|

You go, girls

by Steve McClure

Cute girls. Snarling guitar. Strong hooks. A pounding beat. What more do you need?

Rock trio Go!Go!7188 have combined the above ingredients to come up with an extraordinarily effective brand of rock ‘n’ roll that has proven both artistically satisfying and commercially successful.

The band’s new album, “Gyotaku” is one of the best J-pop/rock albums of the year. Entering the Dec. 3 Oricon album chart at No. 17, it went no higher — but even so did surprisingly well on the generally pop-oriented charts.

Fronting the band is guitarist/vocalist Yu (real name: Yumi Nakashima), who seems to have just one facial expression: an unsmiling pout, the effect of which is accentuated by the straight, dyed-blonde locks framing her diminutive face. What Yu lacks in variety of facial expression, she makes up for with blazing, articulate guitar. She’s one of the few guitarists active on today’s J-pop scene who knows how to play both solid rhythm and lead.

Yu writes the band’s music, while bassist/vocalist Akko (real name: Akiko Hamada) writes the lyrics. Unlike Yu, Akko isn’t afraid to smile in the band’s PR shots, and with her long, plaited tresses and leather trousers, she comes across as much more of an extrovert than the more restrained Ms. Nakashima.

The odd man out — literally — in Go!Go!7188 is the drummer, who goes by the unusual appellation of “Turkey.” In band photos, he always looks like he’d rather be somewhere else, as if he’s somehow embarrassed about having to share the spotlight with two strong female personalities like Yu and Akko.

I suspect Turkey’s just having us on, however, since his powerful but tasteful drumming perfectly complements Yu and Akko’s relentless instrumental attack.

Yu and Akko formed the first incarnation of Go!Go!7188 in spring 1998 in their native Kagoshima, and in June of that year they took part in a talent contest for teenage bands. They made it to the national finals in Tokyo, which brought them to the attention of Toshiba-EMI, who promptly offered the band a deal. At that point, the aforementioned Turkey-san joined them as drummer and self-described “equipment transporter,” and Go!Go!7188 released their first single, a brilliant rocker titled “Taiyo (Sun)” in June 2000.

Since then, they’ve put out a string of great singles, as well as a strong debut album, “Dasoku Hoko,” and have developed a reputation as one of Japan’s best live bands, with a much rawer sound in concert than on their studio recordings.

Go!Go!7188 doesn’t fit into any neat pigeonhole, image-wise or style-wise. The band’s Web site makes an attempt, but their description as a “super-natural sounding cute girls’ punk band” seems a bit awkward. While the aggressive tone of Yu’s singing and Akko’s lyrics are in a somewhat punkish vein, there’s a sense of restraint and control in Go!Go!7188′s music that separates the band from the punk pack.

One key element of the band’s sound is surf music, specifically what Japanese musicians refer to onomatopoeically as the “den-deke-deke-deke” sound that people like the Surf Coasters and Rockin’ Enoki of Jackie and the Cedrics have revived to great effect in the past few years.

The trouble with surf music, though, is that it gets repetitive pretty soon, which is probably why the Surf Coasters never did particularly well saleswise.

Yu and Akko are definitely improving as songwriters. Take the album’s third track, “Aah, Seishun (Ah, Youth),” which starts with a Spanish-sounding chord sequence and vocal motif done with the Go!Go!7188′s trademark punchy style. After two verses, the song suddenly changes gears into a mellower bridge section that begins with Yu singing “Sayonara wa mizuiro no namida (Goodbye, light blue tears).” This kind of deft touch really shows off Yu’s compositional skills.

“Gyotaku” is a strong, confident set that avoids the dreaded “second-album” lull. The band keeps it interesting by slowing things down a bit on more introspective, spacey numbers such as the beautifully written ballad “Honne Husen” and the very moody, tension-filled “Sakurajima (Cherry Tree Island),” which features clever tempo and key changes that add another dimension to Go!Go!7188′s sound.

If you can, go see them on Dec. 14 at Shibuya-AX (doors open at 6 p.m., and the show starts at 7 p.m.). I know it’s going to be a great show.