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Latest CD Reviews

Rocket K
Time Machine Rk
Marguerite Music, 2007

If your ears are anything like mine, you enjoy music as it is for the most part, yet are you sometimes left with the nagging suspicion that nearly every song ever written could be vastly improved by being sped up a bit.Luckily, Rocket K’s new CD, “Time Machine Rk”, sets out to do the trick for you.

An all-covers affair, the disc takes sixteen classic rock songs by the throat and remakes them in the hyper j-punk mode. Via fantastic production and arrangement throughout, fresh blood is continually pumped into old tunes from acts like KISS (“Shout It Out Loud”), Blondie (“Dreaming”), Cheap Trick (“Surrender”), and even Guns & Roses (“Welcome to the Jungle”). It’s no easy trick to turn an old chestnut like “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” into new listening experiences, but Rocket K clearly has some kind of magic at their disposal. A great drum and guitar sound help a lot too.

Fittingly, both “Video” and “Don’t Stop Me” have become minor hits in Japan, getting a fair share of mainstream exposure via TV (which is, let’s face it, pretty much the only yardstick of success in Japan still left). With the exception of one song (“Camera! Camera! Camera!” originally by Flipper’s Guitar), all the cuts are in English, so there’s little reason to groan over a language barrier. But why listen to Jolt Cola caliber versions of songs we’ve all heard a million times before? Well, better a knowing cover of an old Knack song (“Let Me Out”) than another Pillows-style “rip-off/homage” to the same track, I say. Now if only Rocket K could get around to recording every other song ever written in a similar souped up fashion…

Bitter Songs-Man’s Confrontation
Hot Wax
Universal, 2006

By now, we’ve all seen the YouTube clips of Leonard Nimoy singing an incongruous song about “The Ballad of Biblo Baggins” or been treated to sonic squalor of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” or Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”. The kitschy cult of “Golden Throats” (basically, celebrities no one ever wanted to hear singing suddenly releasing entire records) has been well documented in the West, but only now is the horrible truth about this practice coming to light in Japan.

Leave it to the staff of Shinko Music’s Hot Wax series of retro books and CD re-issues to dig through cartons of dusty old 45’s to unearth the winning contents of Bitter Songs – Man’s Confrontation. Male actors, both big names and bit players from Toei Studio’s famed yakuza and jidai geki movies circa 1968-1976 perform all the cuts on this disc. None of these icons has the pipes of a nightingale (jailbirds, maybe), but what these tough guys lack in raw singing ability, they more than make up for with personality.

Shintaro Katsu, of Zatoichi fame, throws down the gauntlet with the opening cut “Summer of Floating” which unfolds in a Twilight Zone-like mist of echoing strings and a reggae dub beat. Katsu’s barely comprehensible vocals sound like they were recorded while he was lying face down the floor, recovering from a weekend of booze and pills (which he probably was). Other Toei rudies then step up to the mic including Tsunehiko “Crazy Beast” Watase and Takuzo Kawatani to deliver a set of songs almost uniformly about beer soaked nights and problems with women. Among the keepers is Tomisaburo Wakayama’s “I Am Going to Kill You”. Hearing Lone Wolf himself croon the song’s title over and over against a syrupy enka background is a hoot every bit the equal of William Shatner’s “Mister Tambourine Man”.

So break out the Suntory Whiskey, a carton of Mild Sevens, and forget about catching the last train home. Your throat won’t be golden anymore by the time these bitter men are done with you.

Peelander Z
Dancing Friendly
Eat Rice Records, 2006 (also available via US iTunes)

Alan over at the Otaku Generation podcast all but insisted that I review this one and fast. We must have some kind of “psychic friends” network thing going as I was mightily impressed by what Peelander Z had to offer. But I’ll admit, at fist I was mighty skeptical. Probably because the first cut “Dancing Friendly” (doing double duty as the title cut) is a throwaway bongs and acoustic guitar novelty song – hardly the stuff that heralds a bold new dimension in sound.

However, all becomes right in the universe with the crashing of a Chinese gong and the heavy, heavy Black Sabbath power chords that begin the second cut, “Dragon.” From here Peelander Z hit their stride with spazz-attack songs like “Bad Chili Burger” and “The Lariat”, and the fun never lets up. With the average song running hitting the wall at the 2 min mark, the obvious reference is The Ramones, but there’s an unmistakable ’80s American hardcore sound as well. Thin and trebly guitars, a cheap drum sound, and a hot mix help conjure up an amazing simulation of what a sweaty Peelander Z show must sound like from the front row. There’s even a few live cuts on the disc to compare and contrast with the studio sound.

Apparently, the band was conceived as a “Japanese Action Comic Punk Band”, and they wear “krazy kostumes” in concert, which may help them stand out the competition when they play the US on “Japan Night” bills. But I think the music on Dancing Friendly is strong enough to hold up without the color-coordinated Power Rangers gimmick. If your taste in punk rock extends to the rougher, unmelodic edge of the pit, then you might want to give Peelander Z the benefit of the doubt.