Def Tech’s Back Again

At the peak of their fame, the boys were one of the hottest tickets in town – their debut self-titled EP sold close to 2 million copies, they got an invite to NHK’s Kohaku new year show. Then they split in 2006 citing ‘musical differences’ (sounds like a divorce, doesn’t it?). Shen went back to Hawaii, Micro went to pursue a not-so-successful solo career…and four years later they’re back ‘reunited’. Probably still don’t see eye to eye though. Maybe they only see the yen signs in each other’s irises?

I’ve always liked Def Tech’s music though. They dub it ‘Jawaiian Reggae’, which really is just a fancy name for dub/reggae mixed with rap done Japanese style. Listening to their comeback album Mind Shift, it’s clear to see they haven’t lost their knack for a good hook and a catchy tune. When you name a track something as pretentious as The Dub Dichotomy it’d better be good. And thankfully it is.

They won’t be selling as many records as they used to, but at least they’re still on top of their game musically.

Today’s humming song: Canción de la Expansión by Def Tech

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Togemaru

Despite Spitz being my self-declared favourite band, I don’t actually like very many of their albums. In fact, I can’t really name any one that sticks out as being a particular favourite – to me they’ve always been a singles band, rockin’ the arenas with their cheery pop tunes and grand ballads. Having an entire album to fill means you get Kusano + co. trying out loads of strange experimental country and rock tunes, and they never quite seem to come off.

Togemaru is their first album in three years (and overall their 13th). The four singles leading into its release ranged in quality, from the recent lovely double A-side Shirokuma/Beginner to the dreadfully dull Tsugumi and instantly forgettable Kimi wa Taiyo so I wasn’t really sure what to expect – the sound samples I’d heard in the past few weeks didn’t inspire too much confidence either.

Within the first five listens I’ve already marked down 3 tracks (excluding the singles & c/w tracks) as ‘great’ – Shingetsu is the type of slow-burning ballad that Spitz don’t seem to do too much; it’s very similar in mood to one of my all-time favourites Y (off the Hachimitsu album). Then there’s Maboroshi no Dragon, which is definitely catchy enough to be single material – there always seems to be one of these on every album, like Fushigi on Sazanami CD and Arifureta Jinsei on Souvenir. The other highlight is TRABANT, the closest the boys get to actually rocking out.

The other new songs are either middling or utterly dull. Lunchpak CM song Enishi (see ad here) falls into the former category as does the oddly bluesy & mostly directionless Tankentai. Kikasete yo is a guileless ballad, Dondodon another one of their hopeless attempts at sounding ‘different’ (it’s awful).

In the end, Togemaru is another one of those so-so Spitz albums that’s just a stepping stone for the next hits package. Next single please!

Today’s humming song: スターゲイザー by スピッツ [Stargazer by Spitz]

Otogisongs

And just when I start to complain about crap covers albums/singles, along comes one to buck the trend.

Wait. Otogisongs, the character songs album release from the Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakamatachi anime isn’t actually ‘good’ per se – rather, the album is simply a (guilty) pleasure to listen to. A lot of credit must go to the music guys who added punch and showed a lot of inventiveness/sensibility in their choice of arrangements.

Also kudos to whoever’s in charge of vocal production – they must have told the seiyuu to go to town with the songs (and in character) even if most of them can barely hold their notes. I mean, Koyama Kimiko doesn’t even pretend to be able to sing the low notes on Rouge no Dengon and makes up for it by warbling off-key in a cute little voice. It should theoretically be hideous but actually turns out to be rather entertaining.

Kugyu singing Minimoni? Amazing. Kawasumi utterly destroying Tsubasa o Kudasai? Bloody hilarious. The best performance on the album however, is Asanuma Shintaro’s – his cover of Ai wa Katsu is actually a vast improvement on KAN’s version, both vocally and musically. Other tracks I actually enjoyed more than the originals – Horie Yui’s version of Senri Oe’s Arigatou (though her vocal is a little unstable) and Toyosaki Aki’s cover of Ishikawa Hitomi’s Machibuse (wins points for turning a dreary ballad into something that sounds like it belongs in this century).

This is great stuff, いろんな意味で。 Can’t stop laughing at Otogisongs…but I can’t stop listening to it either.

RYTHEM split

And so, the inevitable has happened. Rumours have been swirling around ever since the pop duo released a greatest hits package last summer but it took until yesterday’s live announcement on Ustream for YUI & YUKA to confirm the sad truth. Their website now has a banner message from the girls as well.

Quite a few people didn’t think (or were maybe desperately hoping) that a split was on the cards – after all, the girls have a new single out in two weeks, a self-titled album in December and an acoustic tour in early 2011. Some thought they’d just be going on hiatus…and then the dreaded 解散 word hits. It’s obvious now that those events were put together as the final curtain call on their 7-year career.

