Tag Archives: Pop Office

CAR-84 – V/A: Dancing After 1AM

Dancing After 1AM

CD, Call And Response, 2012

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

As 2012 rolled around, I started thinking it was time to do a new compilation. It had been four years since my last one, the Post Flag Wire covers album, and obviously I’d discovered a load more bands since then and picked up new audiences along with them, so it was time to lay down another marker about where Call And Response was. I settled on the title Dancing After 1AM in response to Japan’s absurd anti-dancing laws that saw a bunch of club owners arrested in 2011 and 2012, and completely devastated the club scene in Osaka. In Tokyo we weren’t affected, but on tour in Kyushu you could see the poisonous effect it had had on the club scene there. I added the subtitle “Japanese electric music in the year 2012” as a way of instantly dating it, and then wrote some text in Japanese for the sidecap/obi strip reading “Compilation albums are a waste of time because they’re already out of date as soon as they’re released”. I did a little illustration of a dancing policewoman with a hippy flower in her hair and N’toko contributed by designing the sleeve around my drawing. I kept it to Japanese bands, which meant the design was his only contribution, but I tried to get all the other bands from the label involved. Praha Depart were very much doing their own thing by this point though, and when I mentioned it to them, they gave the impression that it would be difficult to get any new recordings done. Zibanchinka agreed to do something and then promptly imploded, but vocalist Iguz was keen to keep things moving with her new band Futtachi, who contributed a thundering psychedelic monster of a track in Kaiko no Oto. (One other band I really wanted to get on the album was the brilliant blues/Krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, but they were absorbed in the recording of their own album, which they released finally in early 2013 and was one of the best albums of the year, so they obviously used the time well.) Neither Mir nor Hyacca had released anything for a long time, so getting them involved was essential for more than just their role as the heart and soul of the label. They both needed a kick up the arse to get on and do something. Mir had lost their drummer somewhere between their recording of Wire’s Mannequin for 2008’s Post Flag and 2010 when some electronic recordings they’d done as a duo emerged. It was from these sessions that the version of their perennial closing number Dance (which naturally closed out the album too) came from. I chose that over their excellent 2010 version of the song TV partly because of its appropriateness to the compilation’s title, and partly because Mir’s TV is a song I’ve over the years become very superstitious about. it’s a beautiful song and the 2010 version of it is brilliant, but there’s a sadness at its heart that starts sucking you into itself the more you think about it, and the closing refrain of “Sayonara, sayonara” feels way too much like tempting fate. In Hyacca’s case, the bassist, Seiji Harajiri, was by this time managing the coolest and best venue in Fukuoka, Yakuin Utero, and so he and his band used Utero and its PA engineer to record a new song, Uneko. Uneko was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for from them, both catchy and musically intelligent — the exact right balance of smart and dumb that only they can really pull off in this particular way. The video we later made for it where I filmed them with a cheap pocket camera just goofing around and getting drunk in a karaoke box was actually one of the spare ideas for Zibanchinka that their indefinite hiatus had left us with, and Hyacca attacked it with gusto. Looking to the label’s future, Hysteric Picnic went on to record an EP/mini album for Call And Response, while hopefully Jebiotto and Slow-Marico will follow in one form or another.Hyacca: Uneko There were a lot of other bands on DA1AM who were in similar positions, having been out of the recording game for a while and happy for the opportunity (and the deadline) that the compilation gave them. Extruders had just recorded a wonderful live album at a Buddhist temple, and were looking to go into the studio to record an album proper soon (the result, Colors, was another of 2013’s best) and so they came up with Collapsing New Buildings (translate it into German and see what you get) with its constant electric buzz running through the whole song in the background, causing me and the friend who was helping make the master copy to spend a while debating whether it was intentional or not (it was). The Mornings’ debut had been my album of the year back in 2011, and they were just starting to put together material for the follow-up (Christ alone knows what’s going on with that — I heard a full album’s worth of rough mixes last summer but no final version has yet emerged) so Fu-ji was what got them back into gear. Puffyshoes contributed the short and sweet girl-group garage rocket Oh My God, went on to have a busy 2013 and released a great cassette album before exploding