Tag Archives: Miila and The Geeks

Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.6 – Limited Express (Has Gone?) – All Ages

Limited Express - ALL AGES

CD, Less Than TV, 2016

Emerging out of Kyoto in the early 2000s, Limited Express (Has Gone?) were among the prime movers of the Kansai “zero generation” of explosive, trashed-up junk punk bands centred around them and Osaka-based bands like Afrirampo, Zuinosin and Oshiripenpenz. They were also part of an environment specific to Kyoto where the legacy of the city’s big late ‘90s export Quruli hung over the city, generating perhaps unrealistic expectations of the sort of mainstream access bands coming up at that time could expect to achieve.

Listening back on the sort of music Limited Express (Has Gone?) were making at that time, it seems in sane that they could have had any hope of making it big in a rock mainstream where Asian Kung-Fu Generation counts as edgy, but throughout albums like 2005’s Makes You Dance, the way the band are constantly grasping for big pop hooks is key to the tension with their trashier, noisier instincts that gave the album such vitality. After moving to Tokyo, Limited Express (Has Gone?) seemed to retreat from their pop ambitions, settling into a relationship with the punkish Less Than TV label and stripping their music down to a combination of rhythmical dynamics, coarse guitar textures and Yukari’s shrieking vocal gymnastics.

With All Ages, none of that has changed, but there are hints that the band might be finding their way cautiously back into pop via the back door, not so much compromising their confrontational sonic dynamics as refining them into raucous, infectious party music entirely on their own terms. Gya Gya Sawage barrels forward in a way fans of Melt-Banana will find instantly recognisable but Looking For Inspiration comes at you with a no wave dance-punk groove and wailing sax (courtesy of Ryota Komuro of Miila & The Geeks) and even the odd bit of melody. Neither of these songs is pop, but they’re both ruthless in their dedication to the noble cause of what works.

There are echoes of newer bands like Otori in the increasingly sleek postpunk grooves the band seem to be pushing, which also highlights the way the not-quite-rapping Yukari scats here over tracks like Good Night Kids and the opening No Mean may have influenced the delivery of bands like Otori themselves. Whatever the flow of ideas, this perhaps speaks to Limited Express (Has Gone?)’s ability to integrate and adapt into the Tokyo underground scene without ever seeming to really change, as well as the subtle impact they themselves have had on their adopted home.

The most important thing about All Ages, however, is how unforced and immediate the sense of fun that permeates the album is. It ricochets from one idea to the next with irrepressible energy, taking in eleven songs in comfortably under thirty minutes. The music may be complex and disdainful of easy musical conventions, but it’s nevertheless music a child could enjoy, which maybe points towards a possible future for all of us hoping for an alternative to J-Pop homogeneity — if pop music won’t have us, why not just make our own?

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Strange Boutique (May 2013)

My current Japan Times column discusses language in music. Language isn’t really a concern for English speaking musicians since the language of rock and pop and their own native language are the same thing, but the question of whether to sing in English or try parse rock into their native tongue is something non-English speaking musicians have to consider.She Talks Silence: Holy Hands, Holy Voices

I mention the Soviet Union as an example largely because at the time I was thinking about the column, I’d been reading Artemy Troitsky’s 1988 book Back in the USSR about the history of Soviet rock, and his remarks on the importance of Russian (and Baltic etc.) musicians learning how to make rock work in their own language(s) seemed to chime with my own research about the development of pop and rock in Japan. I’ve also worked, through Call And Response Records, with Slovenian musician N’toko, who writes music in both English and Slovenian with equal skill, and yet writes very different kinds of lyrics depending on the language he’s working in, stating that certain ideas or emotions don’t work as well in one language compared to another. This left me with all sorts of ideas to pursue, some of which coalesced into the article that was finally published, but please read the original article first, because it cuts to the core of my (admittedly pretty straightforward and mundane) thinking about the issue, where a lot of these points are really side discussions.YMO: Solid State Survivor

