Melt-Banana: The fast and the furious Tokyo riff.
Melt-Banana: The fast and the furious Tokyo riff. (Spex/skin Graft Records)
Thursday, June 14, 2007


Heading into the 9:30 club Tuesday night, there was no reason to believe that the spike-of-uncut-fructose-to-the-brain-stem appeal (if that's the word) of Mika's "Life in Cartoon Motion" album would translate in any meaningful way to the stage. The Royal College of Music-trained pastiche artist's debut is as hooky and heartless as the chewing-gum jingles he's already been paid to write.

But the almost frightening adoration with which a sold-out crowd welcomed him for his first D.C. appearance made the show feel more like a homecoming than an introduction. Backed by an able-if-indistinct four-piece band, the star bounded onstage to the keyboard vamp of "Relax (Take It Easy)," as though warning any nonbelievers that resistance was useless, and so it was. Alternating pogo leaps with Christ poses, he put the familiar tune over like a shot of soda bubbles up your nose. By the time a big girl wrapped in a shiny green dress joined him onstage for "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)," it felt like the show might climax with its second song.

Mika manned the keyboard for the sequence of mid-tempo numbers that followed, of which "Stuck in the Middle," showcasing that acrobatic falsetto of his, was the most fetching. Helping to fill out a 65-minute set were a new song, "Holy Johnny," and a pair of covers: The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" and the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."

For the Flaming Lips-esque encore of the No. 1 U.K. single "Grace Kelly," the band returned clad in giant animal costumes, joining paws and dancing in a circle before relations deteriorated and the bunny rabbit pretended to beat the others unconscious with her drumsticks. After they all stood up -- Thank God they're okay!-- and the cow unmasked himself as the evening's headliner, the subsequent balloon launch and confetti spray only deepened the certainty that the entire show had been a hallucination. Guilty pleasure? Yes and yes.

-- Chris Klimek


On its new album, "Bambi's Dilemma," Melt-Banana delivers 18 songs in 35 minutes. Tuesday night at the Black Cat, the Tokyo avant-punk quartet stretched out a bit, taking 50 minutes to deliver fewer than two dozen fidgety, supercharged tunes -- and that count was inflated by a suite of what chirpy vocalist Yasuko Onuki accurately called "five short songs," all of them under 30 seconds.

Quite reasonably, the members of the audience closest to the stage thrashed and slammed, reacting as if Melt-Banana were built entirely for noise and speed. Yet the band does have something of a pop sensibility, which admittedly is easier to glean from "Bambi's Dilemma" or its predecessor, "Cell-Scape," than the group's shows. Live, Onuki's vocals were submerged in the trebly attack and were clearly discernible only during those rare moments when Ichiro Agata's thick-toned guitar exited. But then the vocals weren't the principal source of melody, which was just as likely to surface in Agata's riffs as in Onuki's trills.

Like fellow Tokyo lab-rocker Cornelius, who played a similarly theoretical but gentler show last month at Baltimore's Sonar, Melt-Banana showed more interest in timbre than content. If "Cat Brain Land" was sort of a rockabilly raver, and "Spider Snipe" resembled a punk anthem, that lineage mattered less than the nature of their sound. At any moment, the songs could evaporate into sheer sonics. The fans had every reason to roil, but Melt-Banana's performance was as abstract it was exciting.

-- Mark Jenkins

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