Saturday, May 31, 2008

advantage Lucy's Shiroi Asa E.P.

Their long-awaited new work, the EP “Shiroi Asa” (White Morning), shows off advantage Lucy's musical range. The EP features a ballad, a fun pop tune, and a rocker—each sounds great, and even though the songs are so different in feel, they blend together perfectly like some three-Michelin-star three course dinner.

The first song, the title track, follows a long line of standout ballads by advantage Lucy. What's especially striking about it is the way vocalist Aiko stretches out the syllables of the words—the start of the tune sounds like “iiiiii, tsumooooo, omoooote taaa (always, I thought)” —and with these extensions she seems to infuse the lyrics with more meaning, at the same time that she puts on display the clear beauty of her voice.

Song number two, “my little holiday”, is advantage Lucy's “Penny Lane”: a sunny pop song that celebrates a town, in this case the “500-meter radius” surrounding the singer's home, the site of her mini-vacation. It begins with sounds from one of those Tokyo streets filled with little, aging shops, and Aiko's voice is heard ordering a hamachi, yellowtail, from a shopkeeper lady. Guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka, who composes the songs, obviously had fun with this tune: it's a colorful melange of sounds, including some sort of xylophone and recorder, as well as a cat's purr and a parakeet's screech.

“Mimi wo sumasete”, the last song, is a rocking number that you might hear on the radio in an alternative universe world where good songs fill the radio waves. In any case, it is on MY radio station.

At the same time that advantage Lucy is a great musical group, they're also an art-minded bunch, as is apparent looking at this CD's booklet: it's made of a special type of paper that lets you punch out little letters, and those letter shine when you put it up against a light.

Advantage Lucy is selling this extended play CD only at shows and from its website, and it's a limited edition of 1,000 disks. I'm not sure how you can buy it if you're outside of Japan, but am looking into it.


Traveling back in time a bit, the show where I bought the CD was on May 20 at the Que, and it was one of those knock-out advantage Lucy gigs where time passes happily, and the memory of it lingers for days afterwards. The new advantage Lucy band, with a new bassist and drummer, is becoming tight. They played all three songs from the new CD in succession.

It was a two-band show, with Freenote, a group I've been interested in for a few years led by a fine-voiced female vocalist. She played both the keyboards and guitar, but I liked it better when she was on the latter, because then she faced the audience—there's something important about that, looking straight at the crowd at these small clubs, that sense that you're sharing with people something they should really know and hear. Advantage Lucy is also a band that makes you feel at gigs that they are sharing with you a vital musical message.

(fun with graphics software...)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Umekichi At Hokutopia Sakura Hall

I went to see Umekichi and was happy to discover that, for once, I was the youngest guy in the audience. I was also the only foreigner—though I did see several older ladies with purple hair.

The venue was the Sakura Hall in Hokutopia, a community center in Oji. Meaning 'prince', Oji is in Kita or 'north' ward, and even though it's in Tokyo, it feels different from the Shibuya-Ebisu-Shimokitazawa triangle where I usually hang out, less cosmopolitan and fashionable, more earthy and pure Japanese. Sakura Hall is one of those sparkling auditoriums that every municipality in Japan seems to have erected with taxpayer money, and its stage curtain features a huge portrait of a samurai-era cherry viewing scene in a hill.

Umekichi, the old-songs singer and shamisen player who I wrote about in a previous post, began the concert in a dazzling yellow-gold kimono, and during the intermission changed into an equally eye-catching blue kimono with primary-colored floral designs. She refers to them as Kimono A and B, her two stage outfits, but she must have a decent kimono collection because she spends 365 days of the year wrapped in the Japanese robe. Umekichi also does her hair herself every morning because having a hairdresser sculpt it the traditional Japanese way is too expensive, and at first it took her an hour to get it right but now she can speed through it in 20 minutes.

I know all this because Umekichi devoted a good amount of time between songs to talking—about her songs and music, her clothes, why she got into classical Japanese music—probably a reflection of the fact that she usually works with rakugo-ka, spoken word entertainers. I learned a lot from her between-song talk—for example, that her style of hair, which I think was called yuiwata, is one that identified a girl as unmarried in the Edo ea.

