Sunday, June 26, 2005

Number Girl - Transparent Girl

Several nights ago, we climbed into the beetle-shell bunker of Club Quattro to see Bloodthirsty Butchers. Touring behind their righteously rocking Banging the Drum album, the quintet plowed through a 90-minute set of searing posthardcore. Onstage, the Butchers strike a pose similar to the Pixies, thanks to the adorably stoic lone female member and the squinting, semi-autistic presence shared by Frank Black and singer Yoshimura Hideki. But musically, the Butchers sound downright damaged by Dischord. Yoshimura's strident bark, the knife-fight guitar riffs, the stampeding choruses - all roads lead to Fugazi.

It's impressive that harDCore's influence extends not only beyond the beltway, but overseas too. I've overheard musicians hanging out at recording studios mention "Diskodo Rekodo", and found a Koenji record store that boasted the entire Dischord catalogue - the first time I've ever seen it all collected in one place. But, as we've discussed before, Japan is nothing if not a cultural sponge, a memetic mimic that imitates before it absorbs.

I'm personally a huge fan of evolution. Progress lies in the hybrid. But I'm also notoriously impatient, so I can't be bothered with the learning and adaptive phases of social evolution. I want new species, and I want them now. Consequently, I get frustrated with how imitative so many bands sound. If you want a Japanese clone of anyone from Brainiac to the Blues Explosion or Bellini, then come on down! If you want something as daringly different, truly different, as Cibo Matto or the Boredoms (before they flaked out) or eX-Girl... well, you're as likely to find freaks in your own town as you are anywhere else.

But not all rock bands are doomed to their influences; some manage to take that next step up the evolutionary ladder. Three years ago, the Bloodthirsty Butchers gained their second guitarist, Tabuchi Hisako, after her old band broke up. That band was arguably the greatest indie-rock band born of Japan, Fukuoka's almighty and much-missed Number Girl.

Founded in 1995, Number Girl grew out of the southern underground to become the indie darlings of Japan. Before their springtime split three years ago, the quartet released four studio albums and two live records. Their second single, "Omoide In My Head", immediately attracted a cult following and caught the ear of sonic sculptor Dave Fridmann, who worked behind the board for Number Girl's latter two albums. Despite their devoted following in Japan and enduring appeal, Number Girl played a single tour in the States to little notice.

Initially, the band wore its influences on its sleeve as much as anyone else. Their maiden voyage, School Girl Bye Bye, betrayed bandleader Mukai Shutoku's Pixies fixation, along with a few excursions into Police-like reggae des blancs. But by the time 1999's School Girl Distortional Addict hit shelves, Number Girl hadn't just hit their stride: they'd left skid marks. The track title "Pixie Du" summed up the secret to Mukai's songwriting, which delivered quirkily sing-songy indie-rock with blistering speed and eardrum-peeling volume. Yet the music was more than a late-'80s college rock mash-up, it was a razor-toothed beast galloping at full gait. Ahito Inazawa's machinegun drumming was a rhythmic whirlwind worthy of Keith Moon. Tabuchi Hisako raced around the fretboard with an ear for melody that would have Rivers Cuomo destroying his sweater. At the center of it all, the bespectacled Mukai exhibited the spiky charisma of Steve Albini and the hard-charging pop songcraft of Elvis Costello at his angriest. The music recalled any number of canonized American bands - Hole, Dinosaur Jr., Drive Like Jehu - without feeling derivative of any in particular.

And loud. Good god, are Number Girl loud. The sound is so saturated that even at low volume, you feel the songs' gravitational pull.

It's almost criminal how unrecognized in the States the band remains, even with the recent release of a new best-of compilation. But I guarantee that if all those kids still bemoaning the break-up of At the Drive-In had been suckled on Number Girl instead, not only would we have been spared the musical onanism of the Mars Volta and the helium-voiced screamo poetic bullshit of their disciples, but those kids would now be smart songwriters instead of white boys with 'fros.

Monday, June 20, 2005

More More Dogs...

I'm probably in breach of blog etiquette by posting twice about the same band, but I thought this would be an appropriate follow up. Following my post regarding "March to the Scaffold" by More Dogs, Randy commented that it sounded like "the Oompa Loompas are restless."

Evidently, someone caught wind of that imagery, because lo and behold: the Monitor Records website is hosting a music video for More Dogs' bippy little ditty, "Teenage Bunker". And sure enough, it features a classroom of tots stampeding in circles and sporting funny hats, crosscut with imagery of bombed-out landscapes.

Sure, the kids may not have orange skin and green hair, but their stature and temperment is spot on.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Bacon-skinned man-goblin free to roam streets!

Michael Jackson without his wig

My wife came home from work and asked if I'd heard about Michael Jackson.

"He got off!" she said.

I said, "Well, yeah, I know that, but what was the verdict?"

Monday, June 13, 2005

In other news...

For some reason, I've been listening to an absurd amount of Sloan recently. I don't know why. Power pop has always struck me as a little to straight-forward and workmanlike for my taste. And yet I can't tell you how many times in the past week I've listened to "The Good In Everyone" or "People of the Sky". If I had the storage, I'd post 'em for y'all to enjoy.

But instead, I offer you this. It almost makes me laugh harder than my friend Allison's Lou Reed impression. (With a dull-eyed poker face, she stares at you and drawls, "Hey man... sumthin' 'bout a ding-dong.")

I need more coffee.