Let’s not pull any punches, RYTHEM never really set the charts alight to begin with so I’m sure that lack of success must have played some part in their (and Sony’s) decision to split the group up. It’s still a bitter shame though, there’s not many groups like them out there who produce such sweet harmonies and melodies – they were like Kobukuro or sukimaswitch (albeit without the hits). I would have liked to at least see the girls make it to their 10th year anniversary but it was not to be.

I’ll always have fond memories of their music – how I discovered them through that weird folk/pop song Harmonia from some ninja anime called Naruto, walking through a second-hand Louis Vuitton bags shop in Shinsaibashi, Osaka and hearing Kokoro Biidama playing on the stereo system, the many plane hours whiled away listening to Kasumizakura on repeat. Their CDs will retain a special place in my collection now.

Both girls will be pursuing solo activities after the split and I wish them both the best. I’m sure it won’t take too long before we see the fruits of their own labours.

Man, I really hoped I would be able to see RYTHEM live one day. ZEPP Tokyo in February represents my last chance…

Today’s humming song: アイシカタ [Aishikata] by RYTHEM

Cover versions, revisited.

Well, let’s start off by saying that I checked out Sakamoto Maaya’s new single DOWN TOWN which has three covers of classic Jpop tunes on it – Sugar Babe’s DOWN TOWN, Yuming’s Yasashisa ni Tsutsumareta nara and The Folk Crusaders’s Kanashikute Yarikirenai, and it sucked bad. Real bad.

Now it may seem like I’m always finding fault with and bashing cover versions but really, think of it this way. Covers (& tribute) albums are a dime a dozen in the Jpop market, and it’s the same 100-200 songs that get chosen all the time. Which means I have the lovely opportunity of hearing Nagori Yuki (Kaguya Hime), Tsubasa o Kudasai (Akai Tori), Hatsukoi (Murashita Kozo) and Friends (Rebecca) rehashed, often terribly, at least once every year. I think I already went into this at length during my short review of JUJU’s recent REQUEST album but unless an artist really brings something fresh and unique to the table, the chances of me NOT being bored to tears are extremely low.

Skipping DOWN TOWN, which I talked about a couple of posts back – for better covers of Yuming’s signature tune seek out soft-rockers Otona Mode or bossa nova group Sotte Bosse, and for The Folk Crusaders…would it be amusing if I said there’s at least 3 anisong artists whose covers of the song are far better than Maaya’s? There’s Shimokawa Mikuni’s side project NapsaQ’s excellent folk-pop cover, Paku Romi’s traditional Japanese version (excellent vocal on this one) and Yokoyama Chisa’s twee 90s Jpop version – they’re all great, try to look ‘em up. The best Jpop cover of Kanashikute Yarikirenai IMHO is reggae singer PUSHIM’s acoustic take – simple yet effective, and at the same time incredibly heartfelt.

If you have the time and patience, check out the following as examples of cover versions done well: Dew’s concept covers album Hanazukan Bessatsu, the Indigo’s Once More, ex-Janne Da Arc frontman Yasu’s solo project ACID BLACK CHERRY’s RECREATION, Oshio Kotaro’s instrumental covers album Tussie mussie, the Bokura no Anisong! covers album with versions of classic anime tunes by hip indie bands, Ohashi Trio’s FAKE BOOK and GO!GO!7188’s Tora no Ana. Hell, even the jokey Sora no Otoshimono anime’s collection of ending themes was pretty good for what is was. Really, it’s not rocket science to produce a decent cover version – yet you wonder why so many people struggle so badly at it.

Today’s humming song: スローモーション by 中森明菜 [Slow Motion by Nakamori Akina]

An 8-year wait worth it

I gave up trying to procure a copy of folk duo エスカーゴ (escargo, a portmanteau of the words ‘escargot’ and ‘cargo’)’s album Hato years ago. It’s out of print and various tries at poking around in BOOK-OFFs around Tokyo turned up absolutely nothing. So it’s with much surprise I find somebody uploading the album on one of the J-music forums I frequent. 8 years, and the wait to hear what turned out to be the only album of their career is over!

Strangely, I stumbled upon the group’s music in the anime Kaze no Yojimbo where Tokyo was used as the opening and Situation as the ending theme. The warm, stripped-down feel of both songs reminded me of other rock/folk hybrid acts such as Saito Kazuyoshi and Magoko Brothers, and I was curious to see if the rest of their songs matched up. Or if it was indeed so bad that they were right to shut up shop after just that 1 album.

As it goes, Hato exceeded my expectations – Tokyo & Situation (reworked into Rokugatsu no Anata here) may actually have been the most boring of their songs. The Beatlesy blues workout Yamamoto and campfire-singalong title track are just some of the highlights of what is a very listenable, very fun album. Shame that both members of escargo seem to have dropped off the face of the earth since they split in 2002.

