I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Friday, February 22, 2019

kokua -- Progress

Back on Halloween 2013, I wrote about Miyuki Nakajima's(中島みゆき)"Chijo no Hoshi"(地上の星), the epic theme for the NHK documentary program "Project X". I mentioned that this was a proud tune that could have the most doleful worker bee in a company rise up, face the sun and demand more of himself/herself.

Whereas "Project X", which was broadcast between 2000 and 2005, seemed to focused on the challengers and visionaries whose works had a hand in changing society, there has been another NHK series called "Professional ~ Shigoto no Ryuugi"(プロフェッショナル 仕事の流儀...The Professionals ~ The Style of Work)which started in 2006 that is focused on notable people in various fields, from ramen chef to professional baseball player, and how they reached their fame and even more importantly how they've kept it.

Unlike Nakajima's high-flying and inspirational "Chijo no Hoshi", the theme song for "Professional" takes on a more down-to-earth and cooler rock beat. "Progress" by the band kokua rather reflects the everyday rituals that make these professionals professional. It seems to say that these are unsung heroes who just look at their craft as doing what they have to do without needing to hear their praises sung.

At first, I had thought that it was just singer-songwriter Shikao Suga(スガシカオ)who was responsible for "Progress", but actually it was kokua that was brought together specifically to craft the theme and perform it. With Suga on vocals. music and lyrics, he was joined by Satoshi Takebe(武部聡志), who wore the three hats of keyboardist, arranger and producer, guitarist Hirokazu Ogura(小倉博和), bassist Takamune Negishi(根岸孝旨), and drummer Gota Yashiki(屋敷豪太). Supposedly, according to the J-Wiki article on the song, the song had been created so that it followed a certain Mr. Children sensibility.

With the single released in August 2006, "Progress" made it all the way up to No. 22 on Oricon. The song was also the title track on kokua's only album that had come out earlier in June. It peaked at No. 9 on the album charts. By the end of the year, the song was also performed at the Kohaku Utagassen, though under Suga's name and not the band's. Incidentally, the name of the band was derived from the Hawaiian word for "to help, to cooperate".

Taeko Ohnuki -- Wander Lust

This is the 70th article for singer-songwriter Taeko Ohnuki(大貫妙子)and I've only taken care of her music in the 1970s and 1980s for the most part, so there is still much for me to do in taking care of the creations that she's provided in the last few decades.

"Wander Lust" is a track on Ohnuki's solo debut album "Grey Skies" from September 1976, and as the title says, it's about a young woman who has broken free from the past and has decided to excitedly go to places unknown and try things anew. In a way, I think "Wander Lust" may have been the track of the album because of those lyrics. According to an interview she gave in an October 1983 issue of the journal "Music Steady"(ミュージック・ステディ), the song was the embodiment of her frustration of not being able to perform the type of music that she had desired while being in the band Sugar Babe.

Ohnuki took care of words and music with Ryuichi Sakamoto(坂本龍一)handling the arrangements. The singer mentioned that "Wander Lust" is pretty jazzy, and the piano (which was probably played by Sakamoto) has plenty of opportunities to break loose throughout the song as if it were on some sort of wander lust itself. It's a fun and refreshing piece of New Music (love the intro and her backing vocals), and I'm obviously speculating greatly here, but I could imagine Ohnuki grinning from ear to ear as this was being recorded (and from that photo above from her second album "Sunshower", she has a great smile!). Freedom never felt so good. "Wander Lust" was also the B-side to her 1977 single "Ashita kara, Drama"(明日から、ドラマ...Drama from Tomorrow).

Misato Watanabe -- Killing Me Softly With His Song

As a formerly little kid with a baby brother, one of the rituals that we had was visiting various family friends in the city. It would be a few hours of the parentals talking with the other grown-ups while we children played down in the basement. Of course, when our father came on down, we would all sigh with some melancholy since we knew that he would say that it was time to go home. It took a bit of doing but he got us out of there.

I remember being in the back seat in the car when we drove home. No matter the season, there was always the AM radio being played and one of the songs that I often heard on Toronto stations such as CKEY (which is now the Chinese-language radio station CHKT) was:

Roberta Flack's classic "Killing Me Softly With His Song" was often the radio-driven lullaby that placed me into that twilight zone between awake and asleep. I mean, imagine listening to this at night while the car was driving down the Don Valley Parkway with the highway lights flashing by at regular intervals. At the time, I couldn't quite figure out why music was trying to murder Roberta (I thought she was a perfectly decent person) but it was a soothing ballad all the same.

