About two years ago I wrote an article on the Japanese indies band Omokage Lucky Hole. It’s not a great article–it’s written alright, but the translations of the titles and my understanding of the songs’ contents are pretty poor. I haven’t gotten that much better over the past two years, but I have managed to scrape out slightly more meaning in the band’s assortment of sordid tunes. That said, the Ultimate OLH Article will have to wait until my understanding is more or less at 100%, and when I have a good handle on just how many social ills Japan is host to.
But today I have to talk about my latest OLH discovery. Before their debut on pro labels in the late ’90s, OLH released a single indies album in 1996.
That album is Melo.
OLH’s website isn’t the best source for information if you want concert dates, as it’s hardly kept current anymore, but their discography is accurate up until the Natsu no Arashi soundtrack. Scrolling down this discography, one discovers a couple of discs that fall before their pro debut: How To Be Big–a Yazawa Eikichi tribute album “presented” by OLH–and Melo. The former can be bought off of Amazon for a decent price in the 3000 yen range, but Melo always hovers at around 10,000 yen whenever it pops up on Market Place or Yahoo Auctions. Melo, incidentally, has the worse resolution image out of anything on that discography page.
A glance at OLH’s Wikipedia entry reveals the track listing for Melo. More acutely aware fans of the group will immediately notice that most of these tracks can be found on OLH’s professionally released albums. However, there are two songs that have not seen release since Melo—Honki tte Kaite Maji (Honmono tte Sore wa Haji?) and Love Volunteer–as well as a remix of Pillow Talk Tagalog-Go that is unique to the disc. Still, is it worth dropping nearly ichi-man just for three songs? You can get a 90 minute love game for two of those 10,000 yen bills!
But the plot thickens: A while back when I was digging through Yahoo Auctions, I managed to find a photograph of the interior of Melo’s jacket, revealing the lengths of the tracks within–lengths that were completely different from that of their pro-debut counterparts. One song in particular was nearly double the length of the one that I was familiar with. Could these possibly be alternate takes? That would seem to be the case… but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
For a while Melo was available on Amazon Market Place for the above mentioned price of around 10,000 yen. I figured it wouldn’t go anywhere, so I waited until I felt I was financially sound enough to drop that much on a CD before buying it. But, one day, the CD vanished. Either someone else bought it, or the seller got tired of waiting. As such, I had no choice but to wait for when–or if–it would ever appear again. Yahoo Auctions were tempting, but I’d have to use them through a proxy, as I didn’t have–and still don’t have–the premium account that lets you bid on things over 5,000 yen.
However, as luck would have it, OLH’s Melo once again appeared on Amazon Market Place. It was a bit more pricy this time–a steep 15,280 yen–but I wasn’t about to let this chance pass me by once more. Without a second thought, I bought the CD.
And boy am I glad I did. This CD is a treasure.
Anything that is recorded will obviously remain throughout the ages as a reminder of that moment in time. But listening to Melo is like opening up a time capsule for me, as it’s pretty hard to find, and I’m unfamiliar with any of OLH’s work before their first professional album, Dairi Haha, so discovering its contents makes for a pleasant peek into a past I was never aware of.
Well before the release of Dairi Haha in 1998, OLH had been doing performances since the early 1990s, and Melo comes in at about 1996. Outside of that super rare DVD of footage dating back to 1992, it’s the earliest recording of OLH music out there.
As the CD starts spinning, one immediately notices something amiss. This version of Konya, Sugamo De—Melo’s opening number–doesn’t start with the triumphant horns heard in Dairi Haha! It opens with the screeching of an electric guitar, and breaks into a minute long intro straight out of an 80s rock song. In then breaks into its usual funky grove, but instead of the band’s robust horn section backing it up, all they have is a sax. aCKy’s voice is also slightly off; as if he hadn’t quite solidified his singing voice yet. Even some of the lyrics are different!
While this version of the song is an interesting look back at what it used to be, in the end what eventually made it onto their pro albums is fuller and more robust. That said, this version does have a cooler extended guitar solo, and contains a certain brand of character that’s lost in its newer version.
It’s after this song that one realizes something: The OLH of today is not the OLH of yesteryear. Sure, bands steadily changing their sound over time is natural, but since early OLH recordings are rare, and all their professional albums more or less have a unified sound, this discovery is the first of many interesting discoveries to come.
