Get off my lawn

“It’s just some funny old kitschy thing to him he saw on YouTube. But that was my commercial. I actually experienced it. You know?” – Ben Stiller ibn “While We’re Young”.

I finally watched this Noah Baumbach film over the weekend, with the much more appropriate Japan-release title “Young Adult New York”. I really related to the Josh character and admired the fine acting by Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Horovitz (?!?) plus … those kids, you know, that new Darth Vader guy and the chick that played Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in “Ted 2”. There was a surprising twist with Josh moving from initial attraction to the young hipsters toward eventual rejection of their cruel indifference to “the truth”.

Cultural misappropriation is a key theme and is amusingly handled via Adam Driver’s character naming his band after Carvel’s 1980s St. Patrick’s Day ice cream cake Cookie O’Puss, much to the annoyance of Josh (and, no doubt, first-gen Cookie P. appropriator AdRock). But bearing in mind that there is truly nothing new under the sun, it really all comes down to perception, doesn’t it? One man’s innovation is another’s bastardization. Where do we draw the line?

I’ve been listening to the recent releases from Deep State and Baked this week. My first impressions of both were that they were pretty derivative, but by the end of the week I was quite liking them. I have to wonder if Baumbach’s film had somehow prejudiced me against them temporarily. I fell pretty quickly for bands like Yuck, Car Seat Headrest and Whitney, none of whom are especially original. I can tell you WHAT I like about these groups’ sounds but when it comes down to WHY I like them it gets more difficult. Especially if I have to explain it vis a vis why I don’t like Speedy Ortiz, Vampire Weekend or Cabbage.

Deep State are a fun mix of classic punk and modern indie rock. Nothing especially sets them apart from recent peers like Cloud Nothings, except their singer, who sounds a like a guy who’s stayed up all night smoking, drinking and singing Paul McCartney and Gilbert O’Sullivan songs in karaoke. Baked is a bit more novel, with an odd fusion of alt-country and shoegaze that is done so naturally it doesn’t come across at all as bizarre as that description sounds. In the end it just comes down to the songs. And these are some some pretty good ones.

Like a punk rock Huck Finn

Still digesting the bevy of albums released last week, including the latest from Matthew Sweet, Jason Lowenstein, Lost Balloons and Kevin Morby. Was especially looking forward to those last two and was somewhat taken aback at first by how quiet they both are. But growing on me, they are. Still think the standout track on Lost Balloons’ Hey Summer is the previously released single “Numb,” but the rest of the songs are sounding stronger with every listen. Soon it may even catch up to their self-titled debut in my rotation.

Kevin Morby’s City Music is also starting to inch up toward the high expectations I had after last year’s amazing Singing Saw. I’ve listened to the new release 4 or 5 times now and I’m finally starting to comprehend it, as a piece of Americana. While not really country or folk, Morby’s Dylanesque voice will always make his music lean that way in my ears. Apparently it’s a sort of concept album about some old woman named Mabel in the titular “City” of New York. But for me the main character is Morby himself, as a Brooklyn and L.A.-schooled musical carpetbagger about to lay siege to Nashville, or Memphis, or New Orleans.

This interpretation seemingly runs into trouble early at songs 2 and 3. “Crybaby” is a clean-guitar interpretation of a Pixies chord progression (and I like to think inspired by a John Waters film?), while “1234” is an unlikely sounding tribute to the Ramones and Jim Carroll. At first these stood out like sore thumbs, but the more I listen to the album the more they fit in just fine alongside the bluesy shuffle of “City Music,” the Guthrie/Dylan folk of “Downtown’s Light,” the spiritual “Dry Your Eyes,” and “Flannery,” which is simply a woman giving a dramatic reading of a section of O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away. Such is the great cultural hodgepodge that is the country that produced this unique voice. Kevin, if you’re planning on continuing your quest toward an American epic, I’ve got a title for your next album: Morby Dick. (Really, you can have it.)

Now that’s a hit!

“OMG, this my favorite GBV album since … ” has been said many times over the years about albums that soon wind up on the back burner, then the back shelf, then the backseat of the car on the way to the used record store. But longtime loyal miners of the band’s seemingly endless output should be pleased by the high gem-to-turd ratio in August By Cake. The stylistic variety is noteworthy, with the band bouncing easily from Big Star pop (“Goodbye Note”), to barroom rockers (“Keep Me Down”) to shoegaze (“Deflect Project”), all with a unique GBV spin. A positive review at The Fire Note states that Pollard had every other member of the current lineup contribute songs and vocals, and that certainly seems to be one of its strengths. Bobby Bare Jr. is responsible for the excellent “High Five Hall of Famers,”Fire Note says, and drummer Kevin March gave us what jumps out to me as the first obvious hit from the album, “Overloaded“. It’s another Big Starish tune, with chorus lyrics via Teenage Fanclub.

New releases (pending and realized)

Cautiously optimistic that the new Wrens album may be on the way soon. Trying not to get too excited as they have made oh so many promises before and failed to deliver. In the meantime, I listened to the new releases by a couple of old favorites this week. Unfortunately, In Mind is the first Real Estate album I’ve actually been disappointed in. For all the talk about their lineup changes, I think they’ve just run out of steam. While I was hooked by the beautiful simplicity of their first two albums, this fourth one leaves me feeling BTDT from the first track. I think they need to really change up their sound, maybe pushing more radically in the trippy country direction of the Byrds-reminiscent “Two Arrows“.