Well, I got the reminder of my childhood a few nights ago when I discovered this cover version by Misato Watanabe(渡辺美里). I'd been trying to find a song by her to talk about since it had been several months since my last article on the wide-eyed songstress with the boomer voice. Happily enough, I came across this bossa nova version by Watanabe which was released under the Japanese title of "Yasashiku Utatte"(やさしく歌って)as her 40th single in February 2002. The arranger made the bossa nova part quite clear with some hints of the bossa nova ballad "The Girl From Ipanema" infused into the song.

Although I think going into the latter half of Watanabe's "Killing Me Softly", things get a little too over-produced by my estimation, she does a nice job singing the ballad in the original English. The single peaked at No. 63 on Oricon. It was also placed on the singer's first album of covers, "Cafe mocha ~ Uta no Ki ~"(うたの木...Tree of Song)which came out a month after the single. That album went as high as No. 27.

"Killing Me Softly With His Song" has apparently been covered by a number of Japanese singers over the decades including Kiyohiko Ozaki(尾崎紀世彦)and Minako Honda(本田美奈子). However, a couple of other folks that I would love to hear give their take on what is arguably Flack's most famous song would be EPO (who is Watanabe's senpai) and Minako Yoshida(吉田美奈子).

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Tempters -- Kyo wo Ikiyou(今日を生きよう)

Some more sad news this year as I heard about the passing of Peter Tork of the Monkees (1942-2019) today. This sitcom poke at The Beatles, The Monkees ended up as a pretty good and popular band, and they also became part of my Saturday lunchtime routine since their show usually showed up on one of the network affiliates around noon. While Davy Jones was the cuddly adorable one...the Monkee equivalent of Paul McCartney, Peter was perhaps the Ringo Starr in terms of personality as well as position in the band. He was the affably goofy one who I would also equate with SMAP's Shingo Katori(香取慎吾).

I will therefore dedicate this song to the memory of Peter Tork. Coming out in the same year, 1968, as the episode of "The Monkees" above, The Tempters' "Kyo wo Ikiyou" (Let's Live for Today) sounded quite familiar to me when I first heard it. And the reason for that it is a cover of "Let's Live For Today" popularized by the American rock band The Grass Roots and originally recorded in 1966 by The Rokes based in Italy under the title "Piangi Con Me".

Although the original songwriters were David Shapiro and Mogol, I couldn't find out who provided the translated Japanese lyrics unfortunately. The Tempters' version can apparently be found in "The Tempters First Album" from June 1968. If I'm not mistaken, either The Grass Roots' take or perhaps even The Tempters' cover was used in some commercial back in Japan. In any case, that chorus "Sha-la-la-la-la-la" works as a good memory cue. Incidentally, the video below shows The Grass Roots' performance.

Miki Matsubara -- Megami no Migite

Spent a lot of the day performing the semi-annual cleaning of the shelves and then putting in the new discs onto them in the right order. This is a downright labour-intensive duty and, boy, are my shoulders harder than granite. I will probably have to vicariously experience a massage via one of those ASMR videos. Such is the virtuality of reality nowadays.

Time for the first Miki Matsubara(松原みき)article for 2019, and this is one is a bit different since it's a track from a 1988 album of hers, her 9th to be exact, "WiNK" (no connection with the legendary aidoru duo who were starting their career around this time). "Megami no Migite" (The Goddess' Right Hand) has the famous vocals of Matsubara, but the song doesn't have the same ol' feeling of City Pop with the Fender Rhodes and some shimmery strings.

In fact, I would say that "Megami no Migite" has more of a West Coast pop atmosphere as if David Foster helped out in its creation. Actually, it was Hitoshi Haba(羽場仁志)behind the composition with lyricist/copywriter Ichiko Takehana(竹花いち子)providing the words. I do like the period synths, the horns and that incessant keyboard laying down the beat. Nope, it may not be the most original pop song of the decade, but on the radio, there are way worse ways to spend 4 minutes and change. Besides, I'd be willing to purchase "WiNK" just for the zesty cover alone.

Minoru Obata & Ryoko Fujiwara -- Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta (勘太郎月夜唄)

Last week I was watching Monday's installment of this show called "Shunkan Gotouchi!" (旬感☆ゴトーチ!) on NHK. To put it very bluntly, this travelogue is a 25 minute promo for towns in Japan and offers 3 things one can do there. It may sound like I'm slamming the show, but it's really useful when you're keen on learning about the new places in the country. Anyway, the place of interest that Monday was, wouldn't you know it, Sugamo's Jizodori!

