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. 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.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Risette & Advantage Lucy At Red Cloth

My interest in a band called Risette shot up when advantage Lucy's Aiko, performing before them, said Risette's vocalist was her favorite Japanese female singer, and she sometimes wished she could replace her vocal cords like a cartridge and stick in the Risette vocalist's instead.

Having listened to Risette for the first time, I'd say that the Risette Vocalist cartridge was one that produced a sound that was soft, and a strange blend of high and husky voices. The vocalist sings like she's constantly pleasantly surprised by the voice that just came out of her throat. You could see how another singer might want to activate it the way a guitarist steps on an effect pedal.

The vocalist, Yu Tokiwa, stood mostly still during songs, switching between staring straight ahead and looking down at something a couple of steps away from her left foot. But she seemed to be able to express a lot just with the swing of her chin and the shift of her gaze. Risette also featured two skilled guitarists who built on each others' solos (I was reminded of Television), an interesting counterpoint to Tokiwa's laid-back singing style. I enjoyed the show and could see how this band might inspire, as I heard, a manic Japanese indie music fan from Taiwan to make the band name his alias, because he loves them so much.

Risette was playing at the Red Cloth at a show to celebrate the release of their new album, Risette. They've been around for more than a decade, and I heard that some of their earlier, out-of-print albums are quoted at exorbitant prices on Japanese auction sites.


Advantage Lucy, playing before Risette, appeared as a duo—just Aiko and Yoshiharu Ishizaka. That was the first time I'd seen only the two of them, the core of the great band, performing live, and the gig was beautiful in an intense, lonely, nervous way. Ishizaka said the show made them feel naked, with nothing to hide the sound of voice and a solo guitar, but it distilled the essence of advantage Lucy, which, to me, is a band that has always exposed itself through music, its emotions and passions, even though it's at the same time such a deliciously pleasant pop group.