Friday, December 24, 2010

Yuyake Lamp At The Turkey

On a side-street in Shibuya surrounded by love hotels is the small club Shichimencho, Japanese for 'turkey'. I asked the manager why it was named that, and he said the Turkey was once a bar, and when the Mama of the bar got drunk, her face would turn into many different colors, like the bird. Red, pale, maybe even blue, green and purple...? And thus, the name. At the Turkey the entrance is right next to the stage, so for the minute or two while you pay for your ticket, you become part of the show (and some of the musicians encourage that, calling out 'Welcome!' as a new guest enters).

I was there to see Yuyake Lamp, who just released a great new mini-album called Umi no Mori ('Forest in the Sea'). The event brought together musicians that once lived in a cheap apartment called Shunpu-sou. It's usually not a good sign in terms of luxury if an apartment is called 'sou'. The nicer dwellings have western names—Mansion this, Casa that, Villa, Manoir, etc. Sou's are old, wooden apartments with small tatami rooms and communal toilets.

Maybe the most famous of them is Tokiwa-sou, where some of the greatest manga artists of the 20th century lived when they were starting out—Tezuka Osamu, the Fujiko Fujio duo, Akatsuka Fujio, Ishinomori Shotaro—talking manga, working together, emulating Tezuka. Yuyake Lamp singer Yunn joked that Shunpu-sou in Kyodo was a sort of Tokiwa-sou for musicians. Thin-walled, she could hear the songs neighbors were creating and practicing. Yunn was the only girl in the apartment, and one of only two Japanese. It was a friendly place where, if she screamed because she had an insect visitor, neighbors would rush into the room armed with brooms and slippers. Sadly, like Tokiwa-sou, Shunpu-sou no longer exists, torn down to build a 'mansion' or a 'manoir'.

At the Turkey, Yunn sang her new, beautiful title track, “Forest in the Sea”: 'green, green, blue, and the yellow of light, the forest in the sea'. Such a distinctive, high singing voice, as unique as Chara's. And a stage presence that comes from years of performing, in clubs and on the street, traveling and playing in all corners of Japan.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Advantage Lucy & Vasallo Crab 75 At Munekyun

Every year on November 26, advantage Lucy and Vasallo Crab 75 get together for a very touching event to remember their former guitarist, Takayuki Fukumura. The two bands meet up a few weeks before to think about ways to make that year's performance special. This time, the concept was a children's book. Wearing a wool cap, Lucy's Aiko and VC75's Daisuke Kudo came on stage to read about a lonely rabbit, lost in the woods, that meets other animals playing music. Their songs followed the short chapters. It was a fable about Fukumura's life.

The event is called Munekyun Arpeggio, 'mune-kyun' being a word Fukumura used in an ad looking for musicians for a band he wanted to create that would later become advantage Lucy. It's that feeling you can't describe when you experience something lovely, like, in my case, listening to an old advantage Lucy song for the first time in a while. Lucy guitairist Yoshiharu Ishizaka's take on the arpeggio is that it's a musical form of kindness. But he also said there's an element of eros in them.

Fukumura was a young master at crafting those 'kindly, erotic' progressions of musical notes. For each of the bands' finales, a song starting with a signature Fukumura arpeggio was played.

VC75's was their best song, 'Vicious Circle', and it was a rousing performance. Lucy's finale was that song that begins with my favorite rock intro, a six-second, miraculous wall of guitar sound—'Red Bicycle'. Lucy singer Aiko once wrote that Fukumura composed that intro in a Shinjuku recording studio, and, after hearing it, when she walked out later she felt the world outside had turned dazzlingly bright. Listening to it brings back to me memories of those early days back in 2003 and 2004, when I first started hitting the Tokyo clubs, walking the narrow alleys of Shimo-Kitazawa, Shibuya and Shinjuku in search of new music, making discoveries, meeting the music-makers, getting a floating feeling in the face of boundless possibilities.

Aiko's eyes reddened as she sang the finale. I didn't see Ishizaka-san, but a Lucy fan named Patrick, who took a midnight bus all the way from Tottori prefecture to see the show, said the guitarist was in tears by the end.

I was terminally mune-kyun for the next few days.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Asakusa Jinta One-Man At The O-West

Walking to Shibuya listening to Asakusa Jinta on my iPod, I had one of those moments when I suddenly remember I'm living in a strange little country called Japan. In the middle of the most fashionable town for young folks, I was going to see a band that got its inspiration from early-20th century Japanese popular music.

One of the lovely things about Asakusa Jinta is that even though their music references old styles like enka, chindonya and jinta music in addition to punk and rockabilly, young punk kids who probably have little familiarity with those sounds get off on the music anyway. At their 'one-man' show at the O-West, the front-center part of the audience was occupied by a few dozen kids who slammed their bodies together during the fast numbers and rested during the slow songs. They passed around a mini-keg of Asahi beer that the opening band started up on during their last song and then donated the remainder to the Asakusa Jinta audience. Will listening to Asakusa Jinta expand these kids' musical horizons, inspiring them to dig through old records? But I don't want to sound superior, this band has done the same to me. When I hear their sound a crack appears on the shell of my musical knowledge, and what's beyond it is so bright and rich with possibilities that it makes me tear up a little.

For all their seriousness as musicians, on stage they're wholly devoted to entertainment, in a way few other Japanese bands can equal. At first, lights hit the huge Asakusa Jinta banner on the rear wall; two band members come on stage waving the group's flags; and then it's all action, the horns pointing skyward, the tubist marching through the audience pounding a bass drum, the leader slapping a meta-framed double bass with explosive precision. The band talked about how, B-Ken, the mohawked euphonium player, who is the most hyperactive member on stage, diving into the crowd at one point, got nerves before performances. He sits in the dressing room looking pale and making barfing noises. He's following in the tradition of great artists like Elvis and Koshiji Fubuki that suffered from stage fright before coming on to electrify the fans.

The two-and-a-half hour show, one of the best I've seen in a while, was one where just being there changes you a little, and the world outside feels more alive and colorful.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Risette's 15th Anniversary At The Loft

Grand Old Shinjuku Loft. That legendary Tokyo live house where Southern All Stars and Judy and Mary once played. I always get lost getting to it. Maybe I get distracted trying to steer clear of the colorful Kabukicho street people near the club—touts, Japanese and foreign, hosts in shining suits and mullets, and, sometimes, gangsters. The Loft is in the basement of an incredible building that is otherwise filled with adult entertainment establishments.

After walking down the stairs and paying at its caged ticket booth, you enter one of the ideal live houses of Tokyo. Mysterious vents and pipes crisscross its ceiling and unlikely pieces of Americana cover its walls (is my memory false, or was there a Miller Lite sign somewhere?). There's a bar with food separated from the live music area. And everything in it is stained with the memory of ten thousand rock shows.

