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Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay

by Steve McClure

The silly season — when the midsummer heat engenders a sort of benign lunacy — is well and truly upon us. And you can’t get much sillier, in the nicest sense of the word, than The Yellow Dogs and The Bunnies, two resolutely retro bands who have recently issued albums whose primitive musicality is more than offset by their charm and sense of fun.

The Yellow Dogs are four guys who met five or so years ago at an annual event marking the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder. They are obviously Beatles fans, a fact made all the more apparent by their recently released mini-album, “My Girl Is Red Hot,” whose cover is a parody of the Fab Four’s “A Hard Day’s Night” LP jacket.

The Yellow Dogs’ debut release (in April 2000) was the 7-inch single “Sheik of Araby” (a tune from the ’20s that was part of The Beatles’ live sets in the first stage of their career), backed with “Three Cool Cats” and “Boys.” Since then, The Yellow Dogs have released five more 7-inch extended-play vinyl records and one album, all of which have comprised music played by the early Beatles.

So there is absolutely nothing new or original about The Yellow Dogs’ music. Besides the title tune (originally recorded by the Carroll Brothers in 1958), “My Girl Is Red Hot” includes such garage-band faves as “Carol,” “Lucille” and “Young Blood.” And the seven songs on the mini-album sound like they were recorded in someone’s rec room with prewar equipment. Lo-fi? More like no-fi.

The four women who are The Bunnies have released an album that if anything is even more delightfully silly than The Yellow Dogs’ mini-album. Titled “Ooh Wee Baby,” it is recorded in glorious mono, and at times the performances are almost as bad as early Shonen Knife. But who cares? This is fun, silly-season music.

Unlike The Yellow Dogs, The Bunnies write their own tunes, which are heavily indebted to early-’60s girl groups, doo-wop and surf music. Their producer is Abe Julie, and he has done a great job of creating a convincing period sound for the girls.

The Bunnies formed in 1996 in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, and their first live gig was opening a show for the frighteningly loud Guitar Wolf. The Bunnies have played in the United States on a tour that also included rock ‘n’ roll revival bands The 5678′s and The Neatbeats. Later this year, they’re scheduled to play in Australia.

The Bunnies are playing at Club Que in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district on Aug. 11 (for other live dates, check out the band’s web site at www1.winknet.ne.jp/~kazy/# ). And in what promises to be some absolutely fabola gigs, The Bunnies and The Yellow Dogs will be sharing the bill at live house Polka Dot Slim in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Aug. 23; at Cisco in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture, on Aug. 24; and at Mushroom, in Himeji, on Aug. 25.

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Do you think Tokyo is a lifeless, faceless city? Keisuke Kuwata thinks so. That’s how the veteran singer/songwriter refers to the Big Mikan in his latest single, the imaginatively titled “Tokyo.” Perhaps Kuwata prefers the bright lights and enticing charms of his native Chigasaki.

But credit to Kuwata for having the guts to sound like such an unabashed curmudgeon on “Tokyo.” It certainly is a refreshing break from the trashily romantic sentiments of most J-pop lyrics.

The picture Kuwata paints of a rain-sodden, depressing Tokyo certainly resonates with anyone who’s just endured the uniquely enervating rainy season. It’s a bit of a departure for a songwriter whose stock-in-trade, both as leader of the Southern All Stars and as a solo act, is up-tempo, fun-in-the-sun songs such as last year’s major hit, “Naminori Johnny (Johnny the Surfer).”

Musically, “Tokyo” is a Kurt Weillian dirge, with a leaden, plodding beat and a repetitive guitar phrase that sounds like it’s being played by the Grim Reaper with a hangover. What saves it is a great vocal performance by Kuwata, who sings with a real sense of passion and angst — call it soul, if you will.

“Tokyo” is taken from Kuwata’s as-yet-untitled album, which comes out Sept. 26. The Southern All Stars, meanwhile, seem to be taking a back seat to Kuwata’s solo career — later this year he’s headlining a tour with gigs at the Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka and Sapporo domes. Kuwata’s first solo album, 1994′s “Kadoku Taiyo,” was the kind of thing you’d expect from a guy who was taking a break from being in a band: intimate and introspective, with lots of acoustic numbers.

But recently there hasn’t been much difference, style-wise, between the Southern All Stars’ stuff and Kuwata’s solo work. My guess is that Kuwata and his wife, SAS keyboardist Yuko Hara, will soon call it a day with the band and pursue their solo careers full-time.