CASANOVA SAID "LIVE OR DIE" - Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (Nippon Columbia)

KWACKER - Mick Green with TMGE (Nippon Columbia)

RODEO TANDEM BEAT SPECTER - Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (Nippon Columbia)

This week the Magic Mailbox has been bringing me loads of goodies from Japan....first some reished Detroit Rock Action from Bro. Ken Matsutani's Captain Trip label, now THREE (count 'em, three) relatively new releases from garage R&B gods Thee Michelle Gun Elephant.

As I discovered from the press release accompanying their Bomp "Collection," these guys stay pretty busy. Since the release of "Gear Blues" in '98 (which we've still yet to recover from here at my house), they've released two new studio albums, as well as a live one and an EP with a formative influence, Pirates guitarist Mick Green. Whew! (Thanks to Yukiko Akagawa for the turn-on. Y'all just WAIT until she has her Japanese MC5 website up!)

To begin with, "Casanova Said 'Live Or Die'" documents a hot show from Tokyo back in Y2K (with a heap of material from their then-current "Casanova Snake" alb included in the setlist). These guys keep a punishing gig schedule (a listing of every gig and release since '94 is helpfully provided) - why, I see I missed 'em at Clearview in Dallas back in late '99, shame on ME - and their home country shows, at least, are said to be quite the experience. Yukiko calls their live assault "the sound of the battlefield," and explains, "It's VERY dangerous, physically, to be at their gig. Ambulance crew is ready and waiting beside the stage so that the kids who have fainted or got sick from lack of oxygen can be treated immediately. Those kids don't do violence to others - it's not a riot at all; they just [faint] from excessive excitement, dives, and lack of fresh air." It's not hard to envision, listening to this phenomenal adrenaline-rush of a show (all recorded at one gig, too), with the riddim boyzzz (Koji Ueno on bass, Kazuyuki Kuhara on drums) thundering away relentlessly while Futoshi Abe churns up a racket on guitar and Yusuke Chiba snarls away over the top.

It's not as immaculately-recorded as you'd expect from a Japanese band on home turf, but it definitely captures the excitement and energy of the performance. Listen to this and name a Western band who could maintain this frenetic a pace for close to 80 minutes...I DARE ya. And these guys like to JAM onstage, too (dig the way Chiba riffs on the Doors' "Break On Through" in the middle of "Out Blues," the same way Rob Younger usedta interpolate bits of other Detroit toons in the middle of "TV Eye")...almost a lost art these days, which puts 'em closer to the Mooney Suzuki and farther from the Nomads and Dictators on the spectrum of great live bands I've seen in the last coupla years.

And when they slow down the tempo for "Drop," I almost wanna reach for my lighter. (And it comes in a beautiful package, meant to simulate a gatefold LP sleeve.. Truly, no one does The Romance of the Artifact better than the folks from my ancestral homeland.)

"Kwacker" is a souvenir of a Y2K visit to Japan by one of TMGE's fave bands, the Pirates (former backing band for Brit singer Johnny Kidd of original "Shakin' All Over" fame), also a formative influence on the Who and Dr. Feelgood, among others. Their guitarist, Mick Green, got together in the studio with the TMGE guys (minus frontman Chiba) to record three instrumentals for this EP. The old Brit rocker blends well with the young Japanese punks (after all, the Pirates have been treading the boards sans frontman since the heyday of punk ca. '76-'77). He and Abe trade razor guitar lines over the lunging riddim boyzzz on the co-penned title track (and it's funny to see the gangly Japanese guitarist towering over the Brit in the studio pic).

The cover of "Peter Gunn" ain't as boss as the one the Silencers essayed back in, uh, New Wave daze, but it lumbers along okay. Grooviest thang here is the remake of R&B-approved TMGE 'riginal "Wonder Style." You can hear the two guitarists' different approaches to Telecaster-torturing - Mr. Green has the edge in finesse, but Mr. Abe wins points for aggression and a busy right hand.

Abe's right hand rings in the first toon on the new album, "Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter," released in Japan last May. I can't tell you much about this one, like the song titles, f'rinstance, 'cos they're all in Japanese on the copy I have. The packaging is interesting; the pics on the booklet have a cinematic theme of a seaside with flocks of birds, and the shot of the band on the cover even eschews the uniform look they've generally gone in for. The riddim boyzzz have even gone for some dye jobs, which look bizarre to me (a coupla years ago, my current gtr partner tried to convince me to dye my then-crewcut blonde...not bloody likely, mate), but perhaps signal...that they're Rockstars? YOU decide!!! As for the toonage, based on just a coupla listens so far, uh, "Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter" might just be the best thing TMGE have done yet.

The songs and performance are as tight and tough as on "Gear Blues," and better recorded to boot. Rumour has it these guys turned down an offer to have Bro. Wayne Kramer produce them, figuring it wouldn't suit their studio modus operandi to work with an outside producer. True or not, whatever these guys are doing, it sounds like it's working. The rockin' punk-R&B is just as driving (and Chiba just as over-the-top) as ever, and the coupla moody Morricone-ish instrumental interludes just add depth to the vibe. Is it my imagination, or are these guys tapping more, uh, indigenous root sources for melodic material on these songs and those on the "Casanova Snake" album? (Maybe I'm imagining things, but I don't think a band from anywhere else coulda come up with a song like "Revolver Junkies.") Anyway, "LOCK AND LOLL," indeed. This band is world-class, and their latest album is sounding like the best thing I've heard so far this year. Seek out as imports or hope for a domestic release. Mr. Boissel? "Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter" has Alive written all OVER it.
- Ken Shimamoto

Casanova Said: "Live or Die":


Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter: