Bon Voyage Festival, Onomichi City, Japan
September 7th 2013
Japanese alt rockers The Girl, while still officially a three piece, have been playing shows lately without benefit of bass. Paul Spicer went along to see how the new set up sounds live.
Despite Hiroshima being a major prefecture, it can sometimes be a bit of a ‘live music Twilight Zone’. Kind of sleepy and a little bit random! As you can imagine, this is quite frustrating. Colleagues and friends wax lyrical about certain bands but, unless you trek up to Osaka or Tokyo, the chance to see a wide variety of live music is pretty minimal. However, this evening is different, as one of Tokyo’s most exciting outfits have ventured south for a gig in Onomichi. The Girl are a 2 piece, fronted by Aiha Higurashi and backed on the drums by Naoko Okamoto.
Some of you are undoubtedly already familiar with Higurashi as a little over 2 months ago, Louder than War published an article on her first band, the now defunct but nonetheless influential Japanese indie rock band Screaming Seagull Kiss Her, Kiss Her. The comments section drew some interesting thoughts from readers about the band, but eventually the topic turned to The Girl. Although generally praising the band’s recorded output, a live YouTube clip drew some criticism, which mainly focused upon the omission of a bass player in their live set. Dissenting voices questioned the reasoning behind this and, although generally praising the band’s recorded output, also described the live performances as ‘weak’ and the band as a ‘White Stripes lite’! Although it is not ideal to judge a live band based on lo-fi video clips, it is quite easy to see why such observations have arisen. The power of The Girl’s two studio albums, comes from a solid and powerful rhythm section which is being performed live at 50% capacity.
It would be interesting to see first-hand how the band bring the intensity of their albums to the tonight’s gig, part of a one day ‘mini-festival’ of sorts called ‘Bon-Voyage’. Located beside the picturesque Onomichi shoreline, the bands play between two stages; one set on a boat in the harbour, and the other in the back-hall of a burger joint on the waterfront. It is not a major festival and just a few hundred people mill about between the two stages and are, even by Japanese audience standards, very polite indeed. The line-up is made up of local artists, as well as some more established acts such as UK based Parakeet and Japanese experimentalists PATO LOL MAN who, as a fan of the band informs me, will be the next big international sensation! Although much of the music on offer seemed to drift away on the shoulders of the sea breeze, a brief mention must be given to the acoustic set by relatively unknown singer/songwriter, Noriko Okada. Simple tunes accompanied by lyrics which she tells us, she was making up as she went along!
In complete contrast to the more genteel Okada, The Girl arrive on stage early evening and launch into their set with power and aggression. Higurashi is immediately mesmerising, jerking across the stage and hacking away at her guitar, whilst Okamoto keeps everything grounded with some superb technical drumming. It is a solid partnership; one member steady and dependable, the other eccentric and confrontational.
Live, the music sounds good, but it has to be said that if you are familiar with their work, there are definitely occasions where certain songs do miss the ‘security’ of a bass pinning everything down. Alternatively however, one might say that the experience of watching The Girl live is (intentionally) different from listening to the recorded material. This is also a valid observation, and in these times where bands are also maligned for sounding ‘too much like the record’, a just one. However, despite the concerns of some, the whole 2 piece thing works (honestly), and in a strange way actually adds more depth. In this format the songs sound angular, choppy and deliberately sparse, exposing the very core of the music to the listener. Higurashi fills the ‘gaps’ by using a delay loop, allowing her to concentrate on the familiar and powerful riffs which are played with unbridled rock n roll swagger.
Both albums are represented. Tracks such as Say Something Better, Sugar and Do What You Want are the highlights, and offer further proof of the quality of the bands relatively small but impressive canon. Drawing on influences such as early Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey, the songs are typical Higurashi, short-sharp 3 minute classics which bounce between indie, garage and punk. Although sounding markedly different from the recorded versions, the tunes on offer are still mightily impressive and what we get here is a set which is more experimental than regurgitative. The Girl subvert expected formulae to create a highly powerful but stripped down sound, which is dispatched with a distinctly un-Japanese attitude; edgy, assured, confident and full of self-belief.
As a lover of both Seagull Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her and The Girl’s regular bass/drum drops I, like many others, was worried about the effect of disturbing this familiar blueprint. But overall, The Girl ‘sans-bass’ is actually fine. How does that work? Well it just does, because at the heart of it all are the songs. Well crafted, lyrically edgy and performed with passion and integrity. What is there not to like?
Lost in Wonder (2011). Label: Felicity
UR SENSATION (2012). Label: Felicity
The Girl can be found on Facebook.
All words by Paul Spicer. More writing by Paul on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.