Hearing that Risette will hold its 15 year anniversary gig at the Loft surprised me a bit because they seemed more of a Shibuya or Shimokitazawa act, but when I got there it made sense. A veteran band like Risette shines in an old club like the Loft. The music, the act and the atmosphere come together to create something you can only feel in that space.

One of the bands that Risette invited to play that night was a group that's been around for two decades called Yes, Mama OK. I'd heard of them and even own a tribute album for them but this was the first time for me to see them live and listen to their music. Instant conversion. Catchy rock tunes, abundant stage action, and general silliness—one of the members is a sax/harmonica player who chugged a bottle of wine during the songs where he had nothing to play. The vocalist and guitarist, Takeshi Kongochi, is also an actor, TV personality and the fourth best air guitar player at a Finland world championship, according to Wiki...

Risette itself played both an acoustic and an amplified set. Its singer Yu Tokiwa has a clear, sparkling voice that advantage Lucy's Aiko once said she wished she could put into her throat like a cartridge to sing with, and it mingles perfectly with the two, dueling lead guitars. Ex-Cymbals Reiji Okii guest-bassed for some of the songs. Not showmen like Yes, Mama OK that preceded them, Risette nevertheless charmed with the beauty of their melodies and the intensity of their performance. Not great orators on stage either, when they said simple thanks to the audience and the other bands, and Tokiwa said “Ureshiidesu (I'm happy)”, it felt like the most genuine appreciation I'd heard in a long time.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hoover's Ooover At The O-West

I have trouble with big concert venues. A phobia of sorts. Ax, Zepp, Tokyo International Forum...I'm not a fan of any of them. Visions of animals being herded through the slaughterhouse... But these places can't always be avoided. Some good musicians are going to be successful and play the big halls, and I still want to see them. Recently, finally, I got into Ego-Wrappin, and bought a ticket to see the popular group at a large venue. I even considered catching Perfume at the city's ultimate mega-venue, Tokyo Dome, until figuring out the tickets were long sold out. It's clear I need to build some tolerance to these places. So, in that respect, going to see Hoover's Ooover's Japan tour final show at the O-West was probably a good thing.

The O-West is, along with the O-East, Quattro and Liquid Room, one of the second-tier live houses in terms of size. It was pretty full with Hoover's Ooover fans. The band was dressed up as usual in hipster-looking dark jackets and ties. They alternated between rocking renditions of songs from their latest album, 0.025%, and somewhat inane chatter about topics such as competing to push the 'stop' button on buses (to be first, should one press it right after passing the stop before one's own, risking the driver thinking you're pushing for that stop, or should one at least wait for the announcement to begin? etc). It was also Hoover's Ooover's 10th anniversary—on a show held on the tenth day of the tenth month of 2010. During the song “Mamimumemo”, some in the crowd spun one arm over the other, imitating the girl character in the music video. For the encore, Masami came on stage wearing a hand-made Thunder God headpiece, consisting of a green afro and horns (they played a song called “Kaminari Moyou”—signs of thunder—about a girl unhappy about her boy friend coming home in the morning) .

The show seemed shorter than other bands' “one man” gigs I'd been to, at about an hour and a half, which felt like an extended regular performance. Maybe that's their style. It was good show, and the band especially shined when doing faster songs like “Mamimumemo” and “Collection”. But there wasn't the close-up view of the band at a small place like the Basement Bar, and the musicians themselves seemed to have less movement and expression, though that might have been because I was watching from the back of the hall. At a Basement Bar show a few months back, I liked the way that Masami whipped her body away from the mike after song phrases. I've been to lots of great gigs at the Basement Bar...little places like it are always going to be my favorites.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Yuyake Lamp At Azuma Soba Sake House

I wrote before about the Udon Rock of Asakusa Jinta. On Saturday night, I listened to Soba Pop.

The venue was Azuma Soba Sake House in Asagaya. Performing was Yuyake Lamp's Yunn on keyboard and Tamarou on cajon, the Peruvian percussion box.

The soba joint was designed like an old-fashioned Japanese house, with tatami mats and wooden pillars. The air smelled of soy sauce; kitchen noises accompanied the music.

As the crowd slurped noodles, Yunn sang and played the piano in that way of hers, as if it's only for her most trusted friend, as if the audience aren't strangers.

She said the office that produced the band's last CD (Yuyake Ballad) went bankrupt after the Lehman shock, so their next album will come out at first on iTunes. Yunn, who devours National Geographic-type programs on foreign cultures, marveled about how a financial crisis also brings the world together.

The soba that the waitress brought me was thin and al dente—on a normal night it would be eaten last, after getting through some sake and dishes like sashimi. The waitress was casual and didn't seem too concerned about formal manners. A straightforward, unpretentious Chuo line personality, I thought. (Tokyo has somewhat different personalities according to the area, I think.)

The only thing I wished for was for the audience to treat the show more like a party, chatting and drinking, and less as something serious like a Classical concert. A little hot sake, talk with friends, great jazzy pop music in the background, and soba to wrap it up—that would be perfect.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Three Berry Icecream, Acoustic Soft Parade

Many of the musicians friendly with the group Three Berry Icecream live in that rectangular zone in Tokyo west of Shibuya, surrounding Shimo-Kitazawa, along the Inokashira-line and east of Mitaka. It's a (relatively) green area, with modest homes for the most part, school kids, locally run shops and restaurants, and a feeling of community. Tokyo is a huge metropolis, but inside it are lots of neighborhoods that are like small towns. Leaving those communities, their residents are swept back into the anonymity and isolation of Tokyo's large crowds.

I thought about these communities because I knew that the musicians playing an afternoon gig at Mona Records belonged to them. Living just a few blocks apart, bumping into each other in the local market, chatting on the street—those are important things.

Mona Records is one of those nice local cafe/clubs in this community. I hadn't been there in a while. Before, people performed on the second floor, taking off their shoes to play on the raised floor, in their socks or bare-footed. Now they had taken over an old Go club on the third floor and made that into the performance space. The windows were open and I could see on the roof next to the club a platform to hang laundries, next to a vined wall.

The musicians have known each other for years, giving the event a relaxed reunion feel. Kiyotaka Sugimoto, the vocalist and keyboardist for the late Orangenoise Shortcut performed together with Shunsuke Kida, the leader of Little Lounge Little Twinkle; Mayumi Ikemizu's Three Berry Icecream also featured Little Lounge's violist Keiko Tanaka, Corniche Camomile's guitarist Yasushi Sakurai and Sugimoto.

A third group that played that afternoon, Acoustic Soft Parade, was a happy discovery. They played soft pop with tropical-sounding percussion, and the whisper-voiced vocalist had a shapely, round stomach—she was due the next month. As she sang, little kids screamed in the audience section, but that was fine—it was a crowd that included young parents, and they were used to children. As fans of Shibuya-kei grew up and became parents, time passed in other ways too. Another friend of Ikemizu's, an artist named Bice, had recently passed away, in her late-thirties. Three Berry Icecream covered one of Bice's songs, in memory.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Luminous Orange And Furukawa Miki At Unit

Luminous Orange, Rie Takeuchi's shoe-gazing, My Bloody Valentine- and Sonic Youth-influenced band, is my one of my favorite Japanese indie groups. They just released a new album called Songs of Innocence, which I liked a lot, so I went to see their gig at the Unit.

