Thursday 27 November 2008

I'm From Barcelona / Soko at Scala 25 Nov 2009

I'm From Barcelona sing - Soko plays pic by Crazybobbles at Flickr

There are two girls on stage having a hysterical fit of the giggles. This is tiny but exuberant singer Soko and her accompanist. The first song ‘I Think I’m Pregnant’ is thus a hoot, interrupted by constant corpsing. “I’m not drunk…I’ve eaten too much food!” yelps the French girl.

Soko is serious but zany in much the same way that Bjork is – there are moments of great beauty and simplicity in her set, but also a runaway sense of anarchy and mischief making. She roams across the stage set up for the headliners and bashes about on the drums. At one stage she stops the show to plead with ‘Bob’ to come up and do a pre-arranged number with her. When the crowd disgorges someone, Soko is nonplussed – it’s the Wrong Bob. Wrong Bob seems fairly alarmed too.

Some of the songs are so twee that they could rot your teeth. At one point Soko invites most of I’m From Barcelona onstage to improvise meowing noises through a jingle called ‘Baby Cat’. It’s all great fun but it depends rather on your tolerance for winsome French cutesiness. Watching Soko in action is like watching ‘Amelie- The Musical’.

Soko is having such a great time bouncing and bawling along that she spends most of the rest of the evening onstage lending her charms to the multitudinous Swedes that comprise I’m From Barcelona.

This ensemble have around a dozen members tonight, including a brass section, a cluster of guitars, drums and keyboards and multiple singers. They are led by the dishevelled and rakish Emmaneul, looking for all the world like Roy Wood, or for our younger readers, Russell Brand.

This evening the band are plugging their new album “Who Killed Harry Houdini?” and the beginning of the set is culled from this work. Which is kind of a pity because although the songs definitely work live –with a band this size going full pelt almost anything is going to sound impressive – they lack the sheer abandoned joi de vivre of their earlier tunes.

Around half way through set a girl who is having her birthday today is invited to join the band onstage. They make an unanswered plea for Wrong Bob to make himself known again. This is the prelude for a medley of songs (starting with 'Treehouse') and the unleashing of a swirling barrage of huge red balloons and confetti that engulfs the band and audience for the rest of the night. It’s quite a spectacle and makes the venue look like a cartoon representation of the human blood stream.

The next ten minutes is a non-stop party, with balloons and streamers flying in all directions. I’m From Barcelona eventually bring matters to a head with a grand sing-along of their eponymous signature tune.

The only problem being that, as it is impossible to top this moment, it just becomes more and more extended as the set continues. Everything is still enormously entertaining, but they’ve peaked too early.

Emmanuel and Soko do a duet and the evening ends as it began with their song ‘Rufus’.

It’s been a strange evening in which the support act has managed to make it appear as if the headliners are an adjunct to her own crazy antics. That this works so well is a testament to Soko’s powers of beguilement. Vive la France!

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Telepathe,Chew Lips, Pens - Catch 26 Nov 2008

Telepathe photo by Nicole Blommers

There are omens that this is going to a good night. Having a quiet drink before the gig I spend quite some time watching two Portuguese bar staff inveigle a customer to help them attach two life size fake magpies to the light fittings. As you do.

Heading into the venue I am lucky to catch a short and chaotic set from Pens, three girls (Amelia, Helen & Stef) who mix and match themselves between a guitar, a stand-up drum kit and a tiny keyboard. It is the absolute golden rule of enthusiastic new girl bands that there should be as much swapping of instruments and sharing of the vocals as possible. They are the most democratic institutions on earth.

The girls are having a ball and are not that bothered that they have difficulty keeping time or that their set is basically a shambles. And nor should they. The fun on stage communicates itself to the growing crowd and we are off to a good start.

Due to the hipper than hip nature of the headliners, this tiny venue is soon rammed with people. Only one person is missing, the dainty Tigs, singer with the next act. After a slight delay, she finds her way to the front and the band kicks off.

I have followed Tigs’ progress for a few years now and was always disappointed that she did not get more attention for her terrific solo album ‘Cut With Fire’ (This seems to have disappeared, but you can hear tracks on her old Myspace page here). Now she is back with two guys in tow as Chew Lips and it finally looks like things are looking up.