Flipping to the back of Melo’s booklet reveals what the band is made of. There’s no horn section to speak of–just one guy with a few saxophones. What drives these songs are drums and guitars, as well as a few esoteric percussion instruments for flavor. It’s also worth noting that outside of aCKy, and the main bass player Sinneryang, the members in this iteration of OLH seem to be completely different from the fine individuals I saw on stage a just few months ago. It’s a pretty stripped down and different OLH, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic here.
The next cut on the disc is Kanarazu Onaji Tokoro De. In Dairi Haha, this song opens with a rather vicious dialogue between an abusive husband and his wife over some money, but this version opens with slow and heavy guitar riffs. The song alternates between a lighter funkier beat for its main drags, and escalates in the chorus to become something more rock-ish. aCKy’s vocals here are heavily layered with snark, and as he puts on his best impression of a country girl who doesn’t know anything about the big bad city. Like the first track, while this is an interesting earlier take on a song I’m familiar with, it lacks the punch of what eventually appeared on Dairi Haha, as well as that of live performances.
That said, this original version does have a sax solo in the middle, as well as an appearance by a female vocalist delivering an amazing set of lines that can only just be heard in the background of the Dairi Haha mix during another dialogue interlude mid-way through the song. Apparently this woman (I’m assuming she’s the one in the leopard-print dress in this video) appears on both Dairi Haha and Ongaku Girai, but her voice in Melo is quite distinct from the female vocals in those other two albums. She must have changed her style to fit the band’s newer sound, but her voice here has a very specific old-fashioned Japanese formality to it–like something you’d likely hear in the 1960s–but when she yells (and she only yells in this track) there’s an I’m-gonna-murder-you fierceness to it. Aspects like this make these songs interesting–and bestow them with a level of character lacking in their final versions–but on the whole they’re a slight cut under what eventually came later.
Next, however, is one of my favorites, Pillow Talk Tagalog-Go: The story of a man who falls hopelessly in love with a Filipino prostitute. The version of this track on Dairi Haha is entirely synthesized, but this cut is backed by traditional instruments, and opens with a smooth sax solo. It’s also worth noting that this version has the full cut of the dialogue between the man and the prostitute as a lead in to the song, while the one on Dairi Haha cuts most of it out. I think the synth arrangement in the Dairi Haha cut lends a certain amount of bleakness to the song which drives its message home, but I quite like this version of the song as well. As far as I’m concerned, they’re equal. The best part of this version is how it closes out with aCKy dumbly reciting Tagalog phrases.
Following on from that is a song I’ve never heard before, Honki tte Kaite Maji (Honmono tte Sore wa Haji?). This song is probably the most scatterbrained and rock ‘n’ roll track on the CD–it goes out of its way to be grating with aCKy twisting his vocals to the highest they can be, between cacophonies of sound coming from the band. It’s a song that’s way out of line with OLH’s newer sound, which is most likely why they left it out of later albums. It’s quite an interesting song though, and one that I can get into. While it’s not quite what I expect out of OLH, it’s nice to see them even looser and crazier than usual. There are sections in the song where the band simply chants “Nya nya nya nya” and “Myu myu myu myu” which remind me of something Ohtsuki Kenji would do. This isn’t terribly surprising, as Ohtsuki Kenji and OLH have appeared on CDs together, and I think they must have crossed paths more than a few times. This song would probably own live.
The fifth cut on the disc is Hitorigurashi no Hostess ga Hajimete Shinbun wo Totta, as heard on the band’s second pro album, Ongaku Girai. While this song is one of my favorites out of the band’s repertoire, I like this take even better. This cut is way looser, with aCKy’s vocals overflowing attitude and snark, less polished instrumentals, and a dude yelling at the end. It’s worth noting that a trumpet player from The Thrill (You know, those guys who did the ballin’ Blue Submarine No. 6 soundtrack?) guest stars in this track, providing a smokey lead in that sets an appropriately sleazy tone for the rest of the track. There’s also a rough sax solo mid-way through that heaps on the grime even further. While both the new and old version of this track are snarky in different ways, this original version has a slight leg up due to its roughness.
The sixth track on this disc is undoubtedly the climax and crowing achievement of this album. It’s a 9 minute and 34 second version of Annani Hantai Shiteta Otousan ni Biiru wo Tsugarete. The song is about a delinquent who–while in the midst of his confused, sexually charged youth–rapes his childhood friend, Michiko, and skips town with her in order to start a new life together as a family with their child. As per the title, the song is about how even though Michiko’s father was opposed to their relationship at first, he eventually pours his son-in-law a glass of beer.
