Monthly Archives: May 2013

Perfume: Magic of Love

After the collective “meh” that engulfed observers of the Japanese pop scene upon the release of Perfume’s sweet but out of character last single Mirai no Museum, Magic of Love has been greeted by a massive sigh of relief that the producer who has almost singlehandedly held up Japan’s tattered reputation for modern, forward-thinking pop culture over the last few years hasn’t completely lost his mojo in the warm sludge of the anime theme song mangroves. As a few people around me correctly noted, it’s massively refreshing to know that in Magic of Love, there is still someone making mainstream Japanese pop that’s musically clever, subtle, and recognisably contemporary even outside the atrophying cultural Galapagos of these islands.

That said, Yasutaka Nakata has been pulling a similar trick of technopop bleeps over slippery electro-funk for so long now that I have to wonder if “clever” and “subtle” aren’t in danger of becoming gloss over music that’s really just “busy”. For me, the best Perfume single of the last few years is still Laser Beam, which is a busy as, I don’t know, a collaborative industrial development area in the demilitarized zone between the Republic of Beavers and the Democratic People’s Republic of Bees, but its catchy, vaguely nostalgic melody and killer chorus made it a perfect marriage of simplicity and complexity and one of the best Japanese pop songs in recent memory. Magic of Love is strong enough (if utterly predictable) in the chorus, but like nearly all of Nakata’s songs, the melody in the verses is basically the sound of someone in a karaoke box going “hum-de-hum-de-hum, nah-nah-nah” to fill in time when they realise too late that the only bit of the song they know the tune to is the chorus. Nakata seems to recognise his weakness in this area and as he has with so many recent songs, he jumps in straight away with the catchiest part, buries the flabby verse between the chorus and the funky, intelligently arranged electro of the instrumental break, and then wipes the second verse out of our memory by repeating the chorus again and again in the outro, like a boot stamping on an unimaginative chord progression for eternity.

It does seem though, that while his melody writing skills seem to have stagnated rather, his ability as a producer and arranger is going from strength to strength, and the similarities with capsule’s (admittedly better) Step on the Floor give further evidence that the flow of musical ideas between capsule and Perfume has been re-established after diplomatic relations between the two groups were temporarily severed in about 2010. There’s also what seems like a growing confidence in Kashiyuka, Nocchi and A-chan’s abilities to carry a song with something like their own natural voices. Perhaps this is merely a reaction to the growing ubiquity of Vocaloid voice synthesiser characters like Hatsune Miku in contemporary Japanese electronic pop, but Magic of Love sees each member’s voice now pretty much recognisable as itself, which while a small point in the overall tapestry of sounds in the song, nevertheless adds depth and texture to the music and as long as it doesn’t become an excuse for more dreary five-minute-plus ballads, it could become a useful tool in the producer’s box in the future.

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Ykiki Beat: Garden

Sharing some of the same members as the wonderful, uplifting guitar pop upstarts DYGL, Ykiki Beat obviously share some of the same melodic tics, with taste that obviously runs along similar 80s indie lines, a similar sort of guitar jangle slipping through every now and then, and in particular a similar kind of angelic yet slightly cracked vocal delivery. Ykiki Beat are way funkier though, with the beat of new song Garden kicking in like Orange Juice’s Rip it Up. The greater prominence given to backing vocals helps give Ykiki Beat more of a sense of being a multifaceted band who might develop in new and interesting ways, where you suspect that DYGL’s path of development is going to lie in further refinement of their craftsmanship rather than in radical changes in style. The main thing both bands share, however, is the thing that’s on clearest display in Garden, namely the boundless sense of energetic sunshine they bring to their simple, affecting melodies.

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Atlanta Girl: Atlanta Girl EP

Atlanta Girl EP

CD, self-released, 2013

I get a lot of CD/Rs handed to me by bands when I’m out around town, and usually it only takes a few seconds to place the kind of thing they’re doing. Sometimes though, a young band shows up doing something completely off the wall, as if even they themselves haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work, but it’s nearly always interesting, giving the listener the sense of the band groping their way towards their own sound in real time rather than emerging fully-formed and familiar. Jesus Weekend, who I reviewed last week, are a bit like that, and so are Atlanta Girl.

