So the cover art for LoVendoЯ’s come-back mini-album Яe:Start has been released, and the girls look just like… an idol group. Here, bask in the plenary pinkness of Reina’s rock band:
The only things missing from this cover are Sayu and Koha, and it encapsulates the problem I’ve had with LoVendoЯ from the start: this group has no focus.
Note that I said “group” and not “band”, despite them having been marketed as a band from the beginning. When LoVendoЯ was launched, UpFront was very adamant about them being seen as a proper rock band, from booking shows at rock clubs to making their debut release an album of “rock” covers. LoVendoЯ Cover the Rock was as much a For Life Records tribute as anything else, with four of the eight tracks being covers of Shigeru Izumiya or Takuro Yoshida tunes. The arrangements were cookie-cutter “bandol” – upbeat drums, melodic bass, driving guitars – which, while wholly unimaginative, worked well enough for most of the songs, the one glaring exception being Yoshida’s moody “Rakuyou”, where every drop of pity conveyed in the lyrics is stripped away by the paint-by-numbers J-idol rock arrangement. Only on Sharan Q’s “Jou・kyou・Mono・gatar” do they stray from the formula, and it’s the only one that rivals the original in creativity and emotion. Overall, it’s a less-than-satisfying effort that nonetheless succeeded in its goal of positioning LoVendoЯ as a “rock” band.
Well, as successful as it could be for a “band” that counted neither a bassist nor drummer among its members, and that has always been LoVendoЯ’s fatal flaw. Two singers plus two guitarists does not equal a “rock band”, and no amount of marketing can make that calculus work. A “band” needs a full allotment of musicians, and this includes a rhythm section. If UpFront wanted a band instead of an idol group, they could have found any number of competent female drummers and bassists to fill the role in LoVendoЯ, but they didn’t. Why is that?
Here’s the dirty little secret about rock ‘n roll bands that most people who’ve never been in one don’t know: from a musical perspective, the most important members are the bassist and drummer. Every other member can get by with charisma and middling talent, and so long as the rhythm section is good, the band will be fine. A superior rhythm section can elevate ordinary musicians and music, but an ordinary rhythm section can not be elevated by superior singers, guitarists or songs. LoVendoЯ’s full time members are middling talents being carried by a superior rhythm-section-for-hire. Don’t get me wrong, these girls are all better-than-average at what they do, but outside of the idol world, they’re nothing special. Their songs are mostly driven by tight and polished professional rhythm section performances. This is by design. At some point early on, the decision was made to sacrifice the aura and identity of a self-contained band in favor of polished recordings.
This decision was, I think, a huge mistake, and has held LoVendoЯ back. It’s damn near impossible to connect with a “band” that isn’t really a band, or an idol group that pretends they aren’t an idol group. This weird neither-idol-nor-rock-band middle ground leaves nothing for potential fans to cling to, no identity to identify with. They’re a rock brand with no defined image beyond their logo and the presence of an ex-Musume That’s all well and good, but if Reina Tanaka was enough of a draw to carry a band, why not just give her a real fucking band? A legit band with legit musicians and a focused sound and image?
I think UpFront lost its nerve and missed a huge opportunity to make something special with LoVendoЯ. The opportunity lost is even greater when you consider that their built-in audience – the entire Hello! Project fandom – consists of more actual music aficionados than any other idol fan base. Musicians who like idol music gravitate to H!P. Metalheads in particular dig H!P. A legitimate rock group featuring an ex-Musume would be fucking gold so long as the music was solid and nothing felt awkward or forced. Reina is no volcano of charisma – the tough Yankee chick persona was always more hype than reality — but she has an easy, affable personality and could likely fit in with any number of other personalities. She’s ideal for the project in more ways than most idols would be. The potential for such a band was immense, and instead we got a shape-shifting pop/rock/idol act with no edge, no personality, and nothing to identify with.
If the not-really-a-band die was cast when they settled on session monkeys to handle the rhythm section, it was set in stone after TM Revolution roasted the girls to their faces on his show for playing a bunch of oldies instead of their own material. Was it a dick move for Nishikawa to aggressively confront a group of girls from an idol factory that he invited onto his show like that? Yep, pretty dicky. Were his criticisms valid? Yeah, mostly. Why were a group of young rocker chicks playing a bunch of old 70s – 90s folk and rock tunes? His demand that LoVendoЯ should be setting their own course was bullshit — this was a pre-fab group formed by one of Japan’s premier idol management companies, not an organically formed band — and putting the girls on the spot like that was shitty, but I think his target was really UpFront for putting these girls in this position in the first place..
LoVendoЯ has released some very good original music, to be sure. The Ikujinashi mini-album represents their peak in my mind, particularly the rollicking title track. This is exactly what I was hoping for when they announced Reina was getting a band. “Bukiyou” was a strong original debut, but with a softer arrangement, it could have fit any number of genres from indie-rock to idol-pop-rock. The gratuitous double-kick fusillade at the end feels forced, as if the producer is intent on proving just how rock and roll this band really is. “Ikujinashi,” on the other hand, rocks because it is rock. It’s tight and focused with just enough of an edge to fit Reina perfectly. That major-7th chord at the end of the chorus’s first stanza is like a colorful flower popping up from the cracks of a grim urban landscape. It’s the sort of tasty surprise that makes you put a song on repeat and leave it there for hours. The song’s video is the closest that LoVendoЯ has ever looked like a band, probably because it’s a straight performance clip that includes the drummer and bassist, but the outfits and styling are on-point and fit the music. It’s the complete package of music and image. “Finally,” I thought, “they figured it out!” Then they followed it up with “Iin ja nai?”
