Thursday, 31 January 2008

New York London Paris Munich, everybody talk about...

So like I said, it sounds like I can make A MILLION DOLLARS through one of these blog things, so I'm going to try and be a little more forthcoming. Here's some content!


1: No they're not all the same person, they've just got that whole "21st Century Group Sounds" thing going on. The drummer and the guitarist do look remarkably similar though. And I'm pretty sure the guitarist's caucasian twin plays in Bloc Party.

2. Yes, he does open his mouth very wide when he sings doesn't he?

3. That's really a pretty cheap video. I like the bit where he steps off the crane platform.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Wonders of the Zooniverse

On Monday we took a very snowy drive to Asahikawa to go to Asahiyama Zoo! I'll spare you the suspense, it was pretty awesome.

Like any good liberal, middle-class boy before my trip I was conscious that zoos are probably a barbaric, outdated form of entertainment - akin to badger baiting, bull fighting and shooting Belgians. However Asahiyama Zoo is a pretty serious proposition, and it turns out that all the animal enclosures are meticulously designed to be as satisfying a prison as any beast could hope to be confined in. For example they know that seals like to swim in large vertical loops in the wild, so they design their pool to be very deep, with vertical tubes for them to swim through. All the animals seemed pretty content, even when wandering in the snow, except for the monkeys, who looked to be thoroughly miserable out in the cold.

Oh coz it snowed a lot! It has been snowing quite a lot here in general, so there's a covering everywhere and big piles where it's built up. It's getting pretty cool and we had to drive through a few blizzards to make the two hour trip up the highway. On a side note Japanese highway tolls are steep! About 15 quid each way for that two hour cruise! Yowzer! The zoo is only open for a limited time every day in the winter because the weather is too cold for most of the animals, so they only let them out for some fresh air for a few hours. We missed the hippo, coz he only comes out for an hour a day. But part of the joy was seeing some of the animals pad around in the snow, certainly the tiger seemed particularly incongruous. Others like the penguins and polar bears of course are probably pretty smug. Here were some of the highlights:

The polar bears were awesome. Not much more too say about them, but I took some nice photos so check it out. One of them was swimming endless laps which was probably a good idea since it was -6C above the surface. By the way "bears underwater" are one of those things like swan boats that you can't take a bad picture of.

The penguins were, y'know, penguins. Cute and all. There was a baby one that was pretty much the size of a regular penguin but with brown fur, he looked like a sulky teen. And once a day they lead the penguins on a "march" (I know) around the zoo to give them some excercise. We saw them coming home, I have to admit it was pretty sweet.

The lions, tigers, panther and leopards were all great. Their cages backed onto each other, and the big male lion was right at the back of his pen pacing backwards and forwards eyeing the tigers malevolently. The tigers were prowling, y'know, taking no notice.

"It's like my lunch is in a microwave and the door is jammed shut."

I probably haven't been to a proper zoo since I was a kid, so it was an odd experience, and yes slightly awing to see a lot of these animals. When you see a tiger strolling past a few feet from the (hopefully reinforced) plexi-glass partition, you get this sort of feeling of muscle and sinew and teeth and claws that gives you a sensation somewhat akin to being a steak. And frankly I can see how, left unchecked, that feeling could expand, leading you to buy XXL silver on black t-shirts and airbrushed poster prints entitled "Lord of the Savannah".

The other thoughts that you often entertain are, of course, "Could I take this animal in a fight?" Lions, Tigers, Bears? Hell no. Lesser Big Cats? I'd like to think I could give a fair account of myself (opposable thumbs, some sort of improvised weapon). Seals? On land sure, under water they'd probably have me. Deer? I reckon so. Penguins? Piece of piss. Simians? Um...

I found the simians unnerving. For a start when I was a kid I heard that an adult male orangutan has enough upper body strength to pull your arms off like you were Mr Potatohead. That sort of thing stays with you, so there was nowhere near enough bars between the orangutan family and me, partly because there were no bars between us. The orangutans lived in a network of branches, ropes and bars at the top of a vast, cavernous room, presumably far enough back that they can't launch themselves onto you if you start throwing batteries at them or something. Still, I was a little spooked.

Like I said I felt sorry for the monkeys, but the chimpanzees? Those things are just sinister. For some reason they look more like devolved humans than evolved apes, and they all have patchy fur with disturbingly human physiology underneath. And creepy eyes.

What else? Red Pandas are of course the second cutest animal in the world (after chinchillas) so they were very popular. The zoo had set up a crazily unsafe looking panda foot bridge over the pedestrians so that the little bears could peer down on the crowds cooing up at them. Nothing to stop them from dropping off into the mob, but then they're pretty docile looking things. They're in the "No Problem" column of my earlier list. Seals are pretty cool, but not as cute as you think. They're like big, greasy sausages that can only move themselves outside water by crudely jerking themselves like a clinically obese boy who just suffered a stroke. Underwater they're like fucking tubby torpedos though.

"We're sort of recreating Temple of Doom with pandas instead of people, and people instead of crocodiles. It's a think piece."

All in all a great day! And I walked away with nary a trace of liberal guilt! So bascially I might be an arsehole, but I'm an arsehole who likes Asahiyama Zoo, and I can't wait to go back in the summer! Hippos!

2007 Ain't Nuthin' But Meat! Best Albums Ne?

Taking time out of my busy schedule posting stuff about Japan here, so please indulge me. Bills had his up good and early, but y'know better late than never, here are my best albums of 2007 (there's some J-Pop in there to keep it a little topcal too).

Oh but let’s get this out of the way first:

Battles, Panda Bear and Deerhunter are NOT VERY GOOD.

None of them are terrible, but I expected to be blown away by all three after reading so many good things only to find all of them… middling? Uninspiring? Kinda crappy? People were calling “Atlas” single of the year, the future of music etc. Really? The future of music is novelty math-rock? I guess it’s a fairly original field to work in but I’m gonna stick my neck out and predict that not everything in the future will sound like a rockin’ pre-school TV theme. I know, I know, going by the many, many bloggers out there I’m clearly outvoted on these three, but well… I’m right and everyone else is wrong. Sorry about that, but you know, it was going to come out in the end.

For 2006 I just couldn’t put together a top 10 favourite albums, there just hadn’t been enough that I loved. 2007 however was just chock-a-lockin’ with good to great albums that I loved through and through. Still, digging through the billion and one best of 2007 lists on the internet I feel fairly aggrieved that a bunch of my choices aren’t mentioned more often. How can bands like Melt-Banana still remain criminally underground in a world with the internet? Whatever, looking at this list now it seems my musical taste is skewing more and more towards the louder, more obnoxious end of the spectrum, and frankly I’m glad about that.

- - -

First please commence opening wide for the Annotated Top Ten!

Liars – Liars

Where do you go from a rhythmical, noise-rock exploration of the ego/id struggle? To songs! Genius! I’m pretty sure that Liars are one of the best bands in the world right now.

Melt-Banana – Bambi’s Dilemma

Finding a prickly, fruitful, middle ground between the longer tracks on their last-album Cell-Scape, and the spastic thirty-second tracks that they started off with. Frantic!

Future of the Left – Curses!

I got the Japanese edition with BONUS TRACKS! JAPANESE BONUS TRACKS! That I’m pretty sure you can download off itunes everywhere else in the world, but still.

Black Francis – Bluefinger

Oh whatever. I still can’t see why people don’t love Frank Black, and certainly I’m certain now that I prefer his solo stuff to the Pixies, but his last three albums have pushed even my patience. Back to the rock here, I was just so, so happy. You can’t imagine how happy. I’m serious, I probably cried. Then again I’m crying at anything right now, so that’s not so remarkable.

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Because, yeah! It’s really fucking good!

Saul Williams – The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust

I guess I didn’t listen to much hip-hop this year, and this is a sort of cross-genre thing anyway. But still that makes two phenomenal albums that you could download off the internet for free last year.

Dan Deacon – Spiderman of the Rings

You’ve got to get past the fact that it’s REALLY annoying at first, coz before long this sounds like the electro version of a strange child on the sugar-high of a lifetime. It’s one big Technicolor Smile/Hug!

Marnie Stern – In Advance of the Broken Arm

I can’t believe this didn’t show up in more end of the year lists. One woman, a whole lot of crazy guitars, and a gonzo-octopus drummer. But really interesting songs, that was the kicker for me.

Shellac – Excellent Italian Greyhound

A while after this came out I thought of it as being uneven but full of great moments. But when I listened back to it recently it was just awesome through and through.

Nina Nastastia and Jim White – You Follow Me

Not as good as her last solo album On Leaving, this was still almost perfect. It takes quite some drumming to make a song sound more spacious than it would have with only guitar.

- - -

But it didn’t stop there! Here’s some more great albums that I loved, but that weren’t quite in the top ten:

The Dillinger Escape Plan – Ire Works

Might’ve slugged something out of the top ten, but I’ve only just started listening to it. It’s pretty incredible, but for me The Dillinger Escape Plan will always be labouring in the shadow of the Irony is a Dead Scene EP, which is probably THE BEST rock recording of the last ten years. Sorry, I like telling people that. Coz it’s true.

Yourcodenameis:Milo – They Came From The Sun

Who have now broken up? That sucks, but I’m glad I saw them live last year because at that gig they finally lived up to everything I hoped they could be. They never quite did it on record.

Charlotte Hatherley – The Deep Blue

Really great throughout, but I can’t help but love the fast songs more. She’s just so good at them!

Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends

Just didn’t quite blow me away like some of their other stuff. Still amazing, and I’m sure they’re still the best live band in the world.

Travis Morrison Hellfighters – All Y’all

Again, when you make one of the best albums ever with your former band you’ve got a lot to live up to. I really thought this was a great album, but… man it ain’t The Plan.

Tokyo Jihen – Variety

The J-Pop release that I picked up the day it came out. Really smart, urbane, rocky, guitar pop played with phenomenal skill by a great band, fronted by a great singer. The songs are unpredictably good, and the execution is just flawless. When a gibberish bass-break sounds awesome, you know that you’re dealing with professionals.

Carina Round – Slow Motion Addict

Is this even out in the UK yet? It’s pretty great, even if she is all up in LA sniffing coke off solid gold yetis or whatever. That “doot-do-do-do-do” hook in Down Slow is awesomely smart.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Winter Vacation with the Bear Jamboree

Chris assured me that Jamborees are generally associated with Bears, hence the post title. I'm sceptical, but then I often am and I try not to let it get in the way of a good Jamboree.

Chris came all the way from England for the New Year's Holiday, and boy did we have a high old time! Here are some photographs... prose photographs that is! And some real photos too, to stop you rioting. Because God knows that reading on it's own is just no fun.

Oh boy.

Adrienne Yoder is awesome for letting us crash in her appartment in Tokyo while she was out of town. Adrienne! You're the best! Tokyo was positively tropical compared to Sapporo, every day was balmy and mild punctuated by blinding sunshine.

Oh, but I plain don't like Tokyo very much. Sightseeing and looking around the city requires frequent train hops and transfers that are just not quirky or interesting no matter how you cut it. And with Chris's jet lag and my general tiredness we fell asleep on every other train just like seasoned Tokyo-ites. About half the people in every carriage of every train are asleep at any one given time, the trains are so warm, and their gentle swaying is so lulling... you just... can't help...

Anyway, we climbed skyscrapers for the bird's eye view of the Blade Runner skyline; we spent half a day in guitar shops looking at ancient equipment and Japanese made pedals with controls like "Speed", "Duty", "All", "Rave" and "Night"; we bought obscene amounts of cheap CDs; we went to Shrines and Temples where they were hammering up floodlights and hammering down heavy duty flooring to cope with the thousands and thousands of people expected on New Year's night; we went to extremely expensive shops and extremely cheap shops; and we ate quickly and conveniently, which seems to be the best I can do in Tokyo.

Chris meets guitar pedal armageddon in an Ochanomizu guitar shop.

Meiji Jingu, my favourite place in Tokyo.

On the plane back to Sapporo we were the only foreign people on board, so when the stewardess made her announcements in Japanese AND English we really HAD to listen, because it was pretty much for our benefit.

Back in Sapporo we spent New Year's Eve with the fabulous Yuka, and the equally amazing Katsuhiko, eating great food, watching a sort of J-Pop / Enka all star revue (that brough Chris, all too cruelly up to speed with Japanese pop music, and the joys of SMAP), and finally facing minus-five-ish temperatures to visit Hokkaido Shrine and throw a coin for luck in the New Year. Oh, also we ate Soba noodles just before midnight, long noodles for a long life.

People purifying themselves with water at Hokkaido Jingu on New Year's Day at 2am. Note icicles on the right hand gutter. It was cold as balls.

The next couple of days featured lots of snow, shopping, walking and Chris being fed lots of (hopefully) awesome food. Soup curry, a general izakaya buffet, okonomiyaki and finally sushi. What can I say, the food here is fucking GREAT. The highlight of MY week was meeting the chairman and owner of the Fugetsu chain of okonomiyaki restaurants in a crowded, smoky, fourth floor eatery. His cartoon avatar appears all over every store, and it was a genuine thrill to actually meet him in the flesh. And, I don't want to be asinine, but he looked exactly like a Japanese Bob Hoskins. Which is transcendentally awesome. I wish, I wish, I wish I had got a photo taken with him.

Of course we did plenty of other amazing, fabulous, exotic things which I haven't the time to go into here. But y'know everyone's invited.