in a shower of unfulfilled potential, while Otori recorded the brilliant Hanten (which is their best song and I’m incredibly smug that I got it), Anisakis did the XTC-esque Popcorn Bata ni Kuroi Kage, She Talks Silence gave the album the eerie Long Ways, and New House did the sampledelic Natural Blessings (the last song to arrive, just a couple of days before the album went off to press, and which much to my shame I misprinted as “Nature Blessings” on the jacket — and which also ensured I’d be an insufferable grammar nazi come time to print the Hysteric Picnic CD jacket the following year).She Talks Silence: Long Ways The main problem was in knowing exactly what was going to be on the album, and as with the New House track, right up until the final day or so it wasn’t completely fixed. It wasn’t just a problem for printing the track listing, but also for the CD itself. Bands like Futtachi and macmanaman delivered songs that ran to over seven minutes, and at one point there was real danger of it becoming a double album (I went as far as making an alternative track list where I worked out how the tracks would divide over two discs just in case). There were also moments where tensions ran a bit high. New House didn’t make a fuss over the mistake on the jacket, but one of the other bands (no, I’m not naming names: they did a very good song and it didn’t turn into any kind of feud) was very particular about every aspect of how they wished to be presented with tempers flaring on both sides. The problem of projects like this where everyone (myself included) is working pro bono is that you never have the cushion of money to fall back on, so everything comes down to self satisfaction, and often in a related sense to pride. In a small society like the indie/underground scene, however, the axiom of “don’t piss people off” is a solid general rule. It’s a contradiction of rock’n’roll and punk: both bands and labels are in it in the first place because they’re in some way dissatisfied or disaffected, but within the circle you find yourself, you often have to keep under control the same impulses that led you there in the first place. In addition to Hyacca, fellow Fukuoka crazies macmanaman (the best band named after a twinkle-toed former Liverpool winger in the whole world) recorded a live version of their song Michael, which I retitled Michael in Utero partly because it was recorded at a venue called Utero and partly because the combination of a Michael Jackson reference and a Nirvana reference amused me. Along with Tokyo postpunk trio Tacobonds’ superb Ane with its deft boy-girl vocal call and response (by now you must know how I dig that sort of thing) and slowly building dynamic tension, that made three superb recordings at Utero by the same engineer. You want to do good recordings cheap? Get yourself your own live venue and get the staff to do it.Tacobonds: Ane Still in Kyushu, Kobayashi Dorori and cynicalsmileisyourfavorite from Kumamoto are also on there. The former contributed an oddball nursery rhyme about whales called Shepherd, while the latter contributed the baffling Carnival. I’m still not sure what I think of Carnival now. It has so much going on, with the insistent dance beat, the post-hardcore shrieking, and you’ve got to admire the balls of the way the one guy just throws everything he’s got into his bit of the vocal melody with zero regard for whether he even gets close to the right notes. But at the same time, cynicalsmileisyourfavorite are one of those bands that are all about what happens in the moment. Carnival is usually a chaotic babble of freshly improvised nonsense, but for the recording they tried to work something out and make a proper song of it, and so while the results are, well, they’re something, they’ don’t quite sound like the band when they’re just left to be themselves. Jebiotto are a very similar kind of band in that regard, but their track, Deacon Punk, with its mad cat meows, dirty synths and semi-inebriated sounding vocals, treads that path more assuredly. But like I said, with cynicalsmile you can’t not admire the sheer weight of passion they hurl at it and for some reason I always come out of hearing Carnival with a smile on my face. I’m just not sure why.The Mornings: Fu-ji One of the biggest motivating factors for me while putting DA1AM together was the existence of Nagoya label Knew Noise’s wonderful Ripple compilation of local Nagoya bands. Throughout the production process I was listening to Ripple and my gradually forming compilation and comparing them. I would just not be beaten by this collection from one mere city (and not even Tokyo!) Pop-Office contributed to both Ripple and DA1AM, and it’s interesting that both they and Extruders off this CD went on to make albums for Knew Noise. In any case, both albums to me seem to come from a similar kind of taste, and I’ve been keen to make more connections in Nagoya ever since. On the current rate, Call And Response’s next proper compilation is due towards the end of 2015, which will be just in time for the label’s ten year anniversary. In the meantime, there were new Mir and Hysteric Picnic releases to think of.