Appearing as a 'special guest' at the show was someone special indeed, Miki Furukawa, former bassist and vocalist for Supercar. For someone of my age and with my musical preferences, Furukawa is almost legendary—Supercar's ever-evolving alternative rock must have inspired the launch of a ten thousand Japanese indie bands.

Others may have shared my awe, because when she came on stage there was a whoop from the audience. She was tiny with short hair and a small face that contains that over-sized lipped mouth that looks like something internet ads try to sell to women. Saying only hi at the start and thanks at the end (I seem to remember that Supercar never talked on stage either), she put on a decent performance, with a powerful female drummer standing out most in my mind. Luminous Orange came on next, and during the entire first song I thought the keyboardist was Takeuchi because she was at the center of the stage and also singing (though it was actually chorus), when in fact, Takeuchi was at the very left of the stage, so I didn't see her at first. It was a spirited performance too.

But...ok, to be honest...I was a bit bored during both sets. It's unfortunate, but I think live bands like these suffer from the legacy of the shoe-gazing style, and the belief that music should be listened to for its own sake. There's not that much engagement with the audience. I can understand how the attitude must have come to be, as a reaction to the excesses of over-produced musical performances, and I sympathize with that. But what does the musician offer instead? Maybe great live music? What I heard at the Unit, though, didn't seem to go much beyond the recorded music. I also no longer can keep up my interest in musicians just because they were legendary for me at some point in the life, if they don't have the goods now. In other words—for the first few minutes, I'll be thinking, 'wow, that's Furukawa Miki!' But unless then the gig really rocks, I'll start pondering where to get dinner afterward. It might have been better if it was at some intimate live house with character, where the music fuses with the atmosphere of the place. The Unit remains one of my least favorite venues in Tokyo, with apathetic, unfriendly staff.

Before the hate mails are typed, may I remind readers that I am huge fans of both of these groups, owning all of Luminous Orange's CDs as far as I know, for example. I just didn't come away on fire from the show.

Friday, August 27, 2010

GREAT SONGS: advantage Lucy's "Nico"

The ballads of advantage Lucy! Japanese musical national treasures!

Songs like 'Koko de Oyasumi (Rest Here)' from their Memai EP; 'Today', the B-side of the Hello Mate! single; 'Hibikasete' from oolt cloud; and 'Nico', from advantage Lucy, back when they were still called Lucy Van Pelt.

I could write about any advantage Lucy song; all of them are good. But the ballads are especially beautiful, marrying Ishizaka's genius for creating melodies with Aiko's poetry and heart-felt vocals.

Nico of the song's title is the late German singer, model and one-time Velvet Underground collaborator. Except in the song title, she isn't mentioned at all. Maybe it's that the mood of the song is like something that Nico herself would have written. Or, maybe the song takes place in a scene where Nico records are playing in the background.

The lyrics are impressionistic. A girl wakes up before sunrise, hearing rain outside. She lights a candle. And she walks outside. The mood is of sadness, resignation and faint hope—though the causes of these emotions aren't given. (I wonder if Aiko was aware, when she wrote the lyrics, what a tragic figure Nico ultimately became?)

The candle that the girl lights, irritated but wishing, becomes a “lonesome heavenly body (sabishige na tentai)”.

And then, those ever-shining lines:

Moshimo kotoba ga hoshi yorimo

Kazoekirenai hodo arunara

Tsutaerareru kamoshirenaikedo

If words were numberless like stars

Maybe then I could explain

But she thinks it's not that important. And she goes for a walk, expecting the morning to be bright when the sun comes out.

And that's where the song ends. But leaving me with a feeling I'd also try to describe, if only words were as numerous as stars...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Seoul

I went to Seoul, after a too-long absence of six years. In 2004 I traveled to Korea together with Japanese bands like advantage Lucy, Swinging Popsicle and Plectrum, getting to know them for the first time.

This time the mission was simply to meet friends and to consume lots of Korean food and booze. Soon enough, in the summer heat, I was sweating garlic and soju. A new discovery was makgeolli, the Korean rice wine—I had it before, but never realized what a variety of flavors it can contain, from super-sweet and bubbly to mild and subdued. At a great makgeolli bar in Hongdae called Taste of the Moon, they served many different types of the wine, and North Korean beer too (it was decent, but I wondered who was able to drink it in that country). As is always the case, kimchee accompanied the makgeolli. Red and white, spicy and sour and sweet and effervescent—unique combinations. Korean food is often explosive—there's a little green pepper that destroys the taste buds for about 10 minutes, paralyzing and burning the tongue, and nothing seems to be able to cool it down. The BBQ places are smoky and the floors slippery with grease.

I went to a show at Hongdae's Club Ssam with my friend Martin, but it wasn't very satisfying. The couple of bands that performed were technically skilled and acted like they were playing an arena, when in reality it was a small club with a couple of dozen fans and the music wasn't that original. But the show made me wonder about the musical impulse. What inspired the musicians to form a band? How long will they continue? Will careers end their bands? And who are the fans? Why did they choose to spend a Friday night at the club rather than some other place?

Over beers I talked with another friend, Wonyul, about Korean music. He thought the problem with Korean pop music is that it's almost uniformly influenced by Japanese enka, usually even without the musicians' knowledge. It's a legacy of the Japanese colonial era, and Wonyul thinks the enka influence prevents Korean musicians from creating their own sound. His answer is to look elsewhere for inspiration, to try out music that isn't listened to much in Korea like blues. But while experiencing new styles of music must be worthwhile, I wasn't sure whether it could, just by itself, help a unique new sound to come into existence, and felt that that would be my friend's big musical mission in coming years.

He gave me a pile of indie Korean CDs that I'm now working my way through, including a nice album called Hanei Sky by Cosmos.

In the sweaty summer heat we hopped from one beer joint to the next, one on the third floor reached climbing what looked like a fire escape. Behind the counter at a couple of places were shelves filled with CDs and LPs and barkeepers who were serious about music. Knowing no Korean, I had to rely on my friend's interpretation, reading body language and guessing to figure out what was happening and what sort of ideas and thoughts occupied the people. But only in Seoul for a few days, it wasn't possible for me to get a very good sense of what the people were like. Still, that's my Seoul. It's a different Seoul than what someone on a tour package may see. It's a Seoul presented to me with the help of good friends, vivid and flavorful, populated with people that care a lot about music.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rakugo, Asakusa Jinta

Tokyo's biggest fireworks festival was happening, and the explosions could be heard even inside the theater where I sat. Big crowds were out in the street, about half of the girls in colorful yukata.

