Song of the Day: "元気 perfect issue"

This is the kind of music I wish Akanishi Jin (formerly of Japanese pop idol super group KAT-TUN) would do as he branches out and does solo work.

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元気 perfect issue is part of the album created for the movie “Bandage,” starring Akanishi as the lead singer of a rock band, LANDS. The title of the album is “Olympos.”

Striking out of my musical comfort zone

Now generally my musical tastes when it comes to offerings from Japan run more to the likes of Gackt and yes, for my sins, one of the groups out of the notorious idol jimusho, Johnny’s Entertainment, TOKIO, but I like to support efforts to bring Japanese culture to Chicago so last Tuesday night, a friend and I took in the annual Japan Nite offerings at the Empty Bottle, in Chicago.

This is becoming an annual event at Empty Bottle, with Japan Nite in its fourth year and I was excited to be able to make it this year, having had schedule conflicts previous years. I knew almost nothing about the 4 groups who would be playing, other than the brief blurb on the Empty Bottle site and a quick spin of the various bands’ web pages, and I purposely chose not to sample any of their music in advance because I wanted to experience them first live and in-person.

First up was Hystoic Vein, a 4-girl group billed as Garage / Glam / Punk on their My Space page.



(Left, vocalist Inko, Right, drummer Lyn)

Is it wrong to call them charming? But I did, enjoying their somewhat quirky vibe. 

Next up were the Zukuna Sisters, aka Zukunasi, a female foursome specializing in blues and funk. They were, for me, the highlight of the evening. They brought a true Chicago sound to Chicago, and delivered it with great style.

Following their energetic set was Lolita No. 18, four deceptively cute girls (sense a theme here? …three groups, each of 4 women?) who combined chipmunk vocals and hardcore punk. We’d retreated to the bar area for refreshments so were to far removed for iPhone video or pics — and even more fortunately, to avoid the spray of water distributed courtesy of lead singer Masayo Ishizaka over the adoring fans!
The evening was capped off by the biggest name on the bill, Mo’Some Tonebender (4 guys, for a change), billed as alternative punk. (More info here)

They certainly had the crowd pulsing and the floor shook with almost alarming intensity. Thanks to my trusty foam earplugs (don’t laugh; you hear the music perfectly without the damage from high amplification, especially the vocals, and my ears don’t ring for two days — I never go to a concert without ’em!), I was really able to enjoy the musicality of the group, and their passion. I was also amused by the quirky “banter” (and I use that term as loosely as possible) of the lead singer, and I quote: “Are you drunk? (pause) Are you drunk? (pause for a swig from his beer bottle) I’m drunk.” It wasn’t so much what was said as how it was said, like the way you might say casually to someone sitting next to you, “Do you like baseball?” (or some other non sequitur-type like). 

Best of all, the evening also served as a fund-raiser for Japan earthquake relief efforts with the proceeds from sales of some drinks and donations going to the Japanese Red Cross!

I’ll leave you with a sample of “Aishitereu” by Zukunasi, from their album, “Lovin’ & Feelin’.”

Akanishi Jin vs 2AM

Within the past few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to attend two big concerts for American fans of Asian pop music – the first US appearance of Japanese performer Akanishi Jin and the Korean group 2AM, performing with the Wonder Girls – and to be right up front for both. This gave me the perfect opportunity to compare the events on a more intimate level and gauge their impact on me and the audience, and the differences could not be more pronounced.

Akanishi Jin: You & I

Invited to perform as a solo artist at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles, Akanishi Jin had the opportunity to assemble a show and live (or die) without the help of his fellow KAT-TUN group members. This was a bold experiment for the young man: although he’s performed solo in a few venues in Japan where he has a ready made and rabid fanbase, doing a concert in the US would require significant preparation. The concert would be in English, and while he’s spent time in the States before working on his language skills and has made strides, it would still be a challenge.

But ticket sales would not be an issue: a significant proportion of seats were sold to that same dedicated fanbase from Japan, many happy to make the trip to see their idol perform in a more intimate club setting than would be possible at home. My concert companion and I found ourselves the fortunate possessors of seats in the second row, stage left, right in front of the steps to the stage where performers could come down and into the crowd. Needless to say, we were excited to see how the show would play out.

We had zero expectations, knew nothing beyond the work of KAT-TUN, and seen a few promotional videos. What would the music be like? Would he be singing songs from his “Olympos” CD, where he sings under the name Lands? “You & I” would seem to imply a very fan-oriented, sexy, intimate show. Yes, we were excited, and the Japanese fans in the audience a thousand times more so!


So, what was the outcome? How was the show?

Points to Jin for his hard work and his English skills, but this show needs a lot of work if it’s going to live up to the name “You & I.”

“You & I” implies that there will be a connection between the performer and the audience. With an artist who has made his fame as much for his looks as his group performance work, you might expect that Jin would reach out to the audience through eye contact, singing to the audience, and, one might say, make love to the audience. But if that was the idea for the show, it failed miserably in its execution.

From start to finish, Jin failed to connect with anyone not performing with him onstage (he surrounded himself with 2, 4, or more dancers in most every number), and often looked as if he was performing within himself. With our prime vantage point, we watched song after song for some sense that he was connecting to the audience – at one point he stood not 4 feet in front of us, on an extended portion of the stage and waited, waited for him to turn and sing out to the audience, look out to the audience, and waited in vain! At no point did he show us more than 1/4 of his profile, directing his attention to the action onstage.

