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Taking the F-beat pulse

by Steve McClure

A favorite expedient of music-writer types is to write about a given city’s “sound,” lumping all the music that comes out of the city under one neat, convenient heading. We then explain what constitutes that sound and why it is The Next Big Thing, in an effort to establish ourselves as arbiters of what’s hip and cool and new on the scene, man.

Number Girl’s frontman Shutoku Mukai exercises his distinctive voice.

Billboard is occasionally guilty of this. For example, when Beck broke through big-time a few years back, Billboard starting talking about the thriving music scene in Silver Lake, the Los Angeles suburb that spawned him. Trouble is, we music journos tend to do this after someone from a given local music scene has made it big. I don’t think there were too many stories about the fab music scene in Liverpool before The Beatles made it. After The Beatles became megastars, there was no shortage of media coverage of the Merseybeat scene.

So let me say at the outset that I don’t pretend to have made an earth-shattering discovery by saying that Fukuoka has one of Japan’s liveliest local music scenes. That’s a truism that any dedicated J-pop fan is well aware of. Said Kyushu burg has produced a disproportionate number of very popular and/or very talented musical acts: Sheena and the Rokkets, Number Girl, Ringo Shina, Misia, Ayumi Hamasaki — the list goes on.

Like Liverpool, Fukuoka is a seaport that has absorbed lots of cultural influences from overseas, especially China. When you’re in Fukuoka, you’re much more aware that you’re in Asia — a feeling you don’t get so strongly, say, east of Osaka.

Liverpool’s maritime heritage may have helped expose that city’s musicians to various types of music, especially R&B, from beyond Britannia’s shores. But in the case of Fukuoka, it seems that isolation from the main urban centers of Honshu and the concomitant desire to make some noise in the big city have caused it to become one of the Japanese music world’s main wellsprings of talent.

Just take a look at the Fukuoka acts I listed above — stylistically, they don’t have much in common at all. For example, for veteran band Sheena and the Rokkets, with their defiantly retro-rock sound, musical history seems to have stopped sometime around 1965. The band always puts on a great live show, which is all the more impressive since guitarist Makoto Ayukawa and vocalist Sheena (who are husband and wife, by the way) are well into middle age.

At the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum is current fave Ayumi Hamasaki, whose processed, idol-style pop has none of the raw, rough edges of the music of Sheena and the Rokkets.

Then there’s Misia, who with her slick pop/R&B and five-octave vocal range is very much in the Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey vein. Like them, Misia’s music could use less control and more soul — time to get down and dirty, girl!

The streets of Fukuoka are alive with yatai stands, clubs, arcades, bars, restaurants and establishments of a more dubious nature all vying for one’s attention. The city has a strong live-house scene, and one of the best bands to emerge from Fukuoka’s live houses in recent years is the superlative Number Girl. Their trademark sound is a stark, stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll dominated by heavily reverbed guitar and band leader Shutoku Mukai’s echo-distorted voice.

I recently interviewed Mukai and asked him why he distorts his vocals so much on Number Girl’s recordings. He said it’s because he doesn’t have much confidence in his singing ability. Mukai is probably being too modest, but his echoey vocals do help to give Number Girl a very distinct, immediately recognizable sound. Check out Number Girl’s latest album, “Sappukei,” which was produced by Dave Fridmann, best known for having handled production chores for the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev.

A good introduction to Fukuoka’s live-house scene is “Fukuoka Sounds,” a compilation album featuring the cream of the city’s live-house bands, recently put out by FM Fukuoka.

Then there’s Ringo Shina, that twisted pixie, with her weird, almost macabre sensibility. She’s on maternity leave now, but we can expect Shina to continue to surprise the J-pop world once she’s settled into her new role as mother.

What these Fukuoka artists do have in common is the hunger, the desire to make it, that is often found in provincial cities all over the world. That’s why major-label talent scouts head down to Fukuoka from Tokyo. For all the talk about the homogenous nature of Japanese society, there are still some places in this country that value originality and creativity.