Several rakugo comedians commented on the fact that it was the night of the Sumida-gawa fireworks festival, some thanking us for coming to the show instead, others saying you're crazy to miss the fireworks. But I'd experienced my share of hanabi, and didn't have a strong desire to see it again in the summer heat and crowds. I was much more interested in this unusual show, pairing one of my favorite Japanese rock bands, Asakusa Jinta, with the traditional, comedic monologue of rakugo.

The venue was Asakusa Engei Hall, a rakugo mecca right in the middle of tourist town Asakusa. I read that it was originally a strip theater after the war, and became a rakugo hall in 1971. I also read that because it's so close to the red-light district of Yoshiwara, prospective clients of the latter would kill time listening to comedy while waiting for their appointments.

Whether that's true or not, there is no denying that most rakugo tales deal with the joy of living. Eating and drinking sake are constant subjects. Many times after seeing a rakugo-ka pantomime happily slurping soba, I've been tempted to seek the noodles myself. And the same is the case when the comedians form an imaginary sake cup with their fingers and down the make-believe liquor with delight.

Sexy subjects also abound. One skit had to do with a dim-witted servant who was asked to tail his master by his wife, to check that he isn't visiting a mistress (he was, and lots of complications ensue). Rakugo is filled with the emotions of its characters, deftly differentiated by the single comedian sitting on a cushion—the jealousy of the wife, the vexation of the master, the incomprehension of the servant, and so on—but they're always drawn with a light touch, and with a humane feel. It's idealized, Edo period emotions—maintaining proper human relationships is important, and even when, say, one character is angry with another, that's at the back of his mind, as well as sympathy for one's fellow man.

The rakugo acts begin with a few minutes of small talk about current events and recent happenings, and then, signaling that the main tale will begin, the rakugo-ka slowly takes off his jacket. During one of the small talk parts at tonight's show, a comedian talked about how he goes out drinking near the theater after performances, and sometimes drunks accost him, saying it must be a good life getting paid for just talking. Don't you earn a full day's salary simply by talking for 15 minutes or so? No, no, not true at all—I only talk for about 13 minutes! But, having said that, making your money talking in front of a big audience is—very easy!

The audience laughs because if you've been around for a while, you know that speaking in front of people and keeping their attention, never mind making them laugh, is a tough task. Behind their light-heartedness and mirth you see in the comedians a professionalism as well as pride that they're carrying on the tradition of rakugo, while keeping it relevant for current audiences. The stage is a holy place for these performers.

So, I wondered how Asakusa Jinta, the band, would fit into this environment. As good as they are, could they compete with these masters of stage performance? Asakusa Jinta came on after all the rakugo acts were done, and I knew right away they were doing the right thing. They didn't try to adjust their act to the venue—they just played like they always do, which is a different kind of but equally fine form of stage entertainment.

Apparently, it was the first time in the history of the Asakusa Engei Hall for a rock band to perform. Strictly speaking, their show wasn't allowed (I wasn't sure how they got around the rules). But the elder rakugo-ka that performed at the event, Sanyutei Koyuza, is a friend of the band, and gave the band its name in fact, and it seemed that he helped arrange the gig, maybe as a way to get more young people interested in rakugo. And it was indeed a nice change of pace to have a rock show preceded by comedy acts, and to see a band playing barefooted on a stage made to look like an old-fashioned Japanese home. Koyuza joined Asakusa Jinta for the final song of their set, bringing out his trumpet and playing together with them “When the Saints Go Marching In”.


Rakugo shows often vary the program by including a number of unusual acts, and in this night's case, that one act was certainly unusual: it was a woman who imitated animal noises. Incredibly, she inherited the act from her father, who took it over from his own father. The highlight was an imitation of a kappa—the legendary, pond-dwelling blue-green creature with a turtle shell on his back, a dish on his head, and webbed hand and feet.

Literature says that the kappa's call is a combination of high-pitched whistling and low warbling—the woman did an act in which she imitated the sound of a gentle stream, a dog and a cat, their alarm at seeing the kappa, and the kappa's whistle. I can tell you it was one of the strangest stage performances I've ever witnessed, and wonderful too, making me feel like I was in some foggy river bank watching a dog and cat react to the kappa emerging from the water...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thank You, Risette

Things I love about Japanese indie music:

* That after all these years, I still sometimes discover brilliant bands like Risette. They formed in 1995, influenced by Swedish pop and 'neo-acoustic' (a genre Japanese fans invented to cover bands like Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and the Pale Fountains). Twin lead guitars dazzle with their electric conversations, while washing over them are the inimitable, unmistakable vocals of Yu Tokiwa, girlish yet adult, fragile yet strong, crystalline.

* That even though their popularity climbed fast in the late-90's, they took their time to release their first album, your own sweet way, which didn't come out until 2001. And then after another album and anime songs, they faded away for a few years before coming out with a third album called Risette.

* That Risette is a great album, but their old fans, my friends, who have been following the Japanese indie pop scene longer than me, still insist that the older works are superior. And, indeed, some fanatics are so desperate to own the early, out-of-print albums that, at one point, your own sweet way was selling used for about $150 to $250!

* That the band members, seeing this, felt happy about the enthusiasm for their music but bad about the exorbitant price tags, and decided to work to re-issue the songs in a new album, called it their 'Risette Re-issue Project', and tweeted about it.

I read through them. The one at the start of their project said, “The current situation: 1. the record label is gone; 2. it's not clear where the master recording is; 3. we can't get in touch with the record label president, who we think has the master recording.”

Eventually, the president is reached, the master recording materializes, the songs are remixed, a business plan for the new albums is written up, and two albums come into being—Compact Snap, featuring the old hits, and Extras, highlighting rare tracks.

Thank you, Risette, for bringing this music back. Songs like “whitehouse”, “Nagisa”, “hardcore” and “leaf scattering” are beautiful. They are their own unique room in the big apartment building of music.

Another tweet: “We were worried about what we would do if we only sold about 30 copies, but we're breathing a sigh of relief because the pre-orders have been more than expected. If we make money it will certainly go toward (our new music). So, from today, we will start getting working on the material (laugh).”

I'm waiting for their new songs. And for some more shows. Here's a taste of them live, though, as usual, it's inadequate compared with the real thing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vasallo Crab 75, 10 Years Old

Congrats to Vasallo Crab 75, now 10 years old.

They celebrated with two other great bands, Plectrum and Condor44.

A quick one for now, because I don't have any time. More on the scene soon...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Serani Poji's Laughing Frog

One of my favorite albums so far this year is Merry Go Round Jailhouse, the first work in five years by the unit Serani Poji (it went into 'hibernation' in 2004), and “Laughing Frog” is one of its best tracks.

