Alternative country can have more than one meaning once you get out of Dodge. For Petty Booka, the alternative country is Japan, and their venue is the 24-hour craziness of Tokyo. In the audio wasteland that is Japanese pop, only the strong or really perverse can survive the overwhelming pressure to conform. But for Petty Booka, it’s an opportunity to do something different, and with exquisite taste.
Tomomi Asano (a.k.a. Petty) and Yuka Yamada (Booka) were already signed to Benten, an alternative indie label whose acts are exclusively women. Label manager Kimura Shisaka explains that “Benten is the only female in the seven lucky gods of Japan; she’s our inspiration.” The outrageously funny and downright raunchy nature of some of Benten’s promotional material sinks any image of meek Asian women.
When Asano and Yamada’s punk band Flamenco A-Go-Go broke up, they decided to try a new adventure. So, they teamed up with Hiroshi Asada, one Japan’s top producers, and set out to see how far they could bend the rules of American music forms. “Country music and Hawaiian music were really popular in Japan through the ’60s,” Asada says, “but it is really rare to hear it these days. It is something new to young Japanese.”
Since then, Petty Booka have recorded nine CDs on Benten’s subsidiary label Sister Records, evenly split between their takes on Hawaiian and country styles. The odd one out is Christmas Everywhere, which features songs such as “Christmas In Prison” and “My Two Front Teeth”. Their most recent country CDs are 1996′s Fujiyama Mama, which features covers of songs by the likes of Junior Brown, Paul Seibel and Hank Williams, and 1997′s Sweetheart Of The Radio, on which they render classics by John Fogerty, Hank Snow and Gillian Welch, among others.
Indeed, what sets Petty Booka apart from every Japanese C&W band hoping to hit it big on the military base circuit is their unusual song selection. It’s rare to hear Madonna’s “Material Girl” in any country band, just as it is to hear the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” done with ukuleles (as on their 1998 Hawaiian-music disc “Blue Lagoon”).
Petty Booka’s harmonies are deliciously sweet with a strong Stanley Brothers feel, but accented by a melting Japanese lilt. While most Japanese idol bands cannot sing or play, these women can do both and are backed in the studio by local players who can flat-out smoke on their instruments. Petty Booka’s music is ultimately difficult to categorize, but their sheer talent and offbeat take on American roots music deserves a listen.