Pregnant Fantasy, Primal Scream
Japan on 10
Between rising jet-fuel prices and the high cost of everything in Tokyo, consider yourself blessed to have a healthy slice of the Japanese music scene at your doorstep once a year for SXSW. For 10 years now, groups like Buffalo Daughter, Guitar Wolf, and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant have helped establish Austin's landmark music festival as a U.S. beachhead for Japanese artists. This year's prefecture-spanning set furthers that tradition with a wonderfully vibrant mix of SXSW rookies and returning favorites.
We begin in Osaka with Afrirampo, two young women not far removed from high school who say their Boredoms-like pastiche of primal screams on top of ear-splitting guitar and drums is more influenced by animals than humans. This surprisingly dynamic duo released their U.S. debut, Kore Ga Mayaku Da on John Zorn's Tzadik label in 2005.
By contrast, Okinawa-bred Berklee College of Music graduate Caroline proffers wistful, cinematic vocals over sleek pads of minimal electronica on her debut, Murmurs (Temporary Residence). Epic-minded prog-thrashers Dir en grey simultaneously released their first three singles and all three made Japan's Top 10. The Tokyo-based quintet's forthcoming fifth album, Withering to Death (Warcon), takes aim at the States.
Tragedy struck psychedelicized garage rockers DMBQ (aka Dynamite Masters Blues Quartet) in November when their van rolled on I-95 in Delaware, claiming the life of drummer Manu "China" Nishiura. The Sapporo-bred, Tokyo-based quartet was touring to support their spastically hard rockin' U.S. debut, The Essential Sounds From the Far East (Estrus). DMBQ's spring tour is their first since the accident.
Given their mastery of the West Coast vernacular, Sum 41-style pop-punkers Ellegarden often sound more like they're from Tarzana than Tokyo. The quartet's fourth album, Riot on the Grill (Denko Secca), sold over 200,000 copies in Japan. the Emeralds are the self-proclaimed "New Agers of Japanese Rock & Roll," but the steam-generating power-pop crunch of 2005's Surfing Baby (Cranberry) render the Yokohama trio wholly unsuitable for channeling inner children.
Longtime SXSW favorites Ex-Girl topped off their 2001 showcase by bringing British one-hit wonder "M" onstage to sing his boffo 1979 hit, "Pop Muzik." The colorfully costumed all-girl trio from Tokyo rocks out mightily at the intersection of camp and avant-garde on 2004's Endangered Species (Alternative Tentacles). The "Japanese Bond Girls" of Kyoto power-punk quartet Gitogito Hustler hold nothing back on their latest Gearhead release, Gitogito Galore, while Tokyo's Hologram delivers lilting post-rock instrumentals in the late-night, left-of-the-dial vein on their self-titled Zankyo debut.
Formed by guitarist/vocalist Rie Takeuchi in 1992, Yokohama's Luminous Orange mixes 4AD-style pop ethereality with a languid nod toward shibuya-kei. Their 2002 album, Drop You Vivid Colours, is now available in the U.S. via CDBaby.com. Tormented Tokyo trio My Way My Love pounds out tribal rhythms against a menacing backdrop of Lower East Side noise rock on last year's Hypnotic Suggestion: 01 (File 13).
Between their science-gone-haywire aesthetic and turn-on-a-dime New Wave flavor, Tokyo's Polysics are clearly Japan's answer to Devo. The quartet's new album, Now Is the Time! (Tofu), is a supersonic confection that'll send you into sugar shock. The Rodeo Carburettor is a loud, fast-moving Tokyo trio channeling Nirvana channeling the MC5. Underneath it all, their five-song God of Hell EP on Sony Japan nonchalantly hints popward. Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re is a nonsensical phrase in Japanese, but this all-girl band from Tokyo still puts a smile on your face with their twist-up concoction of punk, noise, surf, and ska tangents. The trio's U.S. debut, Pregnant Fantasy, was released last year on Audrey Kimura's influential Benten label.
While most of the Japanese contingent at SXSW is grounded in rock, Tokyo's Noahlewis' Mahlon Taits utilizes an eclectic grab bag of instruments (violin, Casio, accordion, hand saw, etc.) to create compelling arrangements of spaghetti western themes and pop standards alike. The ensemble's third album, Plays (Now Go Mix), includes renditions of "Harlem Nocturne" and "Sophisticated Lady." Equally eclectic is jazz-rock outfit PE'Z. Swinging their chops around like they're the house band on Playboy After Dark, the Tokyo quintet released its fourth album, Tsu Ku Shi N Bow (Roadrunner), last year.
Representing the more traditional side of Japanese music, Tokyo's Kunimoto Takeharu is a samisen player and roukyoku storyteller. Given the samisen's similarity to the banjo, it's only natural that Takeharu studied bluegrass and country music at East Tennessee University. Finally, Tokyo's "Geisha Songstress" Umekichi sings in the high-pitched nagauta vocal style and covers a wide range of Japanese folk idioms that slowly faded from popularity after World War II. A truly inspired cultural mash-up is realized in her song "Samisen Boogiewoogie."
Afrirampo (Osaka) www.afrirampo.com; Flamingo Cantina, Fri, 10pm
Caroline (Okinawa) www.temporaryresidence.com; Whisky Bar, Fri, 1am
Dir en grey (Tokyo) www.direngrey.co.jp; Redrum Annex, Fri, TBA
DMBQ (Tokyo) www.dmbq.net; Flamingo Cantina, Fri, 11pm
Ellegarden (Tokyo) www.dynamord.com/elle; Elysium, Sat, 11pm
The Emeralds (Yokohama) www.myspace.com/theemeralds; Elysium, Sat, 1am
eX-Girl (Tokyo) www.exgirl-kero.com; The Jackalope, Fri, 12:45am
Gitogito Hustler (Tokyo) www.gitogito.org; Beerland, Sat, 10pm
Hologram (Tokyo) ip.tosp.co.jp/i.asp?i=hologram_board; Red 7, Sat, 10pm
Luminous Orange (Yokohama) www5a.biglobe.ne.jp/~luminous; Habana Calle 6, Wed, 8pm
My Way My Love (Tokyo) www.mywaymylove.com; Nuno's Upstairs, Fri, 10pm
Noahlewis' Mahlon Taits (Tokyo) Oslo, Wed, 9pm
Keisho Ohno (Niigata) www.k-sw.co.jp/k-sho; Creekside at Capitol Place, Fri, 9pm
Yasukatsu Oshima (Okinawa) www.ryuseygun.com; Creekside at Capitol Place, Fri, 12am
Pe'z (Tokyo) www.worldapart.co.jp/pez; Elysium, Sat, 10pm
Polysics (Tokyo) www.polysics.com; Zero Degrees, Fri, TBA
The Rodeo Carburettor (Tokyo) www.therodeocarburettor.com; Elysium, Sat, 9pm
Kunimoto Takeharu (Tokyo) homepage2.nifty.com/ts-sonic; Creekside at Capitol Place, Fri, 11pm
Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re (Tokyo) www.sister.co.jp/TsuShiMaMiRe/index_e.html; Elysium, Sat, 12:05am
Mika Uchizato (Okinawa) www.interq.or.jp/leo/campus/mika.html; Creekside at Capitol Place, Fri, 8pm
Umekichi (Tokyo) www.satoh-k.co.jp/ume; Creekside at Capitol Place, Fri, 10pm
Vasallo Crab 75 (Tokyo) www.vc75.com; Elysium, Sat, 8pm