Like other songs on the album, “Laughing Frog” is at first listen pleasant, catchy girl pop, but the lyrics are quirky (among the other tunes, for example, “Robot's Happiness” is about overcoming the fear of death and avoiding uncertainties by becoming a robot; “Toward the South” concerns a seven-year old girl planning her escape to a southern island with her groom-to-be). This one is a meditation on lies: it has to do with a man who was once a rock star that wrote popular ballads that were filled with falsehoods, and one day a witch in the audience cast a spell on him so that everytime he told a lie, a frog would pop out of his mouth. So now he lives away from civilization, selling his frogs for a living.

The album reminds me of Soutaisei Riron's Hi-Fi Anatomia, both in terms of its eclectic mix of music styles, and the unusual lyrics. In the past, most bands wrote songs about things they feel, or what their lives are like—these two units and other recent bands have more fun with the lyrics, using them to create stories. I wonder if this is an emerging trend in Japan, and if so, whether it reflects changes in musicians' attitudes toward song-writing and its purpose, and if so, what's behind that?

Serani Poji was formed at the end of the 90's to make songs for a Sega video game called Room Mania #203. A Sega employee named Tomoko Sasaki wrote the tunes. (A Wikipedia entry on her says she was also the creator of a song called “Dreams Dreams” that's considered a legendary classic for retro-gamers all over the world...) In previous Serani Poji albums other girls were in charge of the vocals, but in Merry Go Round Jailhouse, Sasaki herself does the singing. As far as I can tell, the unit rarely, if ever, plays live.

In one of those slap-my-forehead moments, I realized only a few days ago that in early Serani Poji songs, the vocalist was Yukichi, the singer for one of the bands I love most, Cecil. In the first album she's listed as 'Yuki', but, still, I should have realized that's who it was. For years I'd been listening to both Cecil and early Serani Poji, thinking to myself, Japan has such sweet female vocalists—when in fact, at least for those two units, there's only one sweet female vocalist involved. Still, she does sound a little different when singing for Serani Poji compared with Cecil: the former seems more stylish, whereas with Cecil she sounds like the most perfect girl-next-door who ever sang.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fabulous Soundscape Event At Nogizaka Bar Coredo

Time-traveling back to the not-too-distant past again, I went to a great event organized by Mr. Henachoko at a venue called Bar Coredo in Nogizaka, featuring the leading lights of the Tokyo indie pop scene, Little Lounge Little Twinkle, the Caraway, Humming Parlour and Lilacs in Bloom.

It was my first time at Bar Coredo, and it was an interesting place: describing itself as a hideaway bar plus theater, it's divided between a room with a U-shaped bar and a small performance area with chairs, almost like a lecture hall.

Little Lounge Little Twinkle

Perhaps unfortunately for Mr. Henachoko, the event, called Fabulous Soundscape, was on April 10, the tail end of the Tokyo hanami season, and, as most Japanese do in those spring days, I used cherry-blossom viewing as an excuse to consume abundant amounts of alcohol with friends, so that by the time I arrived at the Bar Coredo there was already plenty of wine and beer coursing through my blood vessels. In my happy state, I greeted Mr. Henachoko, who I was meeting for the first time, like an old best friend reunited after decades, shaking his hand energetically.

The first band, Humming Parlour, are advantage Lucy-gig going friends of mine, and they themselves are influenced by that sublime guitar pop group—sunny melodies, acoustic guitar, toy instruments.

Humming Parlour

The Caraway is Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada's side project, and my hanami companion DJ Kamaage shouted praises between songs, prompting Shimacchi to say, there's a strange man that I know in the audience tonight...

As is often the case days, Little Lounge Little Twinkle, pictured above, was the highlight of the event. They played songs from their excellent new album Stitch and newer songs too. This pop-classical-toy-lounge ensemble is one of the best Japanese acts these days: band leader Kida, a composer in real life, supplies the gems of songs; Keiko's viola is elegance made into life in musical form; and vocalist Miyuki, as I said in a previous post, has an incredible, intoxicating sweet voice.

Mr. Henachoko especially recommended the last band of the night, Lilacs in Bloom, but, as suggested above, I could already be said to be tipsy when I arrived at the Coredo, and by the time the final act came around I wasn't remembering much. But it's obvious Mr. H has fine taste in music, and so the Lilacs are probably worth revisiting.

Lilacs in Bloom

By the way, if you noticed that these photos look a lot better and more professional than the usual Japan Live fare, you are right, because these beautiful pictures are all by Mr. Henachoko friend Takanashi Haruno.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Asakusa Jinta At Maru-ai Bldg, Above An Udon Joint

Traveling back in time a bit, I went to the Asakusa Jinta event on April 3 at the Maru-ai Bldg, the venue right above a noodle joint called Yamada Udon, where I had a quick and reasonable dinner of udon with pork and draft beer before heading upstairs for the live music.

Maru-ai is a two-story space in the middle of Asakusa that looks like a social club, complete with a stuffed deer-head on one one wall. Asakusa Jinta put up a cable of colored paper lanterns that went across the room, and their banner behind the stage area. In the back was a food stall serving curry, sausages and drinks, which the band members also helped dispense.

By the time I finished my udon supper and climbed up to the hall, the place was packed, and a long line had formed for the booze. There was a fair number of foreigners too—I wonder where they heard about the show (not this blog, gulp??)? The stage wasn't elevated, so, to help people in the back see, everyone in the front sat down. But when the second act, Little Elvis Ryuta hit the stage, everyone stood up anyway—as Little Elvis wanted it.

Little Elvis Ryuta is great. He's a Japanese guy dressed up like Vegas-era Elvis, and leads a group of ultra-cool rockabilly boys. Little Elvis's act revolves around a sort of Japanese rock 'n' roll honne and tatemae. The tatemae, the facade: Little Elvis demands that everyone in the hall sing along to the song, loud enough so that even the Big Elvis up in Heaven can hear. The honne, the truth: a whispered, 'but if you're with a friend and are too shy to sing along, do it in your head instead'. And so on.

Little Elvis's First Rule of Rock 'n' Roll: audiences must participate in call and response. Little Elvis's Second Rule of Rock 'n' Roll: they must also pump their fists in the air. Little Elvis's Third Rule of Rock 'n' Roll: and they must do the Twist. I loved the show so much I hope he doesn't mind that I took the honne option and did all those in my head.

The crowd warmed up by Little Elvis Ryuta, Asakusa Jinta closed the event with another excellent performance. The people in the front sat down for the first few songs, but as the voltage rose everyone got up. There was a guy in front of me at least in his sixties who was having as much fun as anyone in the hall, and I made a silent vow to myself to try to be as cool as this man when I became his age. But I was a little worried whether, with all the people and the stomping, the floor of this old building would hold, or whether we'd all go crashing down into the udon joint. Oshow, the band leader, said one day he wants to make this event even bigger so they also take over the noodle place on the ground floor, which sounded cool—the birth of Udon Rock!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Little Lounge Little Twinkle At The Club 440

Whatever happened to Shibuya-kei? I believe I saw its remnants at the Club 440 last month.