This EP starts out sounding like fairly straightforward indiepop, albeit at the fuzzier, more lo-fi end, but then the vocals come in like a drunkard awakening from slumber, perhaps on a park bench or railway platform somewhere, fending off the attentions of strangers with a mixture of self pity and half-hearted flapping limbs. In the background all sorts of weird noises start coming through.Atlanta Girl are only getting started though, and second track South Carolina comes in from another angle entirely, all drum machine, discordant synths, and sudden squalls of noise. It’s fascinating and, like the odder moments of Mummer-era XTC, at its core still fundamentally pop.

Peeling back the layers, you get the impression that Atlanta Girl are basically an indiepop band in that Beach Boys/C86/Flipper’s Guitar tradition, and the melodies could probably be polished up into some quite delightful, shimmering guitar pop, but then again, why waste something so wonderfully, thrillingly strange by filing off all its weird, knobbly edges like that? If anything, it would be more interesting to see them exploring the Zappa-esque fringes of avant-pop in the other direction.

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Strange Boutique (April 2013)

My Japan Times column last month talked about the collapse of the Tokyo Rocks festival that was due to take place this coming weekend. Rather than examine the specific reasons for its failure, which seem to have been internal management issues, I focused instead on the reactions of fans, because I think they revealed something different about the festival and what it might have done wrong. I gather from some comments people made to me afterwards that the point I was making in the article wasn’t very clear, so I’m just going to re-state here, I wasn’t really interested in the internal gossip of the event organisers, I’m more interested in what they actually did, how they presented and promoted the event, and what impression that approach gave. Because really, when the cancellation announcement came, no one was in the least bit surprised. In fact, for some people I spoke to, the cancellation announcement was the first they’d even heard of the event.

In addition to what I said in the article, there are some spurious and unsubstantiated comments I’d like to make here. Firstly, the rumours going around that despite being booked to take place in a 60,000 capacity stadium, Tokyo Rocks only sold a few hundred tickets, and secondly that the event producer Takashi Yano had come into a lot of money and was just playing at being a rock promoter so that he could hang out with bands and feel like a rock star. Like I said, no idea of the truth in these things or where the information would have come from if they were true, but they play into a narrative among fans of the event as being small-time, underpromoted in the Japanese media (as opposed to the UK/US media, where it received a lot of coverage) and the fanboyish way Yano came across in his Facebook comments. Ragardless of any truth that these rumours might have, they’re exactly the kind of rumours that were always going to come out of an event that was promoted and presented the way Tokyo Rocks was.

So while in my Japan Times piece, I tried to explain as well as I could in the space I had what fan reactions revealed about how fans think and how the music scene is structured, here I want to go into a bit more detail and use personal examples relating to a couple of my own musical activities that would be inappropriate to discuss in my column (I sometimes talk about bands I’ve worked with in the Japan Times, but I don’t think it’s right for me to talk about my own projects directly). I don’t want to slag off Yano because that would be kicking a man when he’s down. It would also be hypocritical of me, because the problems he and the Tokyo Rocks team had are like a massive-scale, catastrophic condensation of all the problems I’ve experienced as an indie event organiser in Japan over the past eight or nine years. In fact, a lot of the things he did would have been precisely the right thing to do in an indie environment, and it was only the transference of those ideas onto a bigger scale that made them wrong.

Firstly, the Japanese music press and music media in general is shit. No one reads it, they won’t write about you unless you pay them for the column inches, which means no readers trust anything they say anyway. The kind of promotion major producers do is coordinated across all sorts of media and simply bludgeons fans into submission. It requires a lot of money, but also experienced staff who have personal relationships with all the relevant press, TV and record store staff.

When I released the Dancing After 1AM compilation album on my own Call And Response label last year, rather like Tokyo Rocks, it got much better coverage in the English language media. This was I think partly because I knew more people in English language media, partly because it tends to be more open to submissions from people they don’t know, and partly because Japanese indie music doesn’t have the network of well-read and respected blogs running beneath the level of the professional music press that are always on the lookout for new things. No Japanese media even replied to my mails introducing the album, and the only place I got any serious column inches was Kyushu local free music magazine Time Market — tellingly the one media outlet where I was reasonably well known as already. Tokyo Rocks was a relatively small event trying to jump up to the big leagues and they weren’t able to bring the media with them on the scale they needed.

There’s also the fans. In an indie event, social media is the most useful kind of promotion you can do. Twitter is the main one, but Facebook is growing among Japanese users. In this sense, Tokyo Rocks weren’t so far off base. Nurturing a group of fans via social media works for events up toa few hundred in size. Even so, a homepage is still the primary port of call for music fans, where updates can be clearly presented and linked to. The Tokyo Rocks homepage was sparse, with ugly, navigation-unfriendly Facebook carrying all sorts of important stuff. More importantly though, music fans, even indie and underground fans, get gooey at the knees at slick, professional stuff. My own label and events are as cheap, amateurish and chaotic as anything and then some, but this is why other people waste so much money printing expensive, colour flyers for their tiny gigs in shitty 100-capacity venues — they may not have much direct impact, but they do a lot for the “brand”, telling the audience the organiser is serious and that they care. Now magnify that to stadium-level, and imagine the kind of expectations for professionalism fans have? They want to be bludgeoned into submission, and will feel insulted if you don’t do it.

And then there’s booking. People in the Tokyo music scene always complain about the booking at indie shows focusing on such a narrow range of artists for each event. Musicians say they enjoy playing shows with different kinds of people, fans tend to agree that a range of music is more interesting. Don’t believe them. Everyone says they want variety, but they won’t back it up with their time or ticket money. Tokyo gigs are ¥2000 a throw, and most fans won’t go to a gig unless they already know and like at least three of the bands, which means organisers who want to book interesting shows have to make sacrifices as they navigate the delicate balancing act between booking good shows and getting enough audience to pay for the venue they’ve booked. For example, you don’t book mod/garage bands for postpunk/alternative gigs, no matter how logical it might seem for two individual bands to play together. Mod/garage fans are the most narrow-minded little clique in the Japanese music world and will not go to an event unless every single band sounds exactly the same. Part of the reason Ozzfest the same weekend seems to have worked was because it was a metal-only event with solid, internationally famous bands running quite deep into the lineup. Fuji Rock books a lot of Japanese bands, but again, the core of the headliners as well as most of the bands on the main stages tend to be foreign.

With international bands, they’re usually a wasted booking at an underground event unless they’re already well known. What happens usually is that bands will play with them out of genuine interest and maybe the hope of some help if they themselves try to play abroad, and venues will put them on for the prestige, hoping to recover any money they lose on the night in the long term as their status in the local scene rises, allowing them to attract better local bands in the future. Tokyo venues will almost never pay touring bands, and some will even charge them the same standard pay-to-play “noruma” as a Japanese act (Koenji Roots, to name and shame but one).

With well known overseas bands, the situation’s different. They can get an audience, but it’s a different one to the local bands. International and Japanese music are marketed separately and occupy different sections of record shops regardless of the music’s similarity, and the fans are different crowds of people. Japanese underground/alternative fans may well like overseas bands, but fans of overseas bands don’t necessarily like similar-sounding Japanese bands — in fact, they’re often inclined to look down their noses at them as embarrassing imitations. Not only that, but overseas bands are expensive to bring over. A ticket to see a local band costs ¥2000, but a foreign band will cost ¥6000 or more. A Japanese band supporting a touring foreign band will not bring significant numbers of their own supporters to a show when those fans can see them three times elsewhere for the same cost.

The biggest financial loss I’ve ever experienced off a single event was when I put together a last-minute booking for Bristol powerpop/new wave trio The Stingrays in Tokyo a couple of years ago. When I booked Dutch/German band Anatopia in Tokyo last year, I had to get six local bands to support them in order to bring in the crowd I needed to pay them even the small guarantee I’d offered. When I DJed with Bo Ningen in Tokyo and Kagoshima earlier this year, the organisers needed similarly bloated local band and/or DJ lineups to support the cost of the tour. In all these cases, we had to keep the ticket prices down as low as we could, so that fans from the local indie scene would be able to support the show. When the excellent You Got A Radio supported Gang Of Four earlier this year, I took one look at the ¥7000 ticket price and laughed my arse off. Many others did the same.

