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.