Dancing After 1AM is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.14 – V/A – Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1

2013 saw a glut of new indiepop and shoegaze releases, and many of those were on the new Fukuoka-based label Dead Funny Records. This compilation can in a way stand for all of them, featuring as it does pretty much all the movers and shakers (or “standers and starers” as the case may be) in the world of Japanese 80s throwback indie guitar music. Highlights abound but standing out above all others is the gorgeous The Blind by Fukuoka’s Hearsays, with a guitar riff that hints at Happy End’s Kaze wo Atsumete, simple, catchy and affecting vocals, and a faintly dissonant underlying chord sequence.

But pop nuggets abound in Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1, with further highlights being Jappers’ jangly, uptempo Give It, Talk’s opening In Refrain Refrain, Old Lacy Bed’s Little Girl and The Paellas’ reverbtastic Fall Even Further. On the more feedback-heavy side, Nagoya’s Pop-Office have a winner with the driving, fuzz-soaked End of the Summer, The Earth Earth are another standout with the punky Empty Boy rather less of an obvious and direct My Bloody Valentine ripoff than some of their other material, and Azma Shoegaze Explosion’s (now just known as Azma) immense Thousand Lights a mind-shattering gut-punch of sound. Not quite fitting into either category is the Nephogram by Fancy Books, with its synth-led arrangement and distant vocals giving the compilation a bit of unexpected but nonetheless welcome Trembling Blue Stars-style romance.

Many of the tracks are incredibly rough, with the mix of Half Sports’ entry in particular almost indecipherable, but in many cases this serves to simply emphasise the naive charm that is such a point of appeal for much of this kind of music.

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Top 20 releases of 2013: Intro

I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.

This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower

Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko

Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.

Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Pop-Office, “Good Morning”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a beautifully crafted slice of old-school indie rock from Nagoya.

Discussion of Japanese music tends to automatically gravitate towards the twin fringes of avant-garde experimentalism and day-glo, candy-coloured pop excess and it’s natural that when looking for music from a country, the artists that stand out are the ones that seem to exhibit something distinct and unique about that place. Pop-Office, on the other hand, are a solid indie rock band like what they used to make in the 90s, and Good Morning, taken from the group’s new album Portraits in Sea, is an instantly familiar example of the form, the fuzzy guitars growling at you from the get-go like Yo La Tengo’s Sugarcube and vocalist Ryuhei Shimada’s melancholy baritone vocals revealing echoes of Pop-Office’s roots in Joy Division-influenced postpunk.

For all the undoubted similarities with 1990s US alt-rock, this is also a song with roots in Japan’s own indie culture. Pop-Office hail from a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when the ultra-sophisticated but also clinical and style-obsessed Shibuya-kei movement was coming to a close and guitar bands like Number Girl and Supercar were taking imagination of Japanese youth by the scruff of the neck, and Supercar’s epic shoegaze debut album, 1998’s Three Out Change, is clearly a bible for Pop-Office, with the rough guitar textures, desultory vocals and wistful melody in particular recalling early single Cream Soda.

There are hints, especially in the shifting drum patterns, of a band equally comfortable exploring more progressive musical territory, but at heart Good Morning is the sort of straightforward indie rock that supports itself not on pushing back boundaries but on a core of solid musicianship and melodic songwriting. Pop-Office demonstrate a skill in tweaking those notes of familiarity at the back of your mind, which is something it’s rare to find done well in a music scene where the best and most interesting material is more often the music that pushes the hyperactive extremes than that which satisfies the simpler, more nostalgic rock needs.