There were a lot of loose ends though, and there was some interesting discussion about it on my various social media ranting spots. On Twitter, one commenter drew comparisons with the debate that existed in the media in the 1970s over the relative virtues of Yuya Uchida (Flower Travellin’ Band), who sang in English, and Haruomi Hosono (Happy End), who sang in Japanese, over which was the right approach. As in my article, I think this idea that one approach is intrinsically the “right” one is silly. Uchida was aiming for overseas audiences and touring quite successfully off that, and the moment Hosono started aiming overseas (with YMO), suddenly his band’s songs were in English too.Plastics: Top Secret Man

In the new wave era, the Plastics tended to sing in English (although ironically, their most popular song overseas was probably the mostly Japanese-language Copy) whereas contemporaries like P-Model tended to sing in Japanese. P-Model’s debut album contained one English language song, Sophisticated, which at least in part was actually satirising the notion that singing in English was somehow a classier approach for musicians, and might be seen as a sly dig at the Plastics (although surely not an ill-intentioned one given that the Plastics’ Masahide Sakuma was producing the album).P-Model: Sophisticated

A friend on Facebook pointed out that nowadays, “…singing in English has absolutely nothing to do for the benefit of foreign listeners,” and this reminded me of an example from the singer Bonnie Pink, who I remember saying in an interview that her song Love is Bubble was named that way despite the grammar being all wrong, simply because it would be less confusing to the Japanese listeners that the song was primarily aimed at. This is the same as the approach of T-shirt and candy manufacturers, who appropriate English words for their half-understood impact, using them more as punctuation than as vehicles for specific meaning.

The same friend goes on to point out that among many Japanese musicians Bands from outside Japan aren’t viewed as potential peers or rivals, merely as fetish objects to be studied, deconstructed, and reconstituted or imitated in a ‘Japanese’ way.” This is interesting because it then becomes intertwined with the point that attracts many overseas fans to Japanese in the first place, and raises the issue of whether this kind of appeal is the result of simply appreciating cultural differences or whether there is something unhealthy and exoticising about it. To frame it one way, should Japanese musicians enter into the homogenising global music artistic space or should they focus on their own native environment and cultural peers? To frame it another way, should Japanese artists view overseas acts as peers or rivals, or should they remain inscrutable and aloof like good little orientals? It’s a tangled issue, but overseas fans of Japanese music should ask themselves these kinds of questions.Shonen Knife: I Am A Cat

This also links in with the brief point I mentioned in the article about how non-Japanese listeners tend to either find Japanese musicians singing in imperfect English cute or annoying. There’s a third category I suppose, which is that many of those who’ve been immersed in Japanese music for long enough tend to block it out because they’re so used to it. What I do find interesting is those musicians who sing in imperfect or limited English but make something artistic out of that. Shonen Knife play up their broken English because innocence and amateurishness are a cultivated part of their appeal, and they get away with it, somehow. Miila and The Geeks’ English is rarely incorrect, but they use their limited vocabulary as a set of restrictions that hones and focuses their lyrics into a sort of snotty punk minimalism. The English in Perfume songs is often pronounced in an exaggeratedly katakana fashion (“di-su-ko di-si-ko!”) which feeds into their electropop cyborg image (and no doubt conveniently makes their music easier to sing at karaoke).Miila and The Geeks: Want

Another area I didn’t get the chance to go into is that of Japanese-speaking foreign musicians in Japan. Pretty much all of them that I know sing in English, and while Japanese listeners would no doubt clap their hands with glee and squeal “Sugoooooi!” if they did sing in Japanese, I might be being tremendously unfair to people here, but it’s hard to see it being accepted as anything other than a performing monkey trick or some such gimmick. For English speaking listeners, there’s a different issue. While for a Japanese person, singing in English nowadays might sometimes provoke sneers to the effect that they were putting on airs, an English speaker singing in a foreign language for purely artistic reasons would seem far more alien and provoke much more widespread ridicule and accusations of pretension. For non-English speakers singing in a different non-English language, it’s perhaps different again. Italian singer Angelo Galizia of German new wave band The Wirtschaftswunder is an interesting case, singing in heavily Italian accented German. Quite what it meant to Germans I don’t know, although from a certain angle at least, it’s a great punk statement: “Fuck you and fuck your language! I’ll sing in it for you, but I’ll mutilate it any way I see fit!”The Wirtschaftswunder: Der Große Mafiosi

