While some of the groups that made up the Shibuya-kei scene of the ’90s had gotten their start in the previous decade (such as previous Spotlight groups Pizzicato Five, Flipper’s Guitar and Original Love), the late ’90s found the genre’s explosion in popularity leading to a whole slew of new artists coming on to the scene. Unlike many of the derivative acts that would come up as the 21st century dawned, these late ’90s performers further diversified an already varied Shibuya-kei musical palette, taking elements from what musicians such as Konishi, Oyamada and Tajima had started and running with them every which way. Yukari Fresh, Cymbals, ROUND TABLE, Fantastic Plastic Machine – some of the most beloved names in Shibuya-kei made their debut in the latter half of the 1990s, including this month’s spotlight group advantage Lucy (although they weren’t always called that!)
Originally formed as Lucy Van Pelt in 1995, the group we now know as advantage Lucy (mixed capitalization deliberate) could hardly have had a less auspicious origin story. Formed when guitarist Takayuki Fukumura ran an ad in a magazine looking for members to join a band named after Peanuts’ Lucy van Pelt, the group was, for all intents and purposes, a band of misfits. Original member Kaname Banba was working as an electrician before joining the group, having given up on music only to have the flame rekindled by the magazine advertisement, while vocalist Aiko Hiramine (more commonly known mononymically as Aiko) wasn’t even looking to be the singer in a band – as the story goes, she just wanted to learn to play guitar, but the band members fell in love with her soft-voiced singing and brought her into the fold anyways.
Although most bands operating under the umbrella of Shibuya-kei in the late 1990s favoured the kitschy lounge-pop that acts like Pizzicato Five, Kahimi Karie and Towa Tei had popularized, Lucy Van Pelt’s sound had much more in common with the neo-acoustic roots of Flipper’s Guitar. As with Flipper’s, Lucy Van Pelt played songs very close in sound to what was coming out of UK record labels like Postcard and Sarah in the 1980s, but in Aiko’s vocals the younger band had something Flipper’s never did. While not necessarily a “singer” in any conventional sense of the word, the intimacy of Aiko’s whisper-quiet delivery lent songs like “everytime, everywhere, I’m blue” a heartbreaking gravity that the pioneering duo only ever occasionally reached towards. The band may have been named after the pushy, loud-mouthed leader of the Peanuts gang, but its greatest strength was in its soft-spoken nature – doubtful that the band members were unaware of the contradiction, and far more likely that the disconnect was a part of what made Aiko’s voice so appealing to the other members.
In its winning blend of happiness and melancholy, bright jangling guitars and downbeat lyrics, British-inspired music and unmistakably Japanese vocals, “I’m blue” found Lucy Van Pelt playing with conventions in typically cheeky Shibuya-kei fashion; it’s easily the group’s most popular song, and not hard to see why it is either. It’s also one of the only songs made with bassist Kazuko Sakamoto, who left the group immediately after the recording of Lucy Van Pelt’s first mini-album In Harmony – a rather ironic title, given the circumstances, but Shibuya-kei has always been mostly ironic in one way or another.
Part two, part three, part four.