Custom Mummy - Faust Called Mephisto

Last week, some friends and I were enjoying a little post-meal vegetation in front of the television. Our channel surfing crested on MTV Japan. After laughing in disbelief at a J-Hip-Hop (or hipu-hopu) video involving mouse costumes and cheap blue-screen effects, Jed floated the question of what "real" Japanese music sounded like.

"What, like Japanese folk music?" I asked.
"No, just indigenous Japanese pop music, stuff that isn't just a version of Western music. Is that what J-Pop is like?"

I'm honestly not sure what J-Pop is, given that the term casts as wide a stylistic umbrella as the term "jazz". The answer to Jed's question is paradoxic: there exists no indigenous Japanese "pop music" that has escaped the influence of the West. Sure, there's plenty of non-Western music in Japan, but that's folk music, not pop music, innit?

Pop music, by Western standards, is as old in Japan as the term itself. During the postwar American occupation, soldiers arrived not only with guns but with slang, literature, and music. These cultural memes so penetrated the populace that, for the past fifty years, Japanese music has kept up lock-step with the Joneses - from rhythm 'n' blues in the '50s, to psychedelia in the '60s, to AM radio schlock in the '70s... and so on to this very day, when everyone from Evanescence to Amerie has their own far-Eastern doppleganger.

(I must confess utter bewilderment at the fact that the Japanese so embrace the culture of a country that massacred hundred of thousands of its people in a matter of miliseconds, but that's a conversation for another day.)

What's often forgotten is that Japan was arguably the world's first melting-pot. While the origins of its language are still a mystery, its alphabets were adopted and adapted from those of other countries. (Kanji is the confounding Chinese character system, while katakana evolved from Roman characters.) Most of its myriad of religions were imported from neighbouring nations, as were modes of dress, styles of government, and musical instruments, among other things.

The Japanese treat culture as a film director treats a novel: study the source material, but switch up the script. Instead of sporting customs and ideals like a rented suit, new threads are woven into the society's fabric. Whenever anything gets classified - and don't act as though this is unheard of - as "just... so Japanese", it's because of that uncanny quirk earned through adoption. Rock 'n' roll is as dully American as apple pie and preemptive warfare... so why does a no-frills, greasy-hair-and-guitars garage band like Guitar Wolf fascinate Western audiences? Because these three dudes are so obviously enamoured of rock 'n' roll but without a native context for the blues or Elvis Presley or Detroit Rock City. They're left to act out the most ludicrous caricature of rock musicians imagineable, unburdened by its history. When the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show the same swagger, they lack the objective distance afforded Japanese bands, so the JSBX are taking the piss out of an American institution. But for Guitar Wolf, it's less minstrelsy than a sincere tribute.

Of course, sponging up the sound and strut of the West means that bands in Japan, by and large, sound like bands from fucking everywhere else. It's a bit disappointing to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, home of the Boredoms, Otomo Yoshihide, and Melt Banana, only to realize that pop-punk poseurs and sparrow-voiced r'n'b songbirds are going to outnumber noisecore collectives and electronic improvisers.

The other week, I picked up a sampler CD by the band Cartonbox at the Design Festa Gallery. Surely any band sharing its wares via an art gallery must be on some heady, next-level shit, right? No. While I was rather taken with the crushed beat that opened "Suraido", it was obvious that the band is, more or less, a Radiohead tribute, mashing the guitar squall and operatic wail of The Bends with the warped beats of Kid A. As the song "Feedback" demonstrates, Cartonbox are able songwriters who can rock convincingly, but I can't listen without wondering when Thom Yorke is collecting his royalties.

A band like Custom Mummy is considerably more inventive in their osmosis of Western influences. The masked electropunk duo take any number of familiar elements - movie quotes, breakbeats, burbling synth basslines, and in this case, Black Sabbath's eponymous anthem - and stitch them together with distortion to create hulking B-movie monsters of songs. It's the sort of danceable doom music that fans of German techno terrorists Atari Teenage Riot will adore. And while the music isn't much more than the literal sum of its parts, it's the sort of sharp-toothed stylistic fusion that could breed a new rung in the evolutionary ladder.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The dust blows forward and back, while Jack White just blows...

Don Van Vliet with John Peel in the early '70s

Mos Def may claim to be popular music's boogieman, but no number of Bad Brains-biting beats can spook the youth of any generation the way Don Van Vliet can. Since shedding his Captain Beefheart moniker and disappearing into the dust of the Mojave Desert twenty-five years ago, Van Vliet has been the monster in the closet of many great songwriters, from PJ Harvey to Joan Osborne and from Tom Waits to Stephen Malkmus.

And now it appears as though Jack White has been spending too much time imagining himself as something more rustic, more raw, more unhinged, more martian than simply the palest dude on MTV.

Promotional shot for the White Stipes' new album, "Get Behind Me Satan"

Maybe he thinks tarting up a dusty straw doll like Loretta Lynn gives him some credibility, but this is bloody ridiculous. Perhaps Jack thinks that he's taken Van Vliet's throne as the supreme primitive in modern music. Yes, it's true that Van Vliet couldn't play any instruments, so the White Stripes do bear a certain technical resemblance. But Captain Beefheart was also certifiable and carried his worldly possessions in plastic shopping bags. There's a difference between not being able to play (which Jack demonstrates on about 18 different instruments on his unfocused bore of a new album) and the utter obliviation of musical convention.

To this day, no one has managed to do that with the gusto with which Don Van Vliet did.