Will and James lay down a thumping electro beat, their backs to the crowd and heads nodding in unison. In front of them, Tigs preens, tosses her head and rolls her eyes at the audience in a manner that is so arch that she is danger of becoming Frankie Howerd. Oooh yes!

Her voice is superb and a reminder that it not often that you hear a singer who can genuinely SING – you get the feeling that she could bash out a Shirley Bassey power ballad without pausing for breath.

At one point Tigs solves the problem of the ever encroaching crowd by climbing on top of the bar and singing from there. The rest of the band have surreptitiously turned their keyboards to automatic pilot and are now rocking out on guitars. It all makes for a tremendous performance.

By the time that Telepathe appear there is such a crush to see them that I have to leave the floor and hang from the side of the bar. It hurts, but it is worth it.

Telepathe are a duo from Brooklyn comprising Melissa Livaudais, who sings and plays keyboards and Ryan Lucero, a young man of quite startling androgyny, a gender confusion that is not dispelled by his voice. Or his eyeliner.

Tonight the backing beats and almost symphonic keyboards which are an understated presence on their forthcoming album ‘Dance Mother' are ramped up to the max and Ryan and Melissa stutter and jerk along to the pounding rhythms. It’s not subtle but it is hugely effective and the whole venue is soon carried away, everyone dancing and bouncing in staccato fashion. I’m hanging on to my perch like grim death at this juncture.

Comparisons are going to be made with Crystal Castles but such comparisons are unfair – Telepathe are great fun in their own right. In this tiny, mobbed and euphoric venue they are in their element.

The two magpies in the first pub have been a lucky omen. This was always going to be a good night.

Friday 14 November 2008

Oh No Oh My, Scanners, The Pan I Am - 229, 13 Nov 2008

Things don’t start well. The doorman is not letting people into the venue. “I’m in the band!” says one guy. “I’m working here tonight!” says another. Sorry mate, you are not getting in until the tit on the door decides that you can. So we wait in the rain until we are eventually waved in.

And the first band is already in mid set and presumably wondering whether it was worth their bother.

This is The Pan I Am, the new rather awkwardly named band that features Ed Larrikin, who generated a lot of goodwill in his previous incarnation as Larrikin Love. It is fair to say that there has been a major shift in musical direction.

This band are dressed in black and prominently feature an electric cello, whose operator also sings along with Larrikin on songs that borrow very heavily from the growling blues punk of mid period Birthday Party and Gallon Drunk. It’s dark, it’s gothic, it’s nothing new, but it’s done well and with gusto.

Larrikin stares at his feet throughout, flops his fringe and wonders whether to leap off the stage or not. He teeters a bit and then decides against it. The venue fills up and a general air of approval prevails.

In the lull between bands we wander into the other half of the venue where, in complete contrast to the downbeat rumblings of The Pan I Am, a stage is bathed in light and an African drum and dance troop are pounding away to the delight of a small but wrapt audience. The rhythms are infectious, bodies glisten with sweat and despite the fact that we almost certainly shouldn’t be in here (it appears to be an end of term student bash), I am mightily impressed.

After the MC announces that everybody should go upstairs and take part in karaoke (and after my recent Japanese adventures, boy, am I up for THAT) we go back to our own gig and await Scanners.

Tonight the band is showcasing new material, and is pleased to have just finished recording their second album. There seems to have been a musical rethink – while it is clear that Sarah is still the main stage presence, the newer songs also feature Amina in a much more prominent role than before.

Scanners are a band with which I have an unfortunate blind spot. I recognise that they are good, and that they press all the right buttons to be a band that I should like, but somehow I always end up feeling slightly indifferent to them. For me, they will always be a ‘seven out of ten’ band rather than anything higher. I can’t put my finger on the reasons for this, but it might be that to me they always seem to have a rather cold demeanour, which has a distancing effect.

However, that’s just me, and they are well received tonight. The new stuff sounds good and the songs from the first album (which is definitely worth getting) are well presented too.

I have been a fan of Austin Texas’ Oh No! Oh My! for a number of years now, and even corresponded with them in the early days when they would burn off a copy of their demo CD and send it to you.