The band was Little Lounge Little Twinkle. The trio just released a brilliant debut album called Stitch, and the show was to celebrate its release.

The guy keyboardist Kida and girl violist Keiko used to be in LP chep 3, a group of classical instrumentalists who came within the orbit of the Shibuya-kei phenomenon. They are part of that complex web of characters who made up the movement.

What was Shibuya-kei? I think that the main players like Flipper's Guitar and Pizzicato Five were hungry connoisseurs of foreign pop music, who then wrote songs based on those jazzy, lounge or French pop sounds.

Little Lounge Little Twinkle follows that legacy. The instrumental palette of their Club 440 show was color-filled, including viola, violin, oboe, clarinet, accordion, wood bass, a red musical toy that made animal noises, on top of the usual guitars and keyboards. Vocalist Miyuki was striking as always, with orange-gold hair and the palest skin, and I was reminded how sweet her voice was. There are plenty of female Japanese singers with attractive voices, but not many voices are as sweet as Miyuki's. It comes wafting down from some heavenly, new Eden, fragrant orange-colored olive in the air.

These guys live the sort of lives I daydream about—Kida is a composer, and both he and Keiko went to music school. They reside along with many of the old Shibuya-kei people west of the Yamanote Line circuit, near Shimokitazawa, in that part of Tokyo where time seems to move a little slower than the central metropolis. Many of them grew up in wealthy families, but now they lead regular people lives, though ones containing the flair of the artistic and musical.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nagira Ken'ichi & Asakusa Jinta At O-West

It's a common belief in Japan that when the weather warms up in spring, the weirdos come out of the woodwork, emerging from their shelters against the cold. Having lived in Japan for a while I have to say there's some truth to this.

During his Thursday night show, folk singer Nagira Ken'ichi talked about one such 'early spring person' he'd met recently. The man, dressed in a salary man outfit, conducted a flag raising ceremony—on the train. He pulled out a Rising Sun flag from his bag, and singing the national anthem—'kii, mii, gaa, yoo'—unrolled the banner. Then, declaring that the flag raising has ended, and again chanting the anthem, he rolled it up again.

Nagira said that everyone on the train except him acted as if this was a normal occurrence, which sounded so Tokyo to me.

Nagira was accompanied by two others, and they all wore cowboy hats—Nagira said he was “born in Asakusa, and grew up in Mexico”—not really true, but maybe a way for him to say how influenced he was by country music. He sang in deep and thick voice black humored songs about subjects such as how expensive funerals are, pinkie-less gangsters and a little girl playing with her older brother's bag of 'white powder'. Nagira is apparently one of the few guitarists in Japan who is adept at Carter Family picking, something I'd never heard of before, which Wiki explains as: “a style of fingerstyle guitar named for Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family's distinctive style of rhythm guitar in which the melody is played on the bass strings, usually low E, A, and D while rhythm strumming continues above, on the treble strings, high E, B, and G.”

In addition to being an underground folk singer, Nagira is an actor, TV personality, comic speaker and essayist. He's also a friend of Asakusa Jinta vocalist and bassist Osho, who Nagira said he often scolds, for reasons not elaborated. I doubt he criticizes Asakusa Jinta about their stage performance, though, because they're terrific.

I've written enough about these guys, in my opinion one of Japan's greatest musical entertainers now, but their show at the O-West was again excellent, explosive, totally involving. They'd put up a huge banner on the back wall, and on the sides of the stage two paper lanterns. The show was to mark the sale of a DVD about their UK tour. And Osho said that the band has been banned from playing in most places in the town from which they get their name, Asakusa—he said the cops are called even if they just set up their instruments outside; maybe some town folks don't like their loudness—but that they found an old hall in the center of Asakusa where the elderly do karaoke now, and they're playing there on April 3. I'll be there.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tokyo Pinsalocks, Noodles, Kinoco Hotel At The Que

Sunday was girl band night at the Club Que, but the three featured groups had little in common other than that they were all girls.

First up was Kinoco Hotel, AKA "mushroom ryokan" (...OK, not really), a quartet in red, Sgt. Pepper-like coats with miniskirts, whose songs were a throw-back to 60's Group Sounds, surf rock, and kayou hits. They were spirited (both the vocalist and lead guitar dashed into the audience section on separate occasions), skilled at their instruments, and looked great, with short, sharply-cut hair. The singer had a voice like a Golden-gai bar mama's; she called the other band members "employees" while they called her "general manager", of the mushroom hotel.

They seemed to have lots of fans, and the word from the Japan Times is that they're in talks to play at high-profile festivals, so maybe they're rising stars. Personally, I felt the band would benefit from some sort of extra ingredient--the retro 60's thing has been done by others, and wild stage action isn't new either.

Band #2 was Tokyo Pinsalocks, and though I remembered I liked them in previous appearances, this time I was a bit shocked how good they were. Had they changed their style, in a perfect way? Their guitarist quit a few years back, and they've replaced the guitar band sound with this driving, electronics-heavy musical creation of Mac samples, synthesizers, bass and drums. The bassist, in particular, was super-cool, tall as a volleyball player, with two-toned long hair in black and blond. She plucked out repeated, effect-laden parts wearing an expression that was at once expressionless and nirvana. The trio's loud, rainbow outfits were also dazzling on stage. Here's a recent performance by them (though, as always, it loses something in the transfer):

I only caught a few songs of the last band, Noodles. They were great--vocalist Yoko is a Tokyo indie scene demigoddess--but I was pretty tired of the event by then. The Que is a lovely live house, but it's far from the most comfortable spot when crowded, with no space to move. It has to be a band I'm crazy about for me to want to risk a sold-out gig at the Que, but I'm old and jaded.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Japan Kuruu Special At Club Phase

I remember a few years back a Korean all-girl band played in Tokyo, and even though their show was excellent, they looked unhappy later, because they thought the audience didn't enjoy the show that much. And I tried to tell them that wasn't true, the crowd did have a good time, but Tokyo audiences tend to be on the shy and quiet side, and so their enthusiasm might not have been obvious. I don't think they were convinced.

I was reminded of this episode watching Japan Kuruu Special for the second time, this time at the Club Phase in Takadanobaba. Kuruu is an energetic, lively, comedic Osaka band. They do things to an excess, including their huge hair-do's, and the non-stop stage action. It's great entertainment, and it seemed to me hard to imagine people who wouldn't like it, but the Club Phase gig revealed that those people do exist.

There was an insider-outsider thing going on, something I've often seen at live houses. At the front near the stage were the inside people, almost all girls, a fun bunch that sang and danced along to the songs, and occasionally got into a sort of joking, non-violent slam dance. But a few steps behind them, toward the back of the small hall were the outsiders, who didn't know Kuruu, and when I glanced back their expressions varied between mild amusement to apathy. I can't read minds, and possibly some of them enjoyed the Kuruu show, but it did seem like they were biding their time until the more 'serious' bands they came to see hit the stage.