Besides the usual red underwear, showa era vibe, temple in the middle of the street and an attempt at luring young people there via strawberry shaved ice (an alleged 30 strawberries were harmed in the making), the natsumelo karaoke joint I frequent was even introduced, albeit for about half a minute. It was great to see it on TV, but what made my jaw drop was when the show featured the locals. They were glossing over oldies striking poses and waving at the camera when a familiar face popped up. It went by really quickly, but I was sure one of the little old ladies bundled up in winter wear was none other than Grandma K, whom I had the pleasure of knowing last year! I was very glad (and relieved) that she's still going strong. This appearance of Grandma K brought back fond memories, as well as my resolve to master sing her favourite song, Minoru Obata's (小畑実) "Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta", when I revisit Old People Harajuku.

I was no stranger to this matatabi hit of Obata's for I had listened to a fraction of it ad nauseum when I found this ryukoka medley with Yoshio Tabata's (田端義夫) "Otone Tsukiyo" (大利根月夜) and Dick Mine's (ディック・ミネ) "Tabi Sugata San'nin Otoko" (旅姿三人男). However, it was only when meeting Grandma K a few years after did I actually tune in to the full version of the song. Now it is stuck to my brain with a ton of industrial strength super glue like the other two.

"Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta" revolves around the titular ronin from Ina, Nagano. From what I gather from this blog article I found online (it's in Japanese), Kantaro of Ina was an actual figure in history. I didn't know about this till I looked him up, but that didn't stop me from loving this musical ode to the warrior. Along with the happy-go-lucky Obata with that constant ear-to-ear grin is the equally as happy-go-lucky, easy-going score. I can just imagine Kantaro leisurely strolling through the susuki by one of the many rivers in Ina, living a life of chivalry and freedom. The Kantaro craze doesn't just end at Obata's song though; there seemed to be multiple movies about his adventures, like this one called "Inabushi Jingi" (伊那節仁義) from 1943 with "Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta" as its theme song. There's also a commemorative plaque and a Kantaro festival being celebrated Ina city.

"Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta" was created by the renowned lyricist Takao Saeki (佐伯孝夫) and composer Yasuo Shimizu (清水保雄) in 1943. And actually, this song was a duet between Obata and Ryoko Fujiwara (藤原亮子) - this pairing collaborated on a few other occasions. However, in the later years "Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta" became only associated with Obata, as you can see in many live performances. It seems like the duet can only be heard in original recordings of the song, like the one in the video above.

The Jizodori temple, Kogan-ji.
Also home to the giant Sugamon butt, apparently.
Touch it and ye shall receive luck one's love life - I think.

P.S. Y'know, I kind of wonder if I've bitten off more than I can chew with "Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta". Sure, it's a fun little tune, and I've been honing my vocal ability with professional help over the past six months, but, by golly, the vocal gymnastic work on this one is absolutely brutal! Ah, well. I'm pretty sure Grandma K's not going to mind some screw-ups here and there.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

CreepHyp -- Obake de Ii kara Hayaku Kite(おばけでいいからはやくきて)

I have to admit that it was the music video which first got my attention more than the actual song itself, although "Obake de Ii kara Hayaku Kite" (Come Quick Even If You're A Ghost). However, this short and sweet number by the rock band CreepHyp(クリープハイプ)has come to grow on me because it was on pretty heavy rotation on NHK's "Minna no Uta"(みんなのうた).

Apparently, it wasn't released as an official single but it was put onto the "Minna no Uta" lineup for February and March 2018. The song, created by vocalist and guitarist Sekaikan Ozaki(尾崎世界観), is a quick and playful song about a hybrid hamster and rucksack which initially feels as if it had been abandoned by its beloved owner in a toy store. I do like the rapid guitar work in the song; rather reminds me of hamster feet going at full speed.

But as I said, the video got my attention for its style of old-fashioned posters and manga brought to life which seems to be one of the hallmarks for the animation craft team AC-bu(AC部...Department AC). I used to see illustrations of that sort whenever I visited the mock-up of 1950s Tokyo at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. AC-bu has come up with the looks for a number of commercials and music videos including "Obake de Ii kara Hayaku Kite", and I think they even took care of the anarchic anime "Pop Team Epic" last year.

Going back to CreepHyp, though, the band first started out in 2001 as an indies rock group and underwent a number of personnel changes before getting their major label in late 2012. Currently, CreepHyp has four members: the aforementioned Ozaki, guitarist Yukichika Ogawa(小川幸慈), bassist Kaonashi Hasegawa(長谷川カオナシ)and drummer Taku Koizumi(小泉拓). Since 2012, they've released 11 singles and 5 original albums.