He also hid his voice behind the demon autotune. Song after song, his singing voice was altered,virtually every stanza, every chorus, by autotune. Judicious use of autotune can add an intriguing note to a song, but every song? The entire song? You cannot claim to be a singer if autotune is your staple companion. The songs, some written (in whole or in part?) by Jin, where mostly forgettable riffs, simple tunes, simple lyrics. Perhaps the greatest disappointments of the evening was that he did not perform any of the numbers from the “Olympos” album, a generally respectable offering.

No, I take that back. The greatest disappointment of the evening were his wardrobe choices. Throughout the costume changes, number after number, Jin appeared in outfits that swamped his shape, hid his face, obscured his personality. Hats, hoods, sunglasses, baggy jackets, overalls, shorts… everything he wore seemed designed to hide the man within. At no point in the entire concert was his face completely visible to the audience. While loyal fans may find this acceptable and swoon with delight, I left the event feeling cold and certainly not part of the “You & I” experience.

2AM, guests of the Wonder Girls

What a difference experience was had just a few weeks later while seeing 2AM perform in Chicago as the guest of the Wonder Girls at the House of Blues! The 4 young men (Lee Chang-min, Im Seulong, Jo Kwon, and Jung Jin-woon) this week celebrated 2 years of singing together as 2AM and were on their first tour of the US as well. Maybe it’s due to the relative newness of celebrity, or the cultural differences between Japanese and Korean artists, but these young performers (ages 19 to 24) appeared delighted with the opportunity to connect with their fans.

Recording of 2AM performance from the concert, fancam by yours truly, and yes, turn the volume way down on your computer before playing! Screaming ensues!

The contrast between the two concerts was striking. Yes, Akanishi Jin was performing nominally as a solo artist but his show was cluttered with dancers (mostly popping and locking) and autotuned melodies delivered with an aura of nervous tension. Chang-min, Seulong, Kwon, and Jinwoon sang in turn and demonstrated the strength, beauty, and clarity of tone that would make each more than capable of a compelling solo career, but when performing in harmony they create a sublime sound. During each song they sang with visible emotion and reached out with their eyes and their gestures to connect with the adoring audience.

Unlike their “Oneday” counterparts, 2PM (who I had the pleasure of seeing as well 6 weeks ago and who also acquitted themselves favorably), choreography takes a back seat to the song and the personality of the artist and the result is harmony – harmony with the audience, harmony with each other. Their delight in seeing the audience was genuine and the love that flowed back to them was equally genuine. This was indeed “You & I” as it should be.

One can only hope that Jin will grow as an artist and shake off his jitters, leave behind the addiction to autotune, and learn how to connect with the audience. He would do well to take a few pointers from the 4 men of 2AM. As for 2AM, their skill is matched by their personalities and the future looks very bright for them. I hope that JYP brings them back to the US again soon – how about a “Oneday” concert, Park Jin-young sshi? This fan is waiting!

Tickets in hand, another adventure in the works!

I’ll just plead insanity right now… But Yolette and I are going to meet up in Los Angeles to get a taste of what a Japanese idol concert is like first hand. We’re going to KAT-TUN member Akanishi Jin’s solo concert at Club Nokia.


See above for why we’re happy to have row 3 seats. Can you blame us?

Sensory travels: Hearing

Someone asked me what my favorite souvenir of my trip was and it took me only a second to think about the physical items I’d brought home with me to come up with my answer. It didn’t hurt that I truthfully spent very little time shopping and when I did, I was generally looking for the same things: music and information about my favorite artists. So, the fast answer was, “Music!” I was on the hunt for new albums from artists I knew and for old ones that would be harder to track down (legally) back in the States.

My searching in Taipei included the identification of an unnamed song used as the background to a fanmade music video for scenes from the Taiwanese drama “It Started with a Kiss.” The melody line and voice of the singer captivated me and I wanted to listen to it over and over – but not from the poor sound quality MV. No, I wanted – make that needed to know who sang that song, what the name of the song was, what album it was on, was there more I could fall in love with on that album, and where could I get a copy. I played the song on my iPhone for the clerk and some customers in the first music store I could find (just down the corner from the hotel) and although they could identify the artist and song, it wasn’t something they carried. You see, they only featured world music. (But it was amusing that I could enter a store in Taipei and understand the lyrics to a song being played – a bossa nova from Brazil!) My quest continued.

Strangely, the next store was no more successful – they only carried classical music! But the owner helpfully passed on the name of a record store likely to carry the album and wrote down the complete information on the album, the artist, and the song title. I was undaunted but the search would have to be postponed for another day. It was our old addiction – checking out drama locations – that led to success. We headed to the Miramar Entertainment Complex after a day of sightseeing in order to take in the famous ferris wheel and stayed for some shopping after a book store caught our eye. While their music selections did not go so far to include the sought after album, they did have some other temptations (magazines and photobooks) and the helpful news that there was a music store in the mall! I made a beeline to the shop and showed my wish list to the first clerk I saw.

Success! The tune I’d been looking for was “如果這都不算愛” (“If this isn’t love”) by Jacky Cheung and while the original album was no longer available, they did have a special live concert album of his that included the song. Yes! It was a 3-disc set too! Mission accomplished and I love the album. And, as an added bonus to the adventure of music safari, tracking down the album, the clerk in the store was a drama fan too and we spent an enjoyable time in the shop talking about favorite dramas, which ones to see (which ones to avoid), favorite songs and artists, and of course, favorite actors!

Now I relive the sounds and memories of the trip every time I play one of the songs from artists like Jacky Cheung, Clazziquai Project, TOKIO, or Bobby Kim (to name a few) that came home with me and I’m back in Seoul, Taipei, or Tokyo.