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Strange Boutique (February 2013)

My latest column is up on The Japan Times’ web site now. It deals with the influence of shoegaze in general, and My Bloody Valentine in particular, on the Japanese indie music scene. Given that MBV have their first new album out in forever and have recently been on tour here, it’s perhaps understandable that people have been going mental for them lately. My Facebook feed for a week was full almost entirely of different photos of the same “Tonite: My Bloody Valentine” display board outside Studio Coast that all my friends were posting with tedious regularity, and there were several club events, a shoegaze festival and a tribute album all out at the same time.Supercar: Karma

There were a few little remarks I dropped in there knowing that people would get annoyed by them. It’s my little gift to idol fans that after aggravating them so much the other week, I thought I’d do the same to indie fans. Some people have already told me off for calling Chapterhouse, Ride, Lush and Slowdive “copycats”, but I hope most people will accept that as legitimate editorial hyperbole (I’m a huge fan of Lush and I’m sure Chapterhouse will one day merit an article all of their own where someone can do them proper justice, but that article isn’t this one and that writer won’t be me). I wondered if anyone would upbraid me for mentioning Stereolab and Flying Saucer Attack as well, since they’re not strictly shoegaze (if you cleave to a definition of shoegaze that means basically “exactly copying MBV”). Stereolab were definitely part of The Scene That Celebrates Itself though, and the guitar on the 18-minute album version of Jenny Ondioline is as shoegaze as anything ever made, while FSA’s whole first album is non-more-shoegaze. But yes, I stand by my assertion that FSA were better than MBV. If you disagree with me, your ears are wrong.

I mentioned Narasaki’s work with Momoiro Clover Z too, and to be honest there’s nothing really shoegaze about any of that. All it really means is that he’s a guy with a shoegaze background working with idols. In Lost Child, he uses synths and vocals in a vaguely shoegazing way, but where he employs guitars, it’s always metal. You need to listen to Coaltar of the Deepers to see where the two cross over really.

Shoegaze in Japan is interesting though. In the indie scene, it tends to be more of the lo-fi, 80s proto-shoegaze variety, and I think The Jesus and Mary Chain and well as MBV’s early, jangly stuff are probably bigger influences. You can hear that really strongly in stuff like Slow-Marico and Teen RunningsThere are also bands who probably take their influence more from the more vaguely defined neo-shoegaze coming out of the USA and to a lesser extent the UK in the past few years, which I feel is more where Jesse Ruins are.

In the alt-rock scene, which is where the really hardcore effects pedal geeks reside, the likes of Dinosaur Jr. are probably just as influential, and then there’s also the secondary influence of all the Japanese bands around the late 90s/early 2000s who were the first to really articulate the influence of shoegaze in the first place. Supercar were by far the most significant. Nagoya’s Pop-Office acknowledge the influence of Supercar as an important one for them. When I was in Fukuoka at the end of January, my boys Hyacca covered the track Lucky off the album Three Out Change and everyone over the age of thirty went mental. Hyacca themselves have some pretty heavily shoegazey tracks (guitarist Goshima is largely responsible) like Olympic, Skyline, Angel Fish, and Sashitai, although usually mixed in with something else, and that tends to be the way with most alternative bands. They love MBV pretty much uniformly, but few of them seem that tied down or restricted by the influence.Hyacca: Sashitai

The other thing that they tend not to have so much of is the sheer noise. Noise music in Japan tends to come from electronic, no wave or psychedelic traditions. The idea of an indie noise band is pretty unique here, so any band with MBV’s tunes would probably not really bring the noise, and any band with the noise would probably be a bit more prog rock and soundscapey with the songs. Cruyff in the Bedroom, the guitarist of whom I spoke to briefly for the article, are one of the best (that I’ve heard, at least) of the current crop of bands who can legitimately be called full-on shoegaze, although there are a lot of pretty good ones. My favourite are probably the Stereolab-esque, synth-laden Hour Musik, but some other key names are Lemon’s Chair, who organised the Yellow Loveless tribute album, Luminous Orange, who were perhaps the first Japanese shoegazers back in the 90s, Plastic Girl in Closet are another important one, and the list goes on.

