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Getting syrupy about music

by Steve McClure

When I first heard the term “self-cover,” I thought it referred to errant politicians or bureaucrats making excuses for themselves when caught with their pants down, metaphorically speaking or otherwise.

I later learned, however, that it refers to musicians doing new versions of their own songs. One example is male pop act Chage and Aska, who in the last few years have been in the “Where are they now?” category. On Wednesday, the duo will release “Stamp,” an album comprising re-recorded versions of their early ’90s hits such as “Yah Yah Yah” and “Say Yes.”

I hate to sound cynical, but the project smacks just a wee bit of desperation from the recently hit-free pair.

To my way of thinking, a much more interesting “self-cover” set is “Delayed,” recently released by Syrup 16g, one of my favorite new Japanese bands (their 2001 album, “Copy,” is a power-pop classic). “Delayed” comprises new takes on songs that Syrup 16g originally released on cassette a few years ago, when the trio was just starting out.

Being unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs on “Delayed,” I can only say that the new album is much better than Syrup 16g’s major-label debut, “Coup d’Etat,” which was released by Nippon Columbia in June. On the latter album, songwriter and lead singer Takashi Igarashi wasn’t exactly in top form, turning in some rather disappointing, off-key vocal performances. But on “Delayed,” Igarashi complements his heartbreakingly beautiful melodies with a voice that exhibits the kind of passion and guts few Japanese artists have.

The opening track, “Sentimental,” sets a mood of melancholic longing. The next song, “Everything Is Wonderful,” with its echoing piano, is reminiscent of U2, but the overall sound is unmistakably Syrup 16g’s brilliant brand of melodic, majestic pop. Igarashi’s anguished, pleading vocals on the track suggest that despite the title, things are less than peachy-keen in his life. The rest of the songs (mostly ballads) on “Delayed” are of a similarly high standard.

I was beginning to give up on Syrup 16g, thinking that signing with a major label had somehow cursed the band, but I’m happy to say my faith in them has been restored.

Syrup 16g: Jan. 12, Akasaka Blitz, featuring Acidman and Pe’z. Check out www.reb els.jp/syrup16g/live_ schedule.htm for more information on Syrup 16g live shows.

I’d like now to divert your attention to Fuji Fabric, a textile company based in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture. I’m not particularly interested in the textile industry (notwithstanding its historically important role in the Japanese economy), but this particular firm is worth mentioning as it’s probably unique among Japanese companies in having a rock band named after it. Takayuki Watanabe, the son of Fuji Fabric’s owner, is one of the two founding members of the band Fuji Fabric, which on Oct. 21 released a brilliant and fascinatingly eclectic debut mini-album called “A la Carte.”

The six songs on “A la Carte” are all over the map stylistically, with touches of jazz, kayokyoku pop, soul, samba, folk and even disco included in the warp and woof of their musical weave. Vocalist/guitarist Masahiko Shimura, the band’s other founding member, sings soulfully and confidently. Shimura also wrote all the songs on “A la Carte,” revealing himself to be one of Japan’s most promising young songwriters. You could say he is cut from the same cloth as Syrup 16g’s Igarashi . . . ahem.

Watanabe and Shimura formed a cover band soon after they first met as junior high school students in Yamanashi. After graduating from high school, Watanabe and Shimura relocated to Tokyo and started looking for other musicians to join their band, which by this time they had decided to call Fuji Fabric.

After recruiting keyboard player Sachiko Tadokoro as a full-time member and “support members” Akito Hagiwara on guitar and bassist Yuichi Kato, Fuji Fabric played their first gig at Shibuya’s Eggsite live house in October last year.

The buzz surrounding the band steadily increased, and since the release of “A la Carte” in late October, there has been a bidding war among major labels to sign Fuji Fabric. One can expect them to make their major-label debut sometime next year.

Meanwhile, I wonder if Fuji Fabric will start a trend of bands naming themselves after companies. The obvious precedent is Japanese baseball teams, which bear the names of their corporate sponsors. Can we expect to hear from The Nippon Hambones? The Takeda Chemical Experience? The Sumitomo Metal Heavies?

Fuji Fabric will play at Shinjuku Loft live house on Dec. 5 as part of the “Quip Magazine Presents Carnival 2002 vol. 2″ event. Check out www.loft-prj.co.jp/ for more information. Listen to Steve McClure’s radio program, “Beyond the Charts,” which brings you the best in new alternative Japanese music, Friday at 2 a.m. on 76.1 InterFM. Amateur/unsigned musicians are asked to send demos to Steve at InterFM, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku 108-8070. Each week, two demos are broadcast on the program’s “Great Hunting” segment.