Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guitar Hiro 2: The Music of The Pillows

What can I say about The Pillows? One of Japan's hard-working and enduring bands, they've been kicking ass since 1989 and, to date, have 17 studio albums under their belts.

To my ear, they're one of the "cleanest" bands around. By that I mean that they don't mess around with overproduction or superfluous instruments. They've mastered the art of the tight core of guitar, bass, drums and vocals without any pretenses or self-indulgences. They rock. It's what they do. They've fully embraced the fundamental ideals of American rock and, to my opinion, have stayed truer to that sound than most of our domestic bands. They put together great rhythms and hooks, and then they do their thing. 

If I had to liken them to stateside bands, I'd have to go with early Beatles, Green Day and maybe The Ramones. "Frost! Are you nuts?!" Yeah, I know. Calm down. They sound nothing like each other, technically, but they do share that hard-working, pared-down, enduring sound. It's that pure distillation of pop and rock with no fluff or filler. Resist, if you can.

When you listen to The Pillows, you can almost single out their influences, but their music stands out with its own strong character. While I have several favorite bands, I tend to take breaks from them as I hear new things and my tastes evolve. However, I never tire of The Pillows. Their sound is timeless.

All right. Let's start things off with an appetizer. Here is a short burst of badassness called "White Ash" from the 1999 album "Runners High."

A Little History

Way back in 1989, bassist Kenji Ueda founded the band with Sawao Yamanaka on guitar and vocals, Yoshiaki Manabe on lead guitar and Shinichiro Sato on drums. Creative differences led Ueda to jump ship in '92, and it took the band a couple of years to find their feet again. Tatsuya Kashima jumped in on bass and stuck around until 1999. Jun Suzuki then took over.

Out of respect for the original lineup, the band has always listed Kashima and Suzuki as supporting musicians, so you only see the three core members in the videos and promotions. That can't be easy to take, especially when you've been a part of the band for ten years. It's a bit like the "and the rest" dis from the original "Gillian's Island" theme. The life of a bass player is rough, I guess.

Unlike the previously mentioned MUCC, The Pillows mix some English into their lyrics. Much like MUCC's Tatsurou, Yamanaka-san is a fantastic singer with a great emotional and tonal range.

Here's a gem from their 1994 album "Kool Spice" called "Naked Shuffle," proving they have a better grasp of English than I do. If you don't love the band after this, then I'm afraid I can't help you.

FLCL ("Fooly Cooly")

In 1999, the Gainax anime studio incorporated several songs and instrumentals from The Pillows' most recent albums into a six-part, experimental series called "FLCL." The band wrote two original songs for the series, as well. Within the rigid anime industry, the show is a redheaded stepchild, all surreal and restless and self-referential, and I have a deep fondness for it. 

In my youth, I loved all things anime, but I've become a snob in my old age. Anymore, I'm not big on traditional anime and instead appreciate the unconventional work of "FLCL," "Cowboy Bebop" and Hayao Miyazaki's studio. It's got to have a strong style to grab my attention.

"FLCL" is like anime with Tourette's syndrome, and it's compelling as hell. Anyway, that's a whole other fanboy post. What's important here is that it's a brilliant marriage of animation, coming-of-age story and some of The Pillows' best jams. Thanks to the show popping up in Cartoon Network's Adult Swim rotation back in 2003, The Pillows found a foothold in the U.S., and I've been addicted to them ever since.

Here is the band cranking out the song from the show's big finish, "I Think I Can."

Here is my hands-down favorite Pillows tune, "Boat House" from their 2007 album "Wake Up! Wake Up! Wake Up!" It's just hooky as hell. The bassline. The vocals. It just adds up to one seriously compelling song. Deny it if you can.

Ok. Let me hit you with one more. Here is "Waiting at the Bus Stop" from 2001's "Smile."

So go to Pandora or Lala or whatever you listen to and punch in The Pillows. Your life will be better. 

the pillows logo, images, music and videos are the property of the Avex Trax label, a member of Avex Group Holdings Inc.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Guitar Hiro 1: The Music of MUCC

Hey, look! Another post at last. This blog might still have a pulse after all. We'll see. Since I can't seem to focus on the topics for which I allegedly started this blog, I'm going to explore another affectation.

While I'm not a musician or a diehard expert on the subject, music is integral to my daily life. I can't work, cook, clean or undertake some long-term task without music. I need a constant infusion. Without it, I'd probably succumb to the voices in my head.

By complete accident, I've gotten into Japanese rock music and found that it scratches a unique itch. I admit in advance that my knowledge of the J-rock scene would fit on the head of a pin with room to spare and that I know maybe a handful of Japanese words. Yes, I'm a stately portrait of ignorance. Regardless, I've latched onto a few bands, connecting with their music even though I've no clue what they're singing.

Honestly, if I understood the lyrics, I probably wouldn't like the songs as well as I do now. It's like my occasional (willing) exposure to opera. The fact that I don't understand the words lets me appreciate the voice as an instrument. If I knew the words, I'd lose that facet, and I'd be distracted by what the singer is singing instead of how they're singing it.