While this original version of the song follows the same general story as what later appears as one of the iconic tracks on Dairi Haha, the lyrics are somewhat different, and this take of the song brims with a whole ton of character and attitude.
The cut on Dairi Haha is very streamlined. The delivery is stylistically deadpan yet fast, with the lyrics being dispensed efficiently. As one can tell from the nearly 10 minute run time, the cut on Melo opts to take things slowly. aCKy relates the tale in a rather loose and snarky manner–perhaps not dissimilar from the way in which an actual furyou would tell it–backed to subdued and slow instrumentals.
There are a lot of things that really make this original version of the song shine. For one, while I enjoy the beat backing the cut on Dairi Haha, there’s an honesty to the use of traditional instruments here. I also enjoy how this cut shifts between quieter moments and rougher moments with almost little buildup, not dissimilar to the version of Kanarazu Onaji Tokoro De that appears on this disc. The song has a few great instrumental climaxes where things suddenly shift from slow jazzy backing to harder riffs on the guitar. The first is when the main guy rapes Michiko, followed by another when he is then hit by her father. Another one crops up a little bit before the outro, when his child meets Michiko’s father for the first time, with the father emphatically exclaiming, “Son… I’m your grandpa!!” The song also likes to ramp up during the chorus, and closes out on a loud note with aCKy screaming his heart out.
There’s a few other neat aspects to this version of the song: The female chorus that cuts in every now and again (retained in live performances of the song) and some really convincing impersonations of older Japanese folks meant to be Michiko’s parents that come in mid-way. To top it all off, it cuts in a wonderful sound clip of a beer can being opened, then poured, before going all out for the ending.
The version that appears on Dairi Haha is a very nice streamlined song, but this version is just brimming with a ton of character and passion that you wonder why they cut a lot of its interesting quirks out. Sure, it’s long, but it’s also probably one of the best things OLH has ever done.
The seventh track is the rather upbeat and sexy Love Volunteer. I couldn’t tell you what it’s about, because aCKy beats out the lyrics super quickly matched to frantic instrumentals, with the song breaking into horn solos by that guy from The Thrill every now and again. This is another one of those songs that is pretty much outside of the sorts of things OLH does these days, but there’s a young, dangerous and sexy nature to it that makes it compelling. I kind of wish they’d do this sort of thing more often!
The disc closes out with a remix of Pillow Talk Tagalog-Go, which isn’t super different from this CD’s third track, save for the addition of some kind-of cheesy computer modulations of the vocals and weird sound effects. Like the rest of the CD, it’s kind of clunky but also kind of neat. I dig it.
But wait! If you leave the CD running long enough… there’s a secret bonus track! Of course, this is ruined for those of us living in the 21st century by both Wikipedia and iTunes. The bonus track is Tokyo (Ja) Night Club (Wa), which also appears on Ongaku Girai. The cut on Ongaku Girai is very full bodied, driven by a strong horn riff and a hot dance beat. This version is driven by a guitar and a Casio keyboard. However, while this arrangement seems more like a demo than anything else, there’s a looser nature to the song that makes it fun to listen to. This original version features a female vocalist, whose choral stylings are wonderfully shrill. She beats out a hot “Nori, nori!!” The lyrics are also somewhat different from the version that appears on Ongaku Girai.
What Melo encapsulates is something of an infantile version of OLH. Their sound isn’t quite there yet, and the recordings are kind of rough. But, it’s those exact elements that make the CD so worth it. While OLH makes its name by writing songs about realistic and controversial subjects, there’s a looseness to their delivery that’s gone in their newer releases, and it’s nice to see that in full force here. I personally would love if they made a return to writing 10 minute songs and cutting in random sound effects just to draw you that much further into the story. If I had to compare it with any later OLH CD, it’s probably the closest in tone to Ongaku Girai, which is also a very loose album with subtle genre shifts.
While I’d love to analyze the lyrics of some of these songs–especially Love Volunteer and Honki tte Kaite Maji–my kung-fu isn’t that strong. I can however provide you with rips of the CD. You can go ahead and buy all of OLH’s pro albums with no issue (Go ahead, do it!), but you can’t very well buy this CD easily, especially if you’re stranded out in the States. I won’t host them for long, but here are mp3 and lossless versions of Melo. Get ’em before they’re gone!
Thanks for sticking around all the way to the end of this way-too-long article. Time to crack open a beer and play some pachinko.