Prepared for blastoff

by Steve McClure

The title of British pub-rocker Nick Lowe’s 1978 album “Pure Pop for Now People” aptly describes the sound of Tokyo-based band The Cymbals. The trio’s music is bright, intelligent, catchy and easy on the ears — but with enough of a rock punch to avoid saccharine overkill.

Reiji Okii, Hiroyasu Yano and Asako Toki together as The Cymbals create infectiously upbeat power-pop heavily influenced by rock gods The Who.

I recently interviewed Cymbals leader Reiji Okii and found him to be a modest, articulate guy who has a deep knowledge of and love for the great pop and rock music of the past. In other words, a real music otaku — in the best possible sense of the word, of course.

I’d previously interviewed Cymbals drummer Hiroyasu Yano and vocalist Asako Toki for my radio show, but in talking to Okii, it became obvious that he’s the band’s prime mover. He writes all their material and plays the bulk of the instruments on their recordings.

Like Hermann H. & The Pacemakers, Clammbon and many other newer Japanese bands, The Cymbals are heavily influenced by mid-’60s pop-rock, especially acts such as The Kinks, The Zombies, The Beatles and The Who. That’s rather interesting, given that the members of these new Japanese bands weren’t even born until well into the 1970s.

One reason so many younger Japanese musicians have been getting into the music of the ’60s and ’70s is that foreign-based music retailers Tower Records, Virgin and HMV, unlike many of their counterparts, stock extensive back-catalog material, and not just the latest J-pop releases. For Okii, the greatest exponents of the ’60s power-pop ethos are The Who, which seems a bit weird, since The Cymbals’ music is not nearly as loud and rock-oriented as that of Pete Townshend and the lads.

Noting that The Who’s pre-“Tommy” music was much more in the pop vein than its later work, Okii also points out that The Cymbals are a very different band when it comes to playing live.

“During our shows, we’re much louder, like The Who,” he says, with a boyish grin. In that regard, it probably doesn’t hurt that the live version of the band includes three additional musicians to help round out The Cymbals’ sound.

The Cymbals’ latest release is a four-song set titled “Higher Than the Sun.” Whether you want to call it an EP, a maxisingle or a minialbum, “Higher Than the Sun” is a great introduction to The Cymbals’ infectiously upbeat music. The title track (nothing to do with the Primal Scream song of the same name, by the way) is a typically smooth, well-produced song that makes you feel like you’re driving through mid-’60s Swinging London in an open sports car on your way to a fashion show or a gallery opening. It’s got lots of hooks, a warm, sophisticated “analog” sound and tight playing, and is marred only by Toki’s less-than-totally articulate English vocals.

The Cymbals got together four years ago after Okii decided to quit university (major: English, which explains why so many of his songs’ lyrics are in that language) and recruited Toki and Yano through the network of wannabe musicians associated with the university “music circle.”

The band was picked up by the astute people at Shibuya-based indie label LD&K Records, who fashioned a retro-hip image for The Cymbals. Although they are now signed to major label Victor Entertainment, LD&K still manages the band and continues to carefully groom The Cymbals’ collective persona. Typical of this is the tasteful, understated packaging of The Cymbals’ CDs.

Unlike artists such as Cornelius, Pizzicato Five and Kahimi Karie, The Cymbals don’t go in for the kind of “oh, aren’t we cool, postmodern and ever-so-ironic” vibe that ultimately made Shibuya-kei an artistic dead end. You can only hold your tongue in your cheek for so long.

If there is any justice in this world, it will be only a short time before The Cymbals come up with that breakthrough radio hit or tieup song that will propel them into the pop stratosphere.