So what Tokyo Rocks did with getting a couple of big foreign headliners like Blur and My Bloody Valentine and then populating most of the rest of the lineup with Rockin’ On-ready local bands was doomed to fail to satisfy on two counts. Too expensive for the people who might have liked Andymori etc. it also offended the Blur and MBV fans by booking them with a load of local bands they were either disdainful of, uninterested in or had never heard of.

So while I think Takashi Yano and co. made mistakes, and I find his “stay young” sign-offs as cringeworthy and annoying as anyone, I have to feel sympathy with him because some of his mistakes were actually just cases of doing the right thing to the wrong people, while some were really just actions that reveal prejudices and habits of Japanese music fans and the music scene here that I also find infuriating. In the end, I think he might have just got too full of the success of his earlier, smaller one-day festivals and overreached. This is a temptation that every organiser is sometimes subjected to, myself included. With each success, like a gambler you think “I’m on a winning streak, lets raise the stakes!” and you have to step back, look at the reality of the music scene, assess the danger, and hedge your risks.

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Guessband: To Heart

To Heart

CD, self-released, 2013

Formed out of the remnants of alternative/postpunk band Creepypop, Guessband take the energetic rush of clattering disco drum beats, growling bass and enthusiastically out-of-tune vocals that characterised the previous band and strip out all the darker, more deliberately paced elements to create something that’s rough and uproarious as well as furiously uncompromising party music. The arrangements take in off-kilter new wave, drawing in cheesy yet undeniably catchy hooks and a mischievous tendency to leap in unexpected directions mid-song, but Guessband have no time for the self-conscious refinement of a lot of new wave and postpunk, preferring instead the raucous, ramshackle, crowd-pleasing exuberance of Japanese festival music. That the disc takes its title from an erotic dating simulator computer game from the 1990s (although the sanitised Playstation and TV anime adaptations are perhaps better known) is revealing of the mischievous and, let’s face it, pretty base, instincts underpinning the music, although it also pitches the band in the position they want to be: that of sexually frustrated, terminally unattractive geeks trying to make the best of the poor hand life has dealt them. For that at least, it’s hard not to be sympathetic towards this good humoured and really thoroughly enjoyable album.

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Satoru Ono: All My Colours/Ocean Song

Satoru Ono is one of the most talented songwriters in Japan and one of its best kept secrets. He’s already released three terrific albums, all shimmering islands of classic guitar pop in the roster of Kyoto’s eclectic Second Royal Records, and the two tracks on this new seven-inch are a perfect distillation of his talents. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing new though, and there are three key changes on display here since 2010’s Tales from Cross Valley. The first is that it’s coming out via Tokyo indie label Violet and Claire (run by Ono’s wife Sumire, of Twee Grrrls Club fame), a label specialising in short-run limited editions and cassettes and a decision presumably taken more for the sake of interim convenience than as part of a long term release strategy — I’d expect a future full length album to be via a bigger label.

Violet and Claire is a good home for this release though, with the production warmer and more intimate than the more cleanly constructed powerpop of its predecessor, sounding more like a band playing together in the studio. All My Colours (dig the British “ou” spelling) recalls the sounds and atmosphere of 90s Japanese neo-acoustic pop in its upbeat tempo and whimsical “ba ba ba”s, and Ocean Song shows the current rash of aspiring indiepopsters like Boyish and DYGL how 1980s UK-style jangle is really done.

In a departure from most of Ono’s previous recent material, both songs are sung in Japanese rather than English, although one probably shouldn’t read too much into that decision (many artists frequently switch between English and Japanese from song to song since some sentiments appear to be easier to express in one language than another), but at least it’s another example of Ono’s unwillingness to allow himself to get stuck in a single way of doing things, while at the same time never compromising the essential core of his songwriting, which remains only of the highest standard.

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