Having studied Japanese for four years, lived in Japan for two and been a fan of punk rock for much longer, I was interested to see how Me First and the Gimmes Gimmes' new Japanese pop music-themed EP turned out. Sing in Japanese has been released just before the Gimme Gimmes' mini-tour of the Land of the Rising Sun, and it follows on from Go Down Under and the subsequent Australian tour earlier this year.
On the whole I'm not a fan of Japanese music, but every now and then you'll get a quirky, catchy pop song that bucks the trend, especially if you go back a few decades. Luckily, the six tracks that make up Sing in Japanese are all catchy and are performed in trademark Gimme Gimme style.
Some Western fans have already complained that they won't be familiar with the songs the band have chosen here, let alone understand the lyrics, but you don't need to necessarily understand what's being said to enjoy this EP. If you flip it around, the vast majority of Japanese people who listen to music sung in English will have little idea of what's being said, yet Western music is extremely popular in Japan. Even more popular are Western bands that record songs in Japanese, and let's be honest, this EP was made primarily for the band's Japanese fans.
Other American bands off the top of my head who have recorded songs in Japanese include MxPx, Ozma and Allister, but I think the Gimmes Gimmes' effort is the most impressive, as Spike's Japanese pronunciation is actually pretty decent. Especially when you consider some of these songs have been sped up from the original, making pronunciation tricky in parts.
The EP kicks off with a cover of "Hero" from 1978, originally by a group called Kai Band. This song is incredibly catchy and Spike's energetic delivery makes it seem as if he believes every word he's singing. The Gimme Gimmes always walk a fine line between poking fun at the original and playing it with 100% passion and belief in the sentiment. Even with these Japanese songs it's the same.
Next up is "Kokoro No Tabi" (translated as "trip of the heart"), performed by Tulip in 1973. The original song is fairly tame, but the Gimme Gimmes' version is raucous with rowdy gang vocals in the chorus, making it sound like a drinking song. I imagine salarymen sitting around an izakaya, waving their beer glasses in the air and singing in unison.
"Kekkon Shiyoyo" ("let's get married"), originally recorded by Yoshida Takuro in 1972, is a fairly simple tune, but the Gimme Gimmes have created a fairly diverse, interesting arrangement here.
"C-C-C" was released by the Tigers in 1968 and was a classic example of the genre known as Group Sounds-basically Beatles imitation music. Rather than the twee campiness of the original, the Gimme Gimmes' version opens up with a heavy, chugging riff, but soon morphs into a more happy sounding thing, complete with tambourine.
Released by Kaze in 1975, "22 Sai No Wakare" ("break-up at 22") is quite a sad, melancholic track. The Gimme Gimmes' version is sped up and makes for a dark, brooding punk rock song.
Ending the EP is "Linda Linda", one of the most popular Japanese songs of all time. Originally released in 1987 by punk band the Blue Hearts, it has been covered by MxPx and Andrew W.K. and was the inspiration for a whole movie in 2005. The chorus is also pretty easy to sing along to, even for those who don't understand Japanese. Rather than do a straight-up punk version of this already punk song, though, the Gimme Gimmes take a clever route and turn the majority of it into a laid-back reggae track, but the song ramps up as it reaches its conclusion and ends the EP on a high. You even get Fat Mike imitating bad Japanese pronunciation.
A six-track covers EP is never going to deserve a perfect score, but I will say that the Gimme Gimmes have by now perfected the art of the punk rock cover, even in another language. Musically, most of these songs do have something slightly different and Japanese about them, and they're all great, so even if you don't understand all the lyrics, Sing in Japanese is worth checking out.