NHK and an old video of Chara playing “Time Machine” in an acoustic set came on. I was pleased, but the (non-Japanese) guys around me groaned, saying here's another example of terrible J-pop, etc. Which is totally erroneous, but it did remind me that Chara and others like her might be an acquired taste.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Texas Pandaa At Basement Bar

I went to the Basement Bar see Texas Pandaa, whose latest album was one of my top-ten favorites of 2007. The members of this band have a way of swaying their upper bodies with their feet in place that gave me visions of seaweed drifting underwater. Combined with the stage lights in blue and green, and the faraway, murky feel of the music, the image was of hanging out in the marine kingdom. People call Texas Pandaa a shoegazer band, but I felt a more accurate description would be sun-gazer, that is, from the bottom of the ocean. This band features two female singers, who stand on the left and right and sing seductively like a couple of Sirens...Anyway, enough with all the marine metaphors, what I'm trying to say is this is a marvelous live group whose shows have their own distinct feel (and I believe that one of the members is a reader—hi!).

Also performing was another band I like, 4 Bonjour's Parties, who are headed to Taipei in late-July to play at the Formoz festival.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

In Asakusa

I'm writing an essay for a band (more on that some other day), and have been doing research on the town of Asakusa as part of that effort. A book I found by the actor and essayist Shoichi Ozawa has been very useful. The thing about Asakusa is that there are lots of interesting things away from the main tourist strip, but you have to know what you're looking for, and this book highlights them.

For example, I found out reading Ozawa's book about a bodhisattva statue called Ichiyou Kannon, standing lonesome in an empty lot behind Sensouji temple. A woman working in nearby Yoshiwara had sent her young son off to work (a common thing in the Edo era), but one day she hears her son's voice say “I've come home”, and soon after she receives the sad news that the son has drowned. In her sorrow she has a kannon sculpted to look like her son—and it still stands, alone, behind the big temple.

Right next to the Ichiyou Kannon is the Asakusa Shrine, which gets less notice than Sensouji because it's smaller and less imposing, but the shrine building is an Important Cultural Property and is quite beautiful—on the facade are pictures of dragons, including one that looks like like a cross between a fly and a dragon, and the interior of the shrine is guarded by two samurai dolls. It's at this shrine that I took the picture of a carefree cat above, napping at the legs of a stone lion.

One interesting thing about Japan is that temples and shrines and red-light districts often lie side by side, and that's the case with Asakusa. In the early-post-war years the area was famous for its striptease theaters, and I had thought that scene had died out, but it looks like some places are still going strong in the Rokku neighborhood a short walk away, along with movie theaters that show both classic yakuza movies and porn (and the neighboring town of Yoshiwara is a whole different matter...). There are also rakugo and popular theaters, the latter of which seem to put on light samurai plays.


Outside a 'Popular Theater'

By the way, to get my music fix while in Asakusa I always head to Oto No Yorodo, a record shop just down the street from Kaminari-mon that has an amazing collection of enka, rakugo, retro Japanese music and all sorts of other CDs and tapes you can't find elsewhere.


An Enka Record Shop

Tokyo is such a huge city that the Tokyo of Asakusa is really quite a different entity from, say, the Tokyo of Shibuya, not to mention Oku-Tama or Koenji or Roppongi. And like any big city Tokyo is a constantly evolving organism, so I don't think anyone can ever truly be a 'Tokyo expert', just like you can't really be an NYC expert or Paris expert, and the best you can do is know one area like Shinjuku or Asakusa or Kichijoji inside out.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Vasallo Crab 75 & Our Pathetic Generation


Talkin' 'bout my ge-ne-ration...

“Our generation sucks musically,” said Vasallo Crab 75's singer at this band's after-show party.

“It's because we grew up listening to punk and grunge. Playing an instrument well was actually uncool. So, now, kids in the next generation play better than we do.”

There was probably something to what he said. The generation in question, commonly tagged with the letter X (and whose ranks include myself...), didn't, for the most part, put much effort into developing musical virtuosity. We were reacting to the excesses of corporate-tainted progressive rock, we told ourselves. We were making music freer, so that anyone can play and express his emotions, was the standard line. And we still don't judge musicians based solely on their skills. Some of us might also be fashion-challenged as a result of our punk/grunge days because T-shirts and ripped jeans were cool and were the uniform, and they still seem good to us.

But...you have to watch out for the pitfall of Japanese modesty, and not take seriously everything people say. Maybe at the start of their career the musicians of Vasallo Crab 75 weren't all that hot, but now, they're solidly in the Talented Musicians camp.

And so are the other Gen X, thirty-something bands that VC75 invited for the gig: Gomes The Hitman's Toshiaki Yamada with his amazing voice, like some bronze-colored art piece you want framed; pop trio Swinging Popsicle dashing through their classics without a single misstep, while having a blast; and Vasallo Crab, that once-mellow guitar pop duo that's turned into a pimp-suited, Prince funk-imitating, Bach violin solo-ripping, ultra-tight, mini-rock chamber orchestra—they really put on a show. You forget the day's travails. Gradually they're replacing their former, mild-mannered guitar pop fan base with hyper, dance-prone club supporters, who are great company.


Swinging Popsicle

Seeing bands like this makes me think that buzz isn't that important. There's always buzz about the latest hot new bands in town, but they often disappoint. The trend-zoids might not be talking about VC75, but that doesn't matter at all when you see how good they are after so many years of playing live, during which they developed confidence and stage presence. And while us lazy generation X MoFo's might still suck at our musical instruments, these bands sure don't. In fact, they're the best.