In contrast, I was pleasantly surprised by the new Cloud Nothings album Life Without Sound. The mix is more smooth and poppy, and it suits the band better than I would have thought. No doubt much of the credit is due to producer John Goodmanson, whose body of work includes Transatlanticism and Dig Me Out. For those missing the thrashy brilliance of the Steve Albini-helmed Attack on Memory, the new album does descend into chaos a bit over the last two songs. But overall I like the new direction. Goodmanson makes the guitars a little lower and cleaner, drawing more depth and warmth from the vocals and drums. Nice example on the lead single.

Revenge of the nerdy music film

Finally watched the “Revenge of the Mekons” doc over the long weekend in Japan. Enjoyed it quite a bit, though for some reason YouTube squeezed the picture into just one-quarter of my 42″ plasma screen. It’s a lovefest in the vein of “Color Me Obsessed”, a doc about another bunch of loveable losers, the Replacements. “Revenge” opts to actually feature the Mekons themselves though, which is a good call because they’re a riot. Like most band docs, it could have benefited from more live footage from the group in its prime (from “Fear and Whiskey” through “Curse of the Mekons”). But good fun for longtime fans like myself, and a decent introduction for the uninitiated. If it’s too much of an investment of time, just check out one of their rare “proper” videos for one of their best songs.

Everything Flows

Great show by Teenage Fanclub at Yokohama Bay Hall last night. “Teenage Fanclub? All their songs sound the same.” Yep, ain’t it great? And the amazing thing is they do it with three different singer/songwriters. I still often have trouble distinguishing them when listening to a recording. So a live performance is always a nice reminder of who does what.

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Norman handles the winning grin, avuncular sweaters and Les Paul/ES335 swapping. Gerry’s got the curls and treacly voice. Raymond is the master of the tremolo solo and the car mechanic song lyrics. Put it all in a blender and it becomes a sweet, smooth milkshake. Most of the new songs sounded great, perfectly slotting in with the old favourites. “I’m In Love” especially is destined for the TFC canon. Don’t think I’ve ever seen them not play “The Concept,” thank god.

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My first time at the venue, which is massive compared to most places I see gigs at in Tokyo. Very elegant with a couple of huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And an adequately staffed bar separate from the stage area is a most welcome feature. Kind of hard to get the sound exactly perfect for a fuzzy indie band in such an expansive hall, but the sound crew did an admirable job.

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Blast from the past

The indie rock nostalgia boom(erang) has reached Japan! Club Que in Shimokita was packed last Saturday night for the headline reunion gig by Penny Arcade, an 80s band that grew out of the same scene that produced the Shibuya-kei movement.

The show was opened by Philips, another regrouped fan fave who had topped the bill at a similarly crowded show at Red Cloth in Shinjuku last November. The witty banter of Yamada-kun and the fist-pumping anthem “Young Love” enthralled the mostly middle-aged crowd, some with children in tow. Other highlights for me included the singer’s engineer overalls and the bassist’s black Danelectro.

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Debonaire made the trek all the way up from Kansai to fill the second slot. Interesting instrumentation, with a 12-string acoustic rhythm and a 12-string Strat (didn’t even know they existed) for the lead, with a generous portion of delay. Interesting approach to the 80’s version of the wall of sound. The vocals were excellent, though somewhat drowned out by the Fender’s shock and awe.

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Up next was secret guest Bridge, featuring bass player Kaji Hideki (of solo career and Detroit Metal City fame). The band is gearing up for their own headline gig at Astro Hall in Harajuku. They may still be in early days of practice after a long hiatus, so their originally pristine  songs sounded a bit rougher, perhaps for the better. Mami Otomo’s voice has gained character, and the two-guitar interplay works well with a bit more shamble. No doubt they’ll be in peak form for the April 9 show. See it … if you can get a ticket.

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I went to get a drink before Penny Arcade and wound up stuck at the back of the dense mass of bodies. Luckily I was still able to see most of the band. They took the stage with a bit more swagger than they showed in their first reunion gig at Shindaita Fever last month. Satori-san’s disarming vocals were enhanced by a bit more lively bouncing around. Nice balance of dark and light in this band. And man those two guys can play guitar. Not that they needed it, but Keigo Oyamada (Lollipop Sonic, Flipper’s Guitar, Cornelius) joined them for the last couple songs of the main set, sending the crowd into an even greater tizzy (even as it was getting close to bedtime for some). The band returned for a well-deserved encore, then left us wondering what further reunions are waiting to happen.

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I’ve been going through my own mini-nostalgia wave in the days since the show. I saw many great gigs over the past 15 years in Tokyo, but have really slacked off as I’ve gotten older. I witnessed Guitar Wolf and Polysics tear the house down at Club Que sometime ages ago. I remember a beautiful show Moools played supporting Phil Elvrum’s Microphones at Shelter (as both opening act and backing band). Melt Banana sharing a bill with Bonnie Prince Billy. So many wonderful, unique artists here:  Shugo Tokumaru, Gellers, Kicell, The 5678’s. Unfortunately, Bloodthirsty Butchers is no longer playing since the death of Hideki Yoshimura. Need to catch as many of the rest of them while they’re still playing, as I can’t guarantee I’ll still be around for their turn on the nostalgia merry go-round.