Artist: Tokyo Tramps
Album: If I Die Tomorrow
Release date: October 15, 2018
The deal. It might be hyperbolic to say that one song can make an album, but a good opening track can certainly suck the listener in. So while I’m a fan of Tokyo Tramps’ If I Die Tomorrow, and enjoyed the entire record, “Flowing Water,” its first track, is what grabbed my attention and drove this review.
Tokyo Tramps are a Boston-based husband and wife grungy rock band. There’s lots of Jimi Hendrix inspired guitar riffs (courtesy of singer/guitarist/husband Satoru Nakagawa) and Mitch Mitchell-inspired drum rolls — the kind that go on so long, you almost feel yourself beginning to lose your balance (courtesy of Tim Carman). The band hits a very specific sweet spot in the overlap between 1990s grunge and 1970s blues rock. What keeps things from degenerating into fuzz is the group’s strong sense of song, and the all-too-occasional vocal contributions from singer/bassist/keyboardist/wife Yukiko Fujii.
The two vocalists provide a compelling contrast. Nakagawa has a blues-scraped voice that sounds like Jim Morrison without the drunken pretentiousness. Fujii’s voice is similarly bluesy, but with a nice bit of indie rock bravado. The two voices work well within the context of the album. When they switch between vocalists, or duet, you’re never left with a feeling of confusion, which sadly, is what often happens to me in multiple singer bands.
While I hate to play favorites, the Fujii-sung tracks work better. Because she doesn’t have that archetypal, husky, whiskey-soaked blues voice (and this is where I finally confess to not quite understanding this expression; is it a voice or a cake?), her songs pop in an interesting way. “Mystery Man” feels almost like an alternative rock track, with Fujii’s voice beautifully unfurling over an urgent beat. She takes occasional, theatrical vocal asides, eventually yielding to a blues rock solo from Nakagawa. “Why” is a funky song that similarly shows off Fujii’s voice, although it’s also an impressive spotlight for her own organ work.
But as much as I appreciate Nakagawa’s voice, “Flowing Water,” sung by Nakagawa, is what captured my heart. Opening with some funky guitar, it builds into an explosive White Stripes chorus, with him pleading “I have faith in you” over and over again. The song eventually moves into a long, trippy, fuzzy solo, coming out of the solo as more of an alt-rock tune. The track is expansive and while it’s just over three and a half minutes, it has so many parts, you feel like it could almost be an album side.
Straight talk. At this point, I’m concerned the takeaway of this review might be that Nakagawa doesn’t have a great voice, or this is just a one-good-song album. Neither is the case. Nakagawa has a conventional blues/rock voice, which makes sense, given the band’s genre. It works especially well on tracks like “Reprobates, Tramps, And Saints,” which is straight-forward blues/rockabilly. The song also happens to feature some killer slide, to which I’m always partial.
If I Die Tomorrow also has impressive song variety. There are tracks like “Winter Always Turns To Spring,” which could be a North Mississippi Allstars song, and “Bluebird,” which is sort of New Wave Punk. It’s all well done, but when an album pivots that much, it can hard to zero in on what it’s about. I like If I Die a lot, but I do wish there was a little more thematic cohesion between tracks.
The confession. I have no idea where I got this, but I suspect I might have received it digitally and in the mail. Recently, while going through my review pile, I found a hard copy of the album, which I had already decided to review based upon a download. It was only upon writing this that I learned this is an October 2018 release. But I can’t imagine I’ve had this waiting around that long. Even I’m not that bad.
Closing arguments. This might be a little niche, but it happens to be my niche. I love blues rock. I love Hendrix. I love 90s music. It’s almost like a greatest hits album for a band you don’t know very well; each track is almost a separate work. One really good song pulled me into this album, but the rest of the tracks got me hooked on the record as a whole.
So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.