Kuruu are outsiders in any case in Tokyo. They talk and sing in the Osakan dialect. And they have different ideas of what good conversation is—inserting joking exchanges in chats is important for Osakans, but that's not necessarily the case for Tokyoites. So, at one point, Kuruu's vocalist said they would continue playing the same part all night unless everyone in the audience sang along—then, a few moments later, added, “that's a joke; don't take everything we say seriously.” The implication being that Tokyo people don't have a sense of humor.

You also often hear that not a lot of Tokyoites are originally from Tokyo, but that the city is populated by people from all over Japan, whereas most Osakans are really from Osaka. I sometimes wonder whether the regional origins of many Tokyoites account for the shyness of live house audiences, though this is a pretty underdeveloped hypothesis.


This was only my second time to go to the Phase, and I only have dim recollection of my last visit there, probably about five years ago. I don't know much about the town of Takadanobaba either, but I enjoyed the walk from the train station to the club. It's a retro town, like time stopped in 1970, with lots of neon signs in Japanese fonts you don't see that much anymore. A major neon advertisement on the wall of a sinister-looking, dark building was for 'student loans', which I assumed wasn't what you'd usually associate with the term, but instead high interest loans for young students who overspent during their first time away from home, and which the parents are expected to repay. It's a big college student town with many schools, right between sin city Shinjuku and Saitama residents' metropolis Ikebukuro, and also one train stop away from Shin-Okubo, where you get the sensation you are in some other Asian city other than Tokyo, maybe Seoul or Bangkok. The name means the horseback riding grounds of Takata (apparently older Tokyoites pronounce it, presumably correctly, as TakaTanobaba), because that's what was there in the Edo era.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Umekichi & Rakugo At Hare-Mame

Not sure what it was but when Umekichi came on stage in her light pink kimono and started a traditional dance, my eyes started watering up, and they didn't dry during the first few songs. It happens sometimes—perfected art makes me emotional. And Umekichi's dance—confident, flowing, graceful, and bearing the weight of centuries of tradition—was indeed beautiful.

I've written before about Umekichi, a singer of old popular tunes and geisha songs. The last time I saw her was in an auditorium, but this time the venue was more intimate, a live house in Daikanyama with the unusual name of Haretara Sora Ni Mame Maite, which means, 'if the sun comes out, toss beans at the sky', apparently a line from a poem.

It's a small hall with aboriginal-looking illustrations of branches and vines on the orange walls, and in the back is an elevated stage with a red umbrella where audience members can sit on the floor. The crowd was a mature one, mostly over thirty, many gray hairs, and 'around-forty' ladies who drank draft beer. But there was also one little girl who shouted a big 'Hai!' when Umekichi asked if anyone had come specifically to see her.

Umekichi's show was like entertainment from another era, less self-important about the music, more of an effort to make it feel like a casual gathering, even though the professionalism was obvious. The songs, accompanied by the shamisen and the sparse beats of the taiko, were mostly over in minute or two, and the singer filled the rest of the time with talk, elegant, humorous, sometimes mildly flirtatious. Umekichi often does her sets at rakugo theaters, and her act reminded me of the spirit of that storytelling art: be an artisan of words, giving it your best effort to put the audience at ease and to get them to have fun.


The event also featured a genuine rakugo artist, in addition to a woman who played what might be called koto jazz. The rakugo guy was the 28-year-old Kichibo Katsura, a practitioner of Osaka-style rakugo. I'm no expert, but it seems that rakugo has always been big in Tokyo and is making a come-back in Osaka. Rakugo is a spoken art so knowledge of Japanese is probably needed to enjoy it, but if you know the language, it's great entertainment. It's uncanny the way that when reciting a comedic rakugo tale, just one man in kimono sitting on a cushion can play multiple roles and seamlessly switch between one character to the next solely with a turn of the head, a slight change in expression, an adjustment of the voice. Kichibo had that down. But I think it's a deep art—how could it not be when you're expected to keep an audience interested and laughing with just your words—and I got the feeling that to really master it, to learn to draw the crowd into the tale and to lead them to that ultimate, sublime rakugo punch-line, is something only decades would bestow.

Monday, January 25, 2010

8 Favorite Japanese CDs of 2009

Alas, at the moment I can't think of a nice, round '10' favorite albums for 2009, and can only come up with eight. I'm not sure if that's because it wasn't a good year, or I just wasn't looking hard enough (always a possibility). Still, there were some bright spots—my two favorite albums of the year were also a couple of the best in the last few years, for one thing.

#8. Soutaiseiriron
Hi-Fi Anatomia

For reasons explained in a previous post, I'm not a huge fan of the Soutaiseiriron's activities as a band. I don't like it that they've imposed a media black-out on their image. Maybe I'm traditional, but I want more than just music from favorite bands: also desired are their words, their visuals and fashion, the whole package. So, the 'faceless Soutaiseiriron' falls short for me. But, judging solely by their music, it does appear that Hi-Fi Anatomia is one of the better albums of 2009. The melodies are unfailingly catchy, and then there are the vocals of Etsuko Yakushimaru—soft, sleepy, yet also emotional and sexy, a wavering desert mirage voice. If these guys can make a few more albums as good as this, I may have to forgive their tiresome image control policy...

#7. Perfume
[The Right Triangle Album]

Moving along to about the most un-indie Japanese group one could come up with, a trio of dancing girls who don't even write their own songs, still, it's impossible for me to dislike the effervescent, bright plastic sound of Perfume. Their latest album has its share of skippable fillers, but “Love the World”, and, especially, “Dream Fighter” and the finale “Negai” are great songs. One interesting thing about Perfume is how wholesomely inspirational some of their lyrics are. “Dream Fighter”, for example, is a song about striving to do your best: “It must be evidence we are living that we take this endless trip to seek perfection” goes one line. Perfume's brilliant young producer Yasutaka Nakata (also of Capsule) is responsible for the trio's lyrics, and it makes me wonder whether lines like those were commercially-inspired—being the sort of stimulating lines that young consumers like to see accompanying appealing melodic hooks—or whether it reflects his own feelings. Probably, both. (The album title is an image of a right triangle, so I'm calling it the Right Triangle Album.)

#6. Hoover's Ooover
A-gata Sentimental

Hoover's Ooover was probably my biggest discovery of 2009. Well...actually, I knew of them since at least 2004 or so, but it took me fully five years until I figured them out. And repeated listens were required of past songs like “Palette Knife”, “Propane Gas” and “Rival Wa Rickenbacker” before I recognized them as classics. Even now, it's hard to put into exact words the attraction of Hoover—some combination of Masami Iwasawa's Literature-conscious lyrics, the distinct emotionalism of her singing, and the driving rock. Moving on to this album: I still don't really get it. With the exception of the exhilarating, quick-paced “Mamimumemo” (for which the band made an animation video), I haven't found a tune as good as their past stuff including the three mentioned above. But, considering the long time it took me to turn on to Hoover in the first place, I'm reserving judgment and putting it in as a favorite, on the assumption that I'll eventually see the light.