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Miila: Santa Baby

Christmas songs are horrible. Even songs that used to be pretty good, like Fairytale of New York become horrible slabs of sentimental dribble after they’ve been repeated ad tedium year after year. In fact Fairytale of New York is one of the worst because it has just enough non-mainstream credibility virtue of its hard-drinking, punk-generation protagonists Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl that it sneaks up on you from the left as well as hitting you straight on. It’s the Christmas song all your cool mates who hate Christmas songs think is all right, which wouldn’t be a problem except absolutely all of them do, and so does everyone else.

Now I love Christmas as much as anyone. I love getting presents, getting drunk and eating too much. I love the cynical, cash-register kerching! of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day (although I doubt I’d be able to sustain it if I lived in a place where it was being broadcast 24/7 by grasping commercial scumbags trying to sell me stuff) and I’m sentimental enough to believe that Christmas is a time for togetherness and family. But being dedicatedly nonreligious and half-arsedly anti-capitalist, the emphasis for me is on family, or at least small groups of people close to me. New Year is the time for big, expansive expressions of love for humanity, Christmas is about feeling cosy and at home. I’m selfish at Christmas and I only want to share it with those close to me. The Christmas song, on the other hand, is a unifying or, to look at it more negatively, a homogenising force, and this makes them annoying for me. They treat Christmas like a football game.

In Japan, Christmas is something else entirely. It’s a commercial festival, foisted on the Japanese by department stores and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it’s centred more around Christmas Eve than Christmas Day, with the emphasis on young couples rather than families. Basically, Christmas to the Japanese is a kind of shit Valentine’s Day — this is why the majority of the most popular Christmas songs in Japan are love songs (Merry Christmas Everyone by Slade isn’t a personal favourite, but I can see it’s appeal. For Japanese couples, however, it would be way too hard-rocking and portrays a way too alien, Anglocentric ideal of what Christmas stands for).

Somewhere in amongst all these musical Christmas ideals, there’s also the idea of the indie Christmas song. In the 90s, when I were a young lad, indie Christmas records were a minor tradition, and there’s still something about the idea that appeals to me. The intimacy of them taps into the cosy and familial sensations that the season still gives me, combining the sense of togetherness with the inherent selfishness that it goes hand in hand with.

Which brings me to Miila’s (of “…and The Geeks” fame) cover of Eartha Kitt’s 1950s classic Santa Baby. It’s a song that addresses Santa like a wealthy sugardaddy, being both acquisitive in its demands for gifts while at the same time seductively sexual, although Miila replaces Kitt’s smouldering sultriness with the recalcitrance of a snotty punk teenager. The minimal fuzz-guitar-and-drum-machine arrangement is sparsely decorated by some sleighbells tossed insolently over the intro (as if someone had said, “It’s still not Christmassy enough. Stick some fuckin’ bells on it!” rather like how East 17’s suicide ballad Stay Another Day somehow accrued bells just in time for Christmas), but there’s still a warmth to the rough-edged garage rock production. It’s also funny, which is something that too many Christmas songs miss in their rush to make us, you know, feeeeeeeeel stuff. Most importantly, in amongst the cascade of same old same old that the supermarkets, TVs and department stores shower you with, Miila’s Santa baby is a Christmas gift you can hug tight and feel is yours alone.

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Interview: Miila and The Geeks

Another piece of mine went up on MTV 81 recently, this time an interview with Tokyo no wave punk trio Miila and The Geeks. You can read it here.

