I was in an Atlanta record store this spring when a CD displayed on a listening post caught my eye. Its striking booklet art depicted four sullen Japanese men clad in Hollywood-movie gangster togs — black suits, black shirts, white ties. A promotional version of the same album (prepared for an aborted U.S. tour) sported a similar shot, with the quartet all wearing eye patches. I clapped the headphones on, listened to two blaring tracks and was hooked forever