In one long monologue before singing “Akai Kutsu”—“Red Shoes”, that sad song that every Japanese knows—Umekichi talked about how the song was based on a true story about a girl who was born to a poor family who couldn't afford to bring her up, so an American missionary family adopted her. The girl's mother, who became a settler in snowy Hokkaido, dreams about how her daughter with red shoes must have become blue-eyed by now living in America. Except, Umekichi said, the tragic truth was that the girl never went to the U.S. in the end, because she was ill with tuberculosis and her American guardians didn't think she could survive the journey; the girl ends up dying in an orphanage in Tokyo. Umekichi says, traveling to America was hard back then, and even now it's a long trip. She then talks about how she went on tour in the U.S. last year, and she wore a kimono on the plane, but then when she landed in the U.S. and was in the immigration line the authorities took her to a separate room, maybe worried, she said, that her kimono was hiding a bomb, and that she was a 'kimono suicide bomber'. She was asked to take off her obi and show what she was wearing inside, which maybe made things worse because the kimono has so many, hard-to-explain parts. In the end they let her go, and she did her shows. Umekichi says that nowadays there are many Japanese who are successful in the U.S., including baseball players like Nomo, Ichiro, and Matsuzaka. Why, Matsuzaka went to America and now even wears 'red socks'—rim shot—she says, before finally starting “Red Shoes”.

(Neither here nor there, but the Japanese wikipedia entry on “Akai Kutsu” says the whole story about the girl and her adoption and death is a fabrication, and none of it actually happened. Hmm.)

Her show was a good mix of musical styles, with some quiet tunes that she played solo strumming on her shamisen, others more jazzy with a back-up band of a bassist, flutist/saxophonist and a taiko drummer, and in some of the routines she danced together with four girls who wore a short robe over what looked like cycling shorts. I especially liked a song called “Dodoitsu”, which, in another thing I learned that night, is the name of a form of poetry similar to haiku or tanka that has a 7-7-7-5 syllable structure. She sang with understated passion this sexy tune, which talks about how the sky read her mind and figured out her wishes, and rained down “yarazu no ame”: I looked that up later, and it's a common rakugo phrase meaning well-timed rain that allows a house guest to stay longer rather than leave in the rain—in this case the 'house guest' no doubt being a lover.

Monday, May 19, 2008

'Heisei Western Carnival' At Basement Bar

What's the deal with Japan and rockabilly?

You needn't look much further than those twist-dancing, pompadour-coiffed, black leather jacket-clad Teddy Boys in Harajuku to figure out that rockabilly is alive and kicking in Japan.

Indeed, when I went to the 'Heisei Western Carnival' event last Sunday, there was a brief time-slip moment when I almost mistook where I was to 1950's America, or late-70's London, or some weird combination of both: I hadn't seen so many pompadours and mohawks, mohair sweaters and biker jackets, beehive hair-dos and Yale caps, since, well, the last time I went to a rockabilly/psychobilly event in Tokyo. Also, I saw the most Virgin Mary images there since the last time I went to East L.A.—any one know what that's all about?

The groovy cats were all there at the Basement Bar to see four bands brought together by a guy named Little Elvis Ryuta, and the first act was a duo called AA & TO¥SOX. They were two ex-furyou types, one slapping a double bass and the other punching a toy (?) piano while pedal-kicking a drum. They did both originals and punk versions of 50's golden oldies sang in Japanese, and I loved their sound—later, Asakusa Jinta's vocalist/bassist Oshow said he was influenced by this bassist's explosive style, something that didn't come as much of a surprise.


Next up was Junco Partner, a band that was led by a sweet-voiced, white-jacketed Japanese Romeo and a chubby guy in a Shriner hat playing a fun-looking washboard with various horns attached. The band played ballads of the sort I imagined couples listened to on a car radio in, say, a 50's diner parking lot.


Throughout the event the club was so foggy with cigarette smoke that my eyes stung. Everyone smoked. At their last event advantage Lucy had banned smoking, which was a welcome change, but here the nic-freaks ruled. I wished people would at some point wake up to the fact that it's not a very rebellious, punk thing to smoke, and it might be even more counterculture to give Japan Tobacco the finger by NOT lighting up, but then, maybe smoking isn't a symbol of youthful rebellion to start with. It's just what your favorite older brother did while he listened to rockabilly, and it was natural to follow in his path by taking up Seven Stars or Lucky Strikes etc.

And rockabilly in Japan does seem less like something a guy discovers he likes one day on his own, and more like something that the cool, older guy was into so you started listening to it too, a type of slightly juvenile delinquent (furyou) and blue collar music, fashion and outlook on life that has been inherited from generation to generation. The original impetus probably being the idolization of all things American starting around the 60's. I think I've written about this before, but there's a part of Japanese society that welcomes and cheers the furyou mentality, a romanticism about guys who hopelessly go against stifling social conventions, and maybe that's the part of the answer to the first question of why Japan and rockabilly go together.