I’ve interviewed them before, for The Japan Times, and I think this one covers a lot of the same ground since they were both pieces whose main purpose was to introduce the band to a new audience, so obvious questions about who the band are and how they started and stuff are always going to be in there. Not much else to say other than that they’re a fine band and well worth checking out. It’s also great that MTV 81 is willing to run pieces on bands like this rather than just going full-on for the J-Pop/anime/visual otaku crowd (who let’s face it, don’t need a site like MTV 8s in the first place).

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Top 20 albums/EPs of 2011 (numbers 11-20)

It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this, partly because there were a few CDs I heard only towards the end of the year and I needed time to digest them, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I spend so much time out at gigs that I don’t really listen to as many CDs as I thought I did. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of what’s good in Japan — there were loads of albums this year that I didn’t hear — think of it more as a critically compiled list of what passed through my hearing range last year. I’ve included a few pop albums where I thought what was going on was particularly interesting, but despite my frequent writings on J-pop and K-pop over the last year or so, I don’t think there are many mainstream pop groups in Japan whose actual albums I rate. Kara’s album was appalling, perhaps even more so than AKB48, who at least have never shown any capacity to make music of even the most infinitesimal quality, the T-ara album was great for the first four tracks but sucked after that, Perfume’s album was half a good album but half meh, The Kyary Pamyupamyu mini-album was good and only just missed out. The Sakanaction album was good too, but again, I couldn’t quite justify to myself counting it as a particular favourite. It’s a personal list and therefore subject to all my usual biases and musical prejudices.

I’ve counted both EPs, albums and mini-albums in here since defining the boundaries between them can be difficult at the best of times and Japanese underground bands make it impossible (Pq’s Hausdorff has ten tracks and comes in at eight minutes, another CD in the list has three songs at double that length, and so on). Obviously I’ve not included albums from Call And Response Records since I run the label, so Zibanchinka’s (excellent, natch) Hatsubai Chushi has to sit this one out.

I’ll post the top ten when I get back from Kyushu on Monday, but here’s the countdown from numbers 20 to 11:

20. Kobayashi Dorori: Yarukoto Yattara Kaette yo

Notable for the way the group released this EP with an accompanying erotic manga drawn by the guitarist, Kobayashi Dorori strike an appealing balance between an undoubted tendency towards pop culture geekery that occasionally manifests itself through eccentric lyrical diversions and poker-faced erotic imagery, spiky, Gang of Four-influenced postpunk guitar, and melodies that sometimes nod towards the girly punk-pop of Chatmonchy and their ilk (apologies, but there are practically no decent recordings of them on YouTube or elsewhere on the Web) without compromising the songs’ essentially stripped down natures. The delivery is so dry that it’s hard to tell how serious they’re being throughout most of it (my guess: not very) but that only adds another layer of intrigue to a band that’s already ambiguous on plenty of levels.

19. Siamese Cats: Gum

First up, I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of melodic Japanese indie rock bands. I tend to find them simultaneously not poppy enough to make good, shameless bubblegum pop fun and not aggressive and experimental enough to satisfy on a more harsh and physical level. Nevertheless, this debut mini-album by Tokyo’s Siamese Cats genuinely did impress me with its sometimes Dylanesque melodies, freewheeling approach to rhythm patterns and occasional diversions into the outlying foothills of psychedelia.

18. 2NE1: Nolza/2nd Mini-Album

Yes, they’re a Korean group, but they had an official Japanese release this year (that differed from the Korean version only through the omission of Park Bom vocal showcase Don’t Cry, which was a ballad and therefore doesn’t count) and in any case, Korean music is promoted and sold as an adjunct to J-Pop rather than as “foreign music” (check which floor the K-Pop is displayed on in Shinjuku or Shibuya Tower Records). This mini-album would have made it onto the list thanks to the bonkers Dutch-electro-Bollyhouse-whatever of I Am the Best alone, although Hate You is a fine piece of synthpop in its own right and even annoyingly earnest pop-rock singalongs like Ugly have either an arresting lyrical bite or some interesting synth bleeps and bloops or both. The acoustic guitar-led Lonely is complete crap, but let’s just pretend that never happened.

