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.