Moving on, the third act was the organizer of the event, Little Elvis Ryuta and his band, the S.R.P., and the Elvis that Ryuta was emulating was that from the 1970's Las Vegas gigs: he punched and kicked a few karate moves, and, at the middle of the set, he got into a blinding white jumpsuit with a gem eagle chest piece and other attached jewels. Little Elvis Ryuta learned his lessons well from the King—he really got the audience going. There was a girl in front of me, who must have been in her early-twenties at most, to whom Elvis was a historical figure at best, but she told a pal you HAVE to see Little Elvis Ryuta because he's amazing. And she was right—Little Elvis Ryuta said we should make so much noise that the King in heaven can hear us, and maybe we succeeded, so that he looked down from his cloud-made Graceland and diamond juke joint to see us all in that little basement club under a liquor store in Shimokitazawa, one of the hardest live houses in all of Tokyo to find.


Closing the event was Asakusa Jinta, one of my favorite live bands in Tokyo, and, yet again, their show got some of the young ones so excited that at the end they began a slam-dance that wasn't that far away from a regular fist-fight. Well...what can you do? A space in the middle was spontaneously created so they can pursue their pleasure, while the rest of us listened.

I didn't find this out before right before their show, by the way, but Asakusa Jinta's accordionist has left the band indefinitely due to health reasons, according to the band's website. That's too bad—her accordion sound really added to Asakusa Jinta's cool, retro Japan feel, and, besides, she was quite a beauty. Hope she gets well.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Waffles & Tornado Tatsumaki At The Que

Why did the Waffles never become huge? Why hasn't Tornado Tatsumaki hit the bit time? And how about Pop Chocolat?

Seeing those three groups together at the Que got me thinking about breakthrough success. Each of those bands had a lot of momentum at one point, but none of them became household names. The Waffles, for instance, was one of the most successful turn-of-the-century college pop bands and was involved with a major label. Tornado Tatsumaki was signed to Victor Entertainment. Pop Chocolat was for a period heavily promoted in the indie scene. Now though, each has a sizable fan base, but none is Perfume.

I can guess at some of the reasons. There has to be some combination of trendiness of sound, catchy melodies, musical innovation, and talent (though, that last category seems very much optional...). These guys never quite got the combo just right, if they were trying to do so in the first place. It's not a secret, though, that I much prefer a band like the Waffles or Tornado Tatsumaki to the vast majority of musical offerings on TV. The Waffles of the world are doing real music, in my view.

In any case, the Waffles opened the four-band show, and I didn't recognize them at first because vocalist/pianist Kyoko Ono had made a hair change: from straight shoulder length to an orange-colored perm with bangs. But the first song started and the style was unmistakable—facing the ceiling, eyes closed, she performs like she is breathing in and consuming happiness, even though she's singing lines like “I hate Time, it's a thief that pretends to give in abundance (Jikan nante daikirai, michiteku furishita dorobouda)”—that from “Tsugi No Hikari (The Next Light)”, one of my favorite Japanese pop songs. Their show reminded me of the way that, around 2003, when I seriously caught the Japanese music bug, I listened to the stirring opening notes of their album One, and mistakenly thought there would be a whole scene out there with many songs as good as these—no, there are certainly lots of brilliant musicians, but none can quite match the Waffles at what they do best.

Several people seemed happy about my report in the last post that advantage Lucy is releasing a new single; I'm pleased to say that the Waffles are also due to release a new work around the summer, and played several of the new songs, which were good.

After the Waffles was a band called Stainless that had its rock moments but wasn't quite as rust-free as their name would suggest, and then Tornado Tatsumaki came on. Bravo. Tornado Tatsumaki's set blew me away so much that I couldn't get it out of my head during Pop Chocolat, and I ended up taking off in the middle. To get back to the original issue: why doesn't Tornado Tatsumaki rule the world? I suppose their jazzy, alternative pop may be a little too adventurous for the masses, and somewhat lacking in easily identifiable catchy lines, but it's still a mystery. They are one of my favorites, a member of my alternative pop Trinity along with advantage Lucy and Spangle call Lilli line.

Tornado Tatsumaki's vocalist Makiko Naka is an Okinawan girl with a sweet, acidic voice—a shikuwasa voice is the vision I had—and it goes perfectly with the band's indie piano rock sound. I was struck, in particular, by her rendition of a song called “Anata No Koto (About You)”, which is in their last album Fureruto Kikoe and is almost blues-like in the way it builds up simple lyrical lines to come up with a powerful emotional edifice. It wasn't everyone's favorite when I broadcast the song on my radio station a while back, but maybe people's view would change once they see how much emotion Naka puts into it live...