So it's all about appreciating the singer's emotion and range as part of the music. Fortunately, there are a fair number of Japanese bands with truly talented singers.

When was the last time you stopped and said, "Hey, that's a talented singer"? Exactly. To me, "American Idol" has nothing to do with singing. It's closer to yodeling or hog-calling. Most of the contestants sound like like they're strangling the songs they're allegedly singing. Hell, I have no training and a minimum of experience squawking on stage, but I bet I could croak as well as Nickelback if you pressed me. In fact, any pasty guy like me can sing like that. It's in the wiring. I worry about the wedgie we've delivered to the concept of singing. Bah, don't get me started.

Thanks to the gonzo anime series "FLCL," I got into a band called The Pillows and started exploring the J-rock world and its unique reflection of western rock. As the years have passed, a few noteworthy bands have stuck in my daily playlist. Something about the enticing hooks, driving riffs and mesmerizing vocals adds up to a greater whole for me.

No, this isn't going to be a broad, informative exploration of the genre. No, let's call it what it is. This is me pushing my favorites over the next few posts in a series I like to call "Guitar Hiro: A Love Affair with Japanese Rock."

I'll get to The Pillows in the next post. For now, let's take a look at MUCC, a veritable chameleon of a band. Take a look:

Yeah, they look like they could kick The Cure's ass. (The Cure--real topical, Frost.) Like a lot of Japanese bands, they go by stage names. So you've got Tatsurou on the mike, Mita on guitar, Yukke on bass and Satochi on drums. Hiro was on bass in the band's early days.

They got together in '97 and have stayed fresh and addictive thanks to versatility that just about breaks the meter. One track might be a terminally hummable reggae-ish jaunt, and the next could be roaring, guitar-grinding rage. And they pull it off. That's what intrigues me about them.

They're named after the character Mukku from "Hirake! Ponkikki," a Japanese children's show. Slap a red-orange shag rug over Grimace from the old McDonald's commericals, garnish with a drink parasol, and you've pretty much got him.

Anyway, enough of my yakking. Let's listen to MUCC in action.

Here're the boys performing their funky, jazzy jam "1979." Nope. Don't understand a word, but it's badass to the core. Everything is right about it.

Japanese is a beautiful language. I love the cadence. Maybe someday I'll overcome my paralyzing laziness and learn it. In the meantime, I don't need to understand it to appreciate Japanese rock. If a singer is truly skilled, they can make the emotion of a song obvious to the dimmest ear, regardless of language barriers. Tatsurou is a master.

Here's the band cranking out Saishuu Ressha. No, I don't know what that means, and I don't want to know. I'm content with the luxury of guessing. I'm the poster-boy for blissful ignorance. I just enjoy the jam and Tatsurou's vocals.

Would you have guessed that's the same group? These guys are all over the place, but they carry it off. The guitar, bass and drums leap from style to style with admirable confidence, and Tatsurou's operatic range swoops from pleading whisper to bellowing madness as quick as you please.

Their songs are rife with energy, skill and a genuine feeling that they're enjoying themselves. MUCC, ladies and gentlemen. They'll kick your ass, insult your pets and then stick around to eat all of your potato chips. I love these guys.

What I respect and admire most about this band is that they weren't content to go the usual route of establishing a sound and then churning out ten indistinguishable albums. Sample enough of their music and you'll get the distinct impression that, after over twelve years, they're still exploring. I can't name many domestic bands that can say that.

Okay. Let's round this out with the most devilishly catchy song I've ever heard. Yasashii Uta. Be prepared to "la-la-la" the rest of the day.

Okay. I know what you're thinking... "Frost, who are you to push music on me? I mean, hell, you still like Adam & the Ants!" Yeah, it's true. However, I have a feeling that you, too, might find yourself ensorcelled by Japanese rock if you give it a chance. I highly recommend "The Best of MUCC," an album that encapsulates that rich MUCC flavor. Think about it, won't you? Thank you.

Join us again next time when we look at veteran J-rock badasses known as The Pillows. Thanks for tuning in.

All songs and band images property of MUCC and Danger Crue Records. "Hirake! Ponkikki" and Mukku property of Fuji Television.
"Guitar Hiro" header designed by Frost (me).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Has a House!

For all two of you playing along at home, I apologize for my absence.

I launched this blog and then promptly let it drift straight into Cthulhu's maw. And, while I pride myself on being a lazy bastard, I fully intended to follow through with this thing, if for no other reason than to mutter misanthropically to myself.

However, I've spent the last few months spinning doughnuts in the torturous home-buying doldrums. The Spanish Inquisition was a massage parlor compared to the home loan industry. I'm happy to say that we survived the experience and landed our house. Slowly but surely, my sense of humor is returning, but it'll be on crutches for a while. Feel free to trip it up for a laugh.

There's more junk on the way, the word of the month being scattershot. Expect treatises on writing, film, graphic design and the evil of slide whistles. And more sermons from The Book of Klug. Guaranteed to sting.