Tonight they are here ostensibly in support of their new record Dmitrij Dmitrij, but disappointingly don’t play very much from it. In fact this evening’s set seems more backwards looking than when I saw them when they were last in London at the beginning of the year.

Not that this matters a jot when songs as jaunty as ‘Walk in the Park’ and ‘I Have No Sister’ are played. Birthday boy Daniel Hoxmeier has a clear voice and a cheerful strut. The vibe is upbeat and I notice lots of girls dancing, both on their own and with each other – a pretty much infallible sign that a band is delivering the goods.

Unfortunately, due to the late starting time and the vagaries of transport, I am unable to stay for the full set. I leave a band enjoying themselves with a contented crowd bouncing lightly in front of them.

A pretty decent evening, all told - although I hope the doorman got wet.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

XiongMao - M.C.N, Sendai

The M.C.N. is a small venue hidden beneath a vast shopping mall in the centre of Sendai. Our taxi driver has clearly never heard of the place and it takes a lot of communication between him and his despatching office to finally work out where to drop us off.

So, upon entering via a huge and heavy door that operates like a meat safe, it is unsurprising that there are not many people in here. In fact by the evening’s end we have totted up that there are no more than fifteen people in the room, including ourselves.

Not that this discourages the bands, who are all hugely lively and play as though headlining stadiums rather than entertaining a mere handful of onlookers. This spirit is exemplified by the first band Laughlife, a rock/rap combo who come across as a jollier version of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, complete with gangsta hand signals and baggy trousers at half mast to flash their Calvins.

As mentioned in my previous report from Japan, energy on the stage is not often reflected in overt excitement in the audience. The small gathering huddles around tables, nod their heads and smile, obviously enjoying themselves, but content to watch rather than join in. The two front men perform valiantly, rhymin’ and illin’ like apprentice Beastie Boys.

As the band departs, a severely handicapped young man is wheeled to the front of the stage to get a clear view of proceedings. The kid has what looks like a large stuffed toy animal’s head on his lap. He and his friend proceed to enjoy the next act.

Who are Oyaji-Tank. This three piece blast out a deafening five hundred mile an hour speed punk that rattles the walls. There is not a lot of light and shade in their performance, but they are extremely proficient. It is indeed like being run over by an armoured vehicle. There is much riffage, lots of windmilling guitar arms and shouted vocals. Pretty good, all in all.

As we await the final band of the night, events become surreal. With help from his friends, the wheel chair guy is fitted with a giant panda’s head – this had been what I thought was a stuffed toy. He flails his arms and becomes excited.

A three piece band come on and start to play. And from the side of the stage skip two young girls who proceed to dance and chirp their way through some of the most infectiously catchy pop songs that I have heard all year. The band are XiongMao, who hail from Tokyo and are named after a famous panda. This is one of the final legs of their ‘Autumnal Panda’ tour. It is safe to say that the panda motif features very heavily.

This band are terrific. There may be no great claim to gravitas, but what they do achieve is to put a huge grin on the face of everybody present and to finally get people down the front. It would be easier not to breathe than not to dance and sing along. We all wave our arms, we join in the huge choruses, we LOVE it. Yukari and Miumi are brilliant – every move is choreographed, and they are smiling so much that it must hurt their faces.

After their set, the band are anxious to have their photos taken with the crowd, hence the disturbing image below.

It’s hard to say how XiongMao are regarded. In the UK, they’d certainly make an impact. On a Wednesday away from their home city, there is no one here.

The music scene in Japan is nearly all manufactured idoru or pop idols, who are interchangeable and mainly promoted via television video shows. They often have a shelf life of less than a year. Kids do play in bands, but opportunities to perform are restricted to a few small clubs which are often literally underground and away from the limelight.

However, these places can be sought out. In addition to those in Tokyo and Osaka, there are places such this, the M.C.N. in Sendai and a similar venue near the train station in Niigata which I was unfortunately unable to get to. If you go to Japan (and everybody should at some point in their lives), why not seek them out? There are astonishing things happening in the margins.

I’d like to thank all at Inside Japan, for their continued brilliance. I cannot recommend these guys highly enough. Thanks especially on this trip to guide Jarrod, who rose to every occasion when faced with our bizarre requests for information on local music scenes.

