Friday, April 17, 2009

'Japan Nite' remembered: songs from the rockin'-est bands

I mentioned in my Lux Interior Deceased Artiste tribute how much I love good punk rock (a rare bird, but one that can be caught on occasion), garage rock, and all things pure pop. I also mentioned how I’ve been disappointed that the recent formulation of “garage” as a full-out genre by Little Steven has neglected some of the intrinsic elements championed by Lux and Ivy of the Cramps, from psyched-out rockabilly to novelty records (two fringe types of music that did land squarely in the “garage” quite loudly and quite often). Also having escaped the radar of the “Underground Garage” classifiers, sadly, is any rock ’n’ roll that is not in English — my semi-regular listens to the UG satellite channel over a period of months a while back yielded only one song in another language, a French bit of psych joy played by substitute DJ Peter Zaremba.

Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a series of “Japan Nite” shows held in Manhattan that have offered confirmation that terrific rock and roll is indeed alive and well in the ol’ Land of the Rising Sun. The “Japan Nite” shows offer a number of acts for a low price (much appreciated), and the bands range in musical genres from punk to reggae, psych, and bouncy pop (with a few sideways diversions into “jam-band” territory, not my fave field of inquiry). At each show I’ve discovered at the very least two groups that have just blown me away, thanks to their purebred devotion to good old-fashioned rock/punk/garage and their crafting of new tunes that sound like — the highest compliment I can give to pop tunesmithing — they’ve already been written before (ah, the rock song that sounds familiar but ain’t… ’cause it’s catchy as hell).

These bands are ALL present on MySpace, and all have their own sites, but I thought I’d offer my own tiny sampler of one song each from seven of the bands I’ve seen at these shows. Each tune offers a little glimpse at what the band does best, and hopefully might spur ya on to checking out their websites, videos on YouTube, and maybe even to springing for one of their CDs (you remember those little silver discs people used to buy, dontcha?). If anyone representing the bands would like me to remove their song from the download below, please contact me via the Media Funhouse website (link is on the right).

Starting off, we have the headliners for the first show I saw,
GitoGito Hustler. No, I don’t know what the fuck their band name means, but this all-girl combo seem to worship at the altar of the Ramones, and that’s enough for me to love them to death. “Love and Roll” is the title song from one of their albums, and it is catchy bubblegum punk that sticks to the brainpan. The lead singer announced from the stage that you needed to buy their T-shirts and CDs so they could have airfare back to Japan and “beer money.” She also described their first visit to NYC, upon which they were whisked away to a White Castle, which is possibly the best way for someone from another culture to experience the sleaze that is America.

Noodles make straight-ahead pure pop for now people, and “Ingrid Said” is one of those songs you’re sure you’ve heard before, but it’s an original composition. Besides having one of the simplest names at any of the Japan Nite shows, the band won me over by doing some gorgeously simple and cool pop. Plus they covered the Buzzcocks.

Petty Booka are a fascinating act composed of two young Japanese women who play ukuleles and sing pretty much exclusively in English (in their American gigs at least). They are backed by two gentlemen, one Japanese and one American, and their repertoire is a wonderful group of covers of songs I love deeply, ranging from the Kinks’ “Come Dancing” to Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket.” They seem like a gimmicky joke act when you first see them — they perform in cowgirl outfits — but the ladies have a real love for the music they’re singing, and I think that comes out in their cover of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” I’m not a major Dead fan, but I actually had forgotten how much I loved that song until I heard Petty Booka cover it in countrified fashion. They look like a “novelty act” but sound like true believers and betray a talent that’s surprising.

Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re is a three-piece girl band that does what Japanese ladies in music do like no others: they transform during their set from adorable pop musicians (they recorded a song for “The Powerpuff Girls” in Japan!) to hard-rocking post-punk noise rockers. The transformation is amazing to watch, and the songs are just as good. I’ve included their ode to a guy named “Ebihara Shinji.”

Asakusa Jinta is a five-piece combo that plays music that combines rock, klezmer, ska, and big band music. It’s infectious as hell, as you can hear in “Ride and Bend” (don’t ask, ’cause I don’t know — we ain’t talking about lyrics here!). The band is a delight to watch, as is any group that includes horns and a damn big bass in the lead singer’s hands. Again, they may seem like a novelty act on first viewing, but they’re talented musicians with a little touch of the deranged. I couldn’t ask for more.

Samurai Attack is a male punk band (see, I don’t just advocate bands with chicks in ’em!) that rock out onstage in full Clash mode. The band started as a high school group back in ’84, and their brand of rock does nod back to those better years of fast, loud frenzy. I’ve included here “Delight,” an AWESOMELY catchy Japanese variation on “A Lover’s Concerto,” the hit by the Toys and the Supremes that was adapted by Brill Building songwriters from a Bach minuet. You ain’t gonna believe it, but the night I saw these boys, they were the second act to present a variation on a piece by Bach in pop mode. (Walter/Wendy Carlos, you did your work well…).

And since “Louie, Louie” is arguably the ultimate raunchy rock song, why not close out with a cover of it by one of the best Japanese kick-ass rock acts, Detroit 7? Named after the MC5, the group is a three-piece sonic machine that is headed by Tomomi Nabana, who commands the stage like few American female rockers I’ve seen in recent years. Barefoot, playing guitar with a vengeance, and possessing a gritty voice that indicates a number of years of smoking, she is mesmerizing on stage. Like all the Japan Nite performers, she was in the lounge area of the club (the Bowery Ballroom) after the show. She is small in person, and a double take was required to realize she was the young woman who had just slayed us on stage.

These Japanese bands are known only to dedicated fans here in America — and those of us who are introduced to the music by dedicated fans. The Japan Nite shows tour around American cities and are well worth your money, even in this unnamed Depression (five bands for 15 dollars is nothing to sneer at, particularly when at least two or three are gonna light up your world).

I thank my friend Art Black for introducing me to this “scene” and several other bands I didn’t have room to cover here. This music is entertaining as hell, and stays with ya well after the show is over. Who cares if you can’t tell what they’re singing? You mean someone actually could decipher “Louie Louie” (or the Sex Pistols) back in the day? It’s only rock and roll, man…

Click here for a sample song from each of the bands described above.

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