Today’s humming song: 空になる by 音速ライン [Sora ni Naru by Onsoku Line]

All-star collaborators on next Maaya album

natalie.mu reports that the 7th Sakamoto Maaya studio album will feature collaborations with:

・Horigome Takaki (of blues duo Kirinji)
・Suemitsu Atsushi (SUEMITSU & THE SUEMITH)
・Tomita Keiichi (Tomita Lab)

Some of the named tracks named include ムーンライト (Moonlight) which will have composition by Horigome and production by Tomita, eternal return with Suemitsu composing and producing, and 美しい人 (Utsukushii Hito) with Kanno Yoko producing and composing. All three tracks’ lyrics will be written by Maaya herself.

The limited-edition version of the as-yet-untitled album will have a special bonus disc of live tracks from Budokan including the Kanno Yoko medley and マジックナンバー (Magic Number) with Suzuki Shoko on drums, as well as a previously-unheard piano version of everywhere.

Mark 12th January 2011 on your calendars. And 5th-31st March 2011 too, if you’re planning to attend the album tour.

Back to Reality

I watch American Idol. I also watch X Factor.

Hurrah for lack of taste! Obviously I’m not watching either show expecting a musical revolution, nor do I take them as anything more than mild entertainment. I am a karaoke fan after all, and I only wish I could sing as well as some of those kids ;)

The X Factor’s back on screens at the moment and it is well…crap. The talent pool in the UK always seems to be 2-3 notches lower than it is in the States anyway, but this year’s lot are really taking the biscuit – the first live show was just trainwreck after plane crash after car pile-up. Only Tesco diva Mary Byrne and Cheryl wildcard Treyc Cohen were worth their salt on the night, Matt Cardle was 7 parts off-key and 3 parts wonderful, Aiden Grimshaw wildly overrated and Wagner…see for yourself.

I can’t see any potential winners this year but neither could I on last year’s show. Eventual winner Joe McElderry has just released his 2nd single Ambitions, which is (wowzers!) another cover version. His first was a cover of Miley’s The Climb

McElderry’s disco-pop version screams cheesiness form the word go, with a horribly twee music video (complete with dance moves) to go with it. Actually, it’s not as if the original Donkeyboy version was that much better, but the depressing video more than made up for it ;)

HearJapan

For more than a year, I’ve been getting HearJapan newsletters and press releases in my mailbox. I have no idea how they got hold of my details or why they even link to new releases on my Last.fm profile when I’ve never even bought anything from their site but even odder is how I just keep hold of the mails (even if I don’t read them).

Other services would’ve gotten a huge middle finger from me straightaway, but I do respect how HearJapan appears to get a ton of obscure shit in that makes it infinitely easier for gaijin fans to access stuff without paying massive shipping fees. Obviously it’s not obscure enough for me since attempts to root out music by Gentouki, Andmarkher and Youmou to Ohana were failures, but I thought I should probably try to give the service a go. Even if I don’t really buy Japanese music on anything other than CD format really (the only digital album I ever bought was The Miceteeth’s Constant Music 2 on iTunes). And only if I find anything I actually want to buy in the first place!

Browsing through the site’s library, I was amused to see things like Ohashi Ayuru (small-time seiyuu)’s debut single and MOSAIC.WAV’s genderbending Otoko no Ko no Tobira listed, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to buy any anisong-related stuff, nuh-uh. So here’s what I spent my credit on:

1.BLASH’s Boku to Hanauta to Planetarium (no I had no idea who they were, bought it after listening to the samples)
2.Hiroki Yumiko to Zutans’s Bokutachi no Natsu (limited edition single, only avaibable in Circle K kombini in Shizuoka)

The great thing about HearJapan was of course, the ease and speed at which you can get stuff – it only took 10 minutes for me to get registered, buy some credit using my Paypal account and download both releases. Simple and clean.

Having said that, I do prefer the feel of a physical CD in my hands – even if HJ allows you up to 3 downloads of each track you’ve purchased, I never really feel like I ‘own’ something when it’s just a digital thing. That’s why I held back on buying Uryu Akiha and HARCO albums even though I really wanted them. Still, the site is still pretty good for discovering new stuff (there’s samples for everything) and for getting hold of those hard-to-find weirdo releases ie that Zutans song.

Would definitely recommend HearJapan over the retardedly bloated iTunes (I just refuse to download the friggin’ thing), though my not being in the US means I’m not able to try out an alternative like eMusic.

And oh yeah, loving those songs I bought too. BLASH are pretty good – very well-written and polished despite their indie status.

Today’s humming song: good friends by BUMP OF CHICKEN

Dear Diary.

Please give BONNIE PINK a bit more inspiration? Her new album (a 2-CD affair with 1 disc collecting choice c/w tracks) seems bereft of ideas, lacking a killer track like how WATER ME was for Thinking Out Loud. Even the best song Kite (a previously heard single) takes its cues from Owl City’s Fireflies and BONNIE PINK’s own 1.2.3.