17. Miila and The Geeks: New Age

Miila and The Geeks’ first full album had a struggle on its hands extending their sparse guitar/drums/sax sound over fourteen tracks and keeping it interesting, but they make a little go a long way, building each song around a single idea and then clinging to it for the whole two minute running time before moving onto the next one. This, along with the minimal, repetitive lyrics, means that while the sound is deliberately scuzzy and uncompromising, there’s always a easily graspable hook to snare the listener. It’s also hugely indebted to bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, and the problem with this kind of music is that when it so obviously harks back to the postpunk era, it sets itself up for potentially unflattering comparisons with genuinely the revolutionary bands of the past. So yeah, while New Age is no Pink Flag and vocalist Moe’s playful, apolitical lyrics lack any of Lydia Lunch’s politically charged rage and gravitas (she has a lot of fun running through the alphabet on Alphabed but it’s hard to imagine her singing lines like “Suburban wealth and middle class wellbeing / All it did was strip my feelings” or “I woke up bleeding / You are my razor”), musically it stands up pretty well on its own, and certainly among those at the forefront of the group’s peers.

CD, Self-released

16. Pop Office: I Was Killed Here

I’ve written about this here and haven’t much to add. Pop Office do the 80s new wave revival thing that is the stock in trade of bands like Lillies and Remains and Plasticzooms, but they never sound like they’re trying to be anything other than themselves. I like.

 

CD, Self-released

15. Pq: Hausdorff

With ten songs in eight minutes, this self-released CD/R album by Tokyo experimental collective Pq typically dives straight into a song, rattles through a dozen New-York-no-wave-meets-late-Canterbury-scene-psych-punk-with-mumbling musical non sequiturs in the space of about 42 seconds, pauses for a second, and then does it again. On one level, it’s a jangling jumble of disconnected sounds, and yet… and yet… And yet step back and it’s gloriously coherent, sprightly, sparkling with fun and humour. This is what experimental music should be.

CD, Take a Shower Records

14. Bossston Cruizing Mania: Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead

I’ve written extensively about this album too, so again there’s not much to add. Bossston Cruizing Mania are fierce, aggressive, cynical, funky, occasionally self-indulgent but often devastatingly effective. They make messy, lo-fi postpunk not in tribute to their idols but out of having absorbed, played and lived loud, dirty, uncompromising music for most of their adult lives. This is real, baby.

CD, Contemode

13. capsule: World of Fantasy

Fans are divided over this album, but the critics are wrong. World of Fantasy was fabulous at the time, coming in a blast of club-ready, hedonistic fun just as post-quake Tokyo was looking for escapism, and after nearly a year, it’s still a gloriously stupid, often comically silly record. Nakata told me last year that he’s able to get away with more complex, multilayered ideas with capsule than his work with Perfume which he said needed to have one big idea. Now this may be true as far as his remit goes, but the fact is that World of Fantasy was his big dumb blast of riffs and catchy-yet-meaningless slogans, while JPN was all fiddly (although often interesting) production, and many of the songs’ melodies meandered aimlessly, idly and vainly looking for the big chorus or catchy hook that they needed.

CD, White Lily Records

12. Sloppy Joe: With Kisses Four

Another one that I reviewed last year. Utterly unoriginal, but so shameless about it that it gets a big balls-of-steel award for bravado. Also Still Be a Little Roof is possibly the indiepop song of the year.

CD, Self-released

11. Buddy Girl and Mechanic: 4 Songs Demo

Another self-released CD that did the rounds of the Tokyo indie scene last year. I’m not sure if it was ever even made available on sale or if it was just a promo, but it’s really quite lovely. Brooding, ambient, Lynchian Kraut-blues, with breathy, almost whispered vocals. Opening track Satan’s Son sounds like early Spiritualized or some of Jason Pierce’s material with Spacemen 3, but its when they dive into Can territory, as on the skittering, repetitive, motorik UltraWitchCraftyFab and the abstract funk of Fenix Drops that it really takes off.

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