 

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.2 – V/A– Ripple

I’ve written about this Nagoya bands compilation album extensively, with a Japan Times review, an accompanying blog post, and a mention in my review of the year, so there’s little extra to add, but two small points come to mind. Firstly, I love compilations. Secondly, and related, I love finding out rich seams of new music that I hadn’t known existed before. Ripple introduced me to bands like Dororonica, Freedom, and Free City Noise, as well as giving me excellent new tracks from Pop-Office and Sekaitekina Band (their contribution, New, also appears in a re-recorded form on 51 Records’ split album Underrated).

While Ripple includes more melodic tracks like The Moments’ lovely indiepop janglefest Shining Eyes and Yoshito Ishihara’s yojohan folk style New Mexico Midnight Cowboy No.1 (I don’t wanna be killed by your romance any more), fundamentally Ripple is a punk album. It’s also the best punk album to come out of Japan this year, and it set down an essential marker in terms of quality and style for me in the organising and selecting of music for my own compilation album, which I put out later the same year.

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Strange Boutique Review of 2012 (December 2012)

The last Strange Boutique of the year is up on The Japan Times web site now. As is usually the case with my December columns, it’s a review of the year, and like most of my December columns, it’s fairly downbeat. In the past, I think I’ve tended to blame the dead-end path that J-Pop seems set in on the conservatism of the music industry and their top-down, “This Is How It Is Done” attitude, but I think the audience need to take some of the blame too. Sony have been trying to push MiChi for years with little result, and while it’s very possible that they’ve just mis-marketed her, fans got every possible chance to hear Therapy and still it did nothing.

I suspect there might be a bit of groupthink among the foreign journalists in Japan who went mad over MiChi this year, due perhaps to us all really wanting it to be good and maybe hearing the sharp, sparkly, modern production without really noticing that the tunes it was wrapped around were very conventional, but in a market where Ikimono Gakari count as a proper, important pop band, sounding conventional is precisely what artists like MiChi are supposed to do, and the fact that she did it while still sounding modern marks Therapy as a big creative achievement. The worst thing about it is that its failure is probably going to make Sony even less willing to experiment in the future.

I was a bit cynical about Momoiro Clover Z, although any regular readers of this blog will know that I love them to bits. It’s true, however, that the values projected by their image are really retrogressive. They performed their Budokan “Onna Matsuri” girls-only show (don’t ask how I got in there!) under a massive Japanese flag and when they bow to the audience, their noses practically scrape the floor, in an exaggerated parody of the kind of old-fashioned values Japan is supposedly losing touch with. On a parallel but I suspect related note, 2012 was the first year since the 90s that the number of people saying in opinion polls that women should stay at home while their husbands worked has risen above 50%. What makes them interesting is the way they ride a wave of nostalgia at the same time that they fuck with it.

It’s in the indie world that the best stuff came out, as always, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that no one makes any money out of it. Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus? was just uniformly excellent and I have yet to find anyone who disagrees. He’s the closest thing this generation of Japanese musicians has to a bona fide genius, and he manages to make pop music in the classic tradition of people like Eiichi Ohtaki, while taking the arrangements way further, incorporating all manner of musical instruments and diverging into the sort of mad, cut-up musical squiggles that made Plus-tech Squeeze Box so exciting.

There’s also a shout-out in there to one of my favourite albums of the year, Knew Noise Records’ Ripple compilation of Nagoya punk and indie bands. There’s hardly any information about any of these bands on the Web, and there are hardly any decent quality video clips on YouTube, so this is ultra-core stuff, but it shouldn’t be. There’s a preview of the album on Knew Noise’s Soundcloud, but this one of the wonderful Pop-Office is one of the better ones, despite the weak guitar sound.

The rest of what I have to say is mostly said in the main article. I could have added that Sony finally made their catalogue available on iTunes, which is long overdue and shows they might finally be getting it, although their insistence on calling promo videos “MV”s (“music videos”), while only a subtle difference, suggests an organisation still living in fear of YouTube and not even letting videos do their basic, original purpose of promoting the music. Universal’s decision to make Perfume’s music available internationally and the limited success of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu abroad are noteworthy, but both are artists I’ve written a lot about before (I’ll probably have something to say about Kyary when it comes to my “albums of the year” posts).

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