Don’t let the ripping guitar intro fool you, “Iin ja nai?” is straight idol-pop-rock, and more idol-pop than rock. It’s a really good track, but the vague Latin feel and synth-heavy arrangement completely abandons the rock image that LoVendoЯ was so intent on cultivating from the moment they were announced and seemed to have finally solidified with their previous release. The funky second A-side, “Futsuu no Watashi Ganbare!”, discards any and all pretense of rock completely, and presents the girls as a pure idol group. This would have been a killer single for C-ute or Morning Musume ’15, but they gave it to the “rock” band instead. Why? Who the hell knows. Maybe the poor sales of Bukiyou and Ikujinashi (and sales were quite poor, barely 2K for each) spooked the suits, prompting a new, decidedly more idol direction in both sound and image for LoVendoЯ’s major label debut. If it was a gambit to increase sales, it worked, as “Iin ja nai?” moved three times the number of Bukiyou and Ikujinashi combined.
So LoVendoЯ is to be an adult idol group with guitarists, then? Okay, fine. So long as the music is as good as the “Iin ja nai?” single, I can roll with it. Good music is good music, right? Why get caught up in image if the songs and recordings are good? As the new slick, idol-pop sound succeeded in increasing sales, obviously it was time to let the girls start writing their own material.
Wait, what?! Yeah, and not just the B-sides, but every damn song on every version of the single. To be fair, the lead A-side, “Takaramono”, is a pretty good mid-tempo pop-rock recording. Arranger Jiro Miyanaga likely added the modulations that carry the emotion, but Yuki and Reina wrote a solid pop song here. It’s a more serious feeling pop, a bit more “adult” perhaps, and though it’s another song that would fit C-ute’s catalog nicely, it fits LoVendoЯ better than either of the songs on the “Iin ja nai?” single. “Itsuwari” takes it’s rightful place as second A-side, but it’s mostly forgettable, despite managing to actually rock a little bit. Even though this is their most disappointing effort for me, I was encouraged to see them moving away from the idol-fluff of “Iin ja nai?” and “Futsuu no Watashi Ganbare!” because if Reina was going to lead a pure idol group, what was the point of her leaving Morning Musume? And if LoVendoЯ is going to be a pure idol group, what is the point of the two guitarists?
Maybe that’s what Yuki was thinking when she left LoVendoЯ last year. If she’s seen the new cover art and the live performance of the lead track, “Buppanase! Baby I, Love Ya“, she’s probably breathing easy about her decision to leave, because all signs point to a return to Idol Island for Reina’s Rock Band. It doesn’t make any sense, but such haphazard, directionless management of talent is not without precedent within UpFront: the chaotic, schizophrenic management of LoVendoЯ is a mild version of H!P’s criminally gross mismanagement of Maki Goto, for whom they could never settle on a sound or image, and which ultimately derailed the solo career of the company’s most popular idol ever.
I wrote earlier that good music should be enjoyed for its own sake, apart from the image or identity of the artist — and I stand by that — but it’s not that simple. The fact is that music fans want to connect with artists on some level of shared mutual values, whatever those my be, deep or shallow, real or perceived. Without that connection, there’s no reason to invest the emotional energy into being a fan of an artist. A Best of LoVendoЯ album might as well be a collection of one-hit-wonders for the lack of cohesiveness in identity and sound it would represent. Modern rock bands don’t style-hop in this manner. J-idol groups do, but even within an idol group’s diversity of musical styles, they maintain a consistent (or at least less mercurial) image/identity. Scandal is an organically formed rock band that can comfortably pull off an idol image. ZONE was a pre-fab idol group that could play their own instruments well enough to be considered a “band”. LoVendoЯ, however, is a poorly constructed, poorly managed Reina Tanaka Continuing Employment vehicle that succeeds at being neither rock nor idol by trying to be one or the other depending on the whims of their management. The other two groups worked because they had a plan and stuck with it. LoVendoЯ can barely break 12K in sales because each release targets a different audience.
ZONE + Reina should have been the LoVendoЯ blueprint, but I’m not sure there ever was a blueprint beyond “let’s give Reina a band!” When their cover album came out, I posted at mm-bbs “it’s like this band was conceived during a mushroom-induced hallucination.” A lot of stupid shit makes sense on ‘shrooms, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid. The decision to forgo a permanent rhythm section in the membership meant that LoVendoЯ would never be accepted as a band, and the presence of two guitarists meant they would never be seen as an idol group. People will accept pre-fab (see ZONE); what they won’t accept is un-serious, and LoVendoЯ has never felt like a serious project. I can’t think of another group that I cared so little about despite liking nearly all of their music, and hoping so badly for a reason to care about them from the beginning, but the concept of LoVendoЯ has always been more appealing than the actual existence of LoVendoЯ.
Shut up, Reina.