What better way to start my journey into the Japanese music scene than just going to a random concert and hoping for the best? With nothing else to do on a Sunday night, I checked out last.fm and settled on a show in Osaka at a venue called 2nd Line. I got directions and away I went.
Following in the tradition of Safeco Field in Seattle, 2nd Line incorporates trains in equal measures charming and annoying. The venue is located underneath a train line in an out-of-the-way alley in Osaka. From the outside it looks like the type of dingy place you imagine were all over the place during punk’s heyday in 1970s New York. Unfortunately, being located beneath train tracks has some drawbacks, especially when it becomes clear these are tracks in use. Every few minutes a click-clacking noise filled the place, distracting from the actual show on stage. Several times the actual bands had to delay starting their next song because of the ba-baump ba-bump. 2nd Line is very intimate and cool place, but few places have made me so frustrated at the existence of trains.
(At this moment, I’d like to confess that, this being my first Japanese concert, I had no idea what etiquette was practiced at a show. I came equipped with a camera, but nobody else in the joint snapped a single photo so I chose not to test the water and leave my point-and-shoot off. Hope you enjoy these posed press shots.)
SCARLET (all caps when you spell the mad name) performed first and pulled off one of the best concert-going feats imaginable – being the unknown opener who absolutely kills. Three hours before I couldn’t find anything about this group – yet the trio completely blew me away with their style of muscular dream-rock. SCARLET fit nicely alongside other starry-eyed contemporaries like Asobi Seksu and Mahogany, but they also sound like they’ve memorized the ins-and-outs of Siamese Dream.
Guitarist Yousuke Hashimoto and bassist Tabasa Hayashi provide the “dreamy” part of SCARLET’s sound, creating hypnotic swirls of noise easy to get lost in. Their best numbers are unafraid to blast off into new directions mid-song to conjure up a different dreamy noise. Hashimoto and Hayashi also share vocal duties, the two sweetly complementing one another the way a couple finish each others sentences. The singing follows the dream-pop blueprint of toeing the line between downtrodden and optimistic, which goes great with the celestial sound. It’s also worth noting the two play very energetically, to the point where Hashimoto routinely launched his glasses off his face. Can’t beat that kind of energy.
The key to SCARLET’s success is drummer Tsutomu Munemura. It’s hard to stare at your shoes long when his pummeling beats are kicking you forward. The drums get a very prominent place in SCARLET’s live sound, pushing through the dreamy guitar-work and adding a much welcome push to the music. Munemura’s drumming never overpowers, simply forces the rest of the band to keep their daydreamy noise moving forward. SCARLET stole the show last night, and put on a live show you shouldn’t skip out on.
Sorry to play the “MySpace Friends” card, but a glance at myuuRy’s top 32 hints at what this four-piece is up to. Deerhoof! Sonic Youth! OK Go! Beck! The list goes on, but hearing them live only brought one of those friends to mind – Weezer. And not just because on of their songs straight up copped “Buddy Holly.” myuuRy stick to the populist pop-rock Rivers and Co. mastered on the blue album, all enjoyable verses and absolute killer choruses. Sure, it sometimes seems like they might launch into a Thurston Moore-ish squall onslaught, but they get back on track quickly. They aren’t bad whatsoever – they have a knack for good choruses – just a bit safe. They could definitely appear in whatever the Japanese equivalent of Greek.
And yet…I can’t write them off because those experimental flashes seem so promising. Throughout their set Sunday it felt like myuuRy could fly off the rails at various points. They subverted the typical pop-rock song structure by throwing in disruptive blasts of guitar or keyboard. Lead singer Pommy, in particular, is a ball of energy: she dances around stage, multi-tracked her vocals on the spot and sometimes came dangerously close to rapping her lyrics. She sounded like she ran a marathon after each song. myuuRy dip their toes in all sorts of interesting ideas…but quickly retreat back to by-the-numbers rock. You can’t blame them – Foo Fighters outsell Deerhoof by a huge margin – but one wishes they’d take a few more risks and see what happens. I’ll keep an eye on them though.
Headliner Hoover’s Ooover, meanwhile, do one thing and they do it well – perform up-tempo pop-rock with a little ska drizzled over it. Taking the stage dressed like Interpol, they ended up sounding much more sunny and fast than their wardrobe indicated. Hoover’s Ooover sound perfectly pleasant live and carry the “good live music” vibe – their songs are easy to bop around to and had everyone in 2nd Line dancing, even if they all start sounding the same near the end. The only wrinkle Hoover’s boast is lead singer Masami Iwasawa’s ability to sing really fast – I’m talking Twista-level word production here. A very enjoyable live band albeit a group I’d never listen to at home, but tough to rag on them when they put on a fun show. Plus, their on-stage banter had people in stitches, though my lack of Japanese skills left me in the dark.