Visitors to Tokyo should also visit Tokyo Gig Guide, which is not only an incredibly useful guide to bands playing, but even provide foolproof info on finding your way to venues, which are often hidden away amongst the hubbub and neon.


Monday 3 November 2008

My Dead Girlfriend - 18 Oct 2008 -Chop, Tokyo

Chop is a tiny venue in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. At 1500¥ to get in plus another 500¥ for a first drink, it ain’t cheap, but it sure proves to be worth it.

When attending a gig in Japan there are rules and etiquette to follow. No talking while the bands are playing. The bar will shut while the bands are playing. There will be little or no movement while the bands are playing.

The headliners tonight turn out to be a US band on a short tour. Bone Gunn do not really purvey the type of music that this blog concentrates upon, so I’ll simply say that they are a lovely bunch of lads and that singer Bryan Kane once spent a year living in Blackpool. He rather startlingly describes the countryside in the area to be as beautiful as that of Alaska. Something for the Blackpool Tourist Board to consider.

A feature of Chop is that the bands set up behind a stage screen upon which forthcoming shows are advertised. I’m sad to be missing Screaming Love Hole and The Night of The Vagina Killers – whom I’m sure are nice to their mothers.

The screen is raised to reveal a solitary young man armed with a variety of guitars and electronic equipment. His set is ridiculously varied, with each song radically different from the one preceding it. There are acoustic ballads which don’t seem particularly good, but occasional electronic diversions with pounding synths and a vocoder, which are much more like it.

After he has left the stage, there is a commotion in the audience. It seems that a famous Japanese rock star is here tonight, all leather jacket and cheekbones. Although he has come in with a girl, others rush to have their photos taken with him and fighting breaks out among them. This continues on and off throughout the rest of the night.

Next to emerge from behind the screen are PHD, a wild instrumental jazz band fronted by a free form saxophonist and a girl trumpeter. While not usually my bag, they are so good that I’m as swept along as everyone else here. There is crazy dancing down the front. After the set, the sax guy is literally carried past me, so drunk that he cannot stand unaided.

Drunkenness emerges as a major theme of the evening. Although very little alcohol seems to be being consumed, it becomes apparent that many of the crowd and performers are completely off their heads. I have a great time with a Japanese guy who is delighted to practice his English and who is so ecstatic that he breaks the cardinal rule and starts babbling during a band’s performance. His girlfriend hisses and kicks him before finally dragging him from the venue.

The next act are serious young men called Null, who are dressed in boiler suits and dispense long, slow, ponderous post-rock dirges in the Mogwai tradition. They are loud, they are proficient, they are dull as ditchwater.

My Japanese friend reappears, having jettisoned his girlfriend, and ready to swear undying allegiance to my party. We solemnly write our names on a piece of paper, tear it up and each retain a fragment. One day we be reunited.

Most of the crowd, including the rock star are here for the next act. Who are absolutely amazing. They are My Dead Girlfriend and for the next half an hour I am transfixed.

Heavily influenced by My Bloody Valentine and the shoegaze scene in general, they lay down a deafening onslaught of droning dream pop. While some vocals are taken by guitarist Ishikawa (they insist on second rather than first names) all eyes are on an extraordinary performance by Ideta.

She sits at a small trestle table with a keyboard on it. She does not play it at all, but lolls back feebly twitching her arms. She is wearing devil horns. She is singing, but seems almost comatose. As I have not seen her arrive on stage (that screen again) I start to believe that she is badly disabled and wonder about the bad taste of the band name.

However, when Ishikawa breaks his guitar and leaves the stage, she sits up and chats to the audience. It appears that she has been acting – the most unsettling deadpan performance since Ron Mael of Sparks.

Once the guitarist returns, Ideta goes limp again, but does finally dab at the keyboard in front of her. The band finish with a five minute track that may be ‘Kinoshita Fuyou’.

After they finish, I buy every bit of merchandise I can get my mitts on. I have a brief, halting chat with Ideta - my Japanese rudimentary, she very drunk.

Bone Gunn finish the evening, playing well, but rather put off by the crowd just standing passively and watching them. I don't care - I’m still in a My Dead Girlfriend whirl. If this lot could be bought to London, they’d clean up. Listen here.

More Japanese fun next time…