#5. Nirgilis

Combine an 80's New Wave-like synthesizer pop sound with a powerful singer who seems to dive into an ocean of feeling with every phrase of a song, and you get one of my favorite groups, Nirgilis. Their latest, RGB, isn't one of those albums you finish listening to on fire with the fresh realization of what an album can be; it feels more like a collection of singles; but they're excellent singles, including “Rainy Day”, “Koi no Resistance” and “Update”. As with their other work, RGB is a pick-me-up sort of album.

#4. Japan-Kuruu-Special
This Is Namennayo

This Osakan punk quartet KO-ed me twice: the first time when I saw their frenetic live show at the Loft with Asakusa Jinta, and the second, when I listened to their album, which I hurried to buy after the Loft gig. What makes their high-energy but pretty ordinary punk rock special is the vocals of Junzo, a tomcat voice spouting lines all in Osaka dialect, his words tapering off at the end like flaming jet plane tracks. I've only listened to this album a few times, but I'm going to be punk rock about the decision and immediately declare it my fourth favorite of last year.

#3. Quinka, With a Yawn

Number three is by one of my recent big favorites, Quinka, With A Yawn, the solo unit of Michiko Aoki. Quinka's Field Recordings was my best album of 2008; [Su] is great too, but it's lower down on the list because most of the songs are new versions of previously released tunes. Still, this is an album that puts on vivid display the poetry of Quinka songs and the growing, touching expressiveness of Aoki's singing. I particularly like “Harunire”, which I wrote about recently, and “Story”, a ruby of a song that comes at you like dream music during a twilight nap.

#2. Frenesi

Cupra took me by surprise. I'd been a fan for a while of Frenesi, another one-woman unit, but even so this album far exceeded my expectations. It doesn't sound like anything Frenesi's done before; it doesn't sound like anything I've heard before. Frenesi takes a big gamble with these songs—everything is on the verge of just not working, the vocals almost, but not quite, too child-like, soft, out-of-tune, the music almost, but not quite, too silly, forced, the lyrics on the verge of being senseless and self-absorbed, but in the end, not. Instead, by taking things about as far as they can go, Cupra ends up with songs that walk in new territories ...Unless you don't have the ears for this sort of music, and something about it makes it fall flat for you. That's Frenesi's gamble—this isn't music that will appeal to everyone.

My favorite songs are “Kasou Kako (Virtual Past)”—like a children's TV song that mutated into an alternative hit; “Sky Bus Tokyo”—wherein our heroine sings place names, 'Chidorigafuchi, Kasumigaseki, Tokyo-eki, Marunouchi' etc. to underwater kingdom background music; “Watashi no Yes-man”—a bossa nova piece that seems to hide within it something icy and tragic; and “Lowitz Arc”—like an unexpected karaoke gem in a far frontier disco bar.

#1. Asakusa Jinta

I dig Asakusa Jinta's vision: the way they unearth old and obscure Japanese sounds, mix them together with modern ingredients like punk and rockabilly, and end up with something totally new; the engaging theatricality of their performances, the bright, hipster costumes, the dancing horns, the waving banners; the retrospective, Showa-feel of many of their melodies and lyrics, that nevertheless speak to us, music lovers of the 21st century.

Their latest album, going even further than their previous, dazzling Sky Zero, establishes them as hard-working, talented inventors of new sounds. Setsuna ranges from a tune out of a fuzzy pre-war radio (“Junpuu Yakyoku”) to a frenzied drum-and-horn cabaret number (“Grand Cabaret”) to a ballad that could accompany some energy-overflowing 60's Japanese youth movie (“Star”) to an epic, deep rock anthem (the title track) to my favorite single of the year, “Tokyo Sabaku De Jidanda”, an unstoppable musical orgy of fast, exploding bass notes, far-gone screams of horns and guitar, and in the background a super-cool but insistent Japanese male singing about the Tokyo sabaku, the metropolitan desert.

Amazingly, it all holds together. And it tells a story, purely musical, without plot, about what Asakusa Jinta is.

Setsuna is a Buddhist word that means the briefest moment in time. The 54 minutes of the album is also not long, like the dream on a spring night. But it's vivid.



I only found out until after I created this list that the girl solo unit formerly known as Hazel Nuts Chocolate, now named HNC, released a new album in December called Cult. A few listens and I'm fighting the urge to possibly prematurely declare this new work a masterpiece—but wow, is it good...After more listens, it might turn out to be one of my top three favorites of 2009. Yuppa, the HNC girl, has jettisoned her image as a children's picture book-made-into-music type of composer, and transformed herself into techno-addicted, random-sampling-manic (meows, 'uno, two, tres, four'), sexually-sometimes-sorta-explicit ('all day long walk a girl/with a little lips/little crack/little fxxk/every little girl things' goes one line in the great song “Girl Things”), edgy-cover-art artist. “Girl Things”, in particular, I love, with its attractive melody, and the feel that it may be one of the first steps in a new movement, of songs written by girls, for girls, about girl things.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Contrary Parade, Ashigaru Youth, Plectrum At Que

Strange how standing on the concrete floor of the Que can feel sofa-like, at a pal's pad, when there's good music.

And there was, including Contrary Parade. Their drummer always sends me invite emails to their shows when they come in from Osaka. Now they're all moving to Tokyo, so I'll be able to see more of them. Contrary Parade sounds to me post-Waffles, which for its part is probably a post-advantage Lucy band. I like the way the three girls at the front of the stage (they're all girls except the drummer) giggle elegantly during breaks between songs.

Ashigaru Youth, also from Osaka, featured two male vocalists/guitarists with full cheeks, double chins, and round stomachs (photo at the top). 'Ashigaru' means a samurai foot soldier, but its literal meaning is 'light-footed', which may be ironic in this case. But the duo sang beautifully, and the band's power pop was pleasing. Their girl fans were lined up in front of the stage, dancing along to their songs. I may have been affected by a beer and a glass and a half of whiskey and soda by then, and though it might have partly been flattery to the venue, even so I was touched when they said they've dreamed about playing at Shimokitazawa's Club Que and were therefore very excited to be there.

Wrapping up the event was Plectrum, a great band I wrote a lot about when this blog was getting started. I eased off on the reports on them after a while even though I continued to see them, just because I'd said so much already. But seeing them tonight reminded me that when they start playing it can be space warp-like and I'm in a place where time is filled with pleasurable music action. I remember why I was so crazy about them. Fourteen years as a band, and they were probably good to start with. And it feels very worthwhile that they are making music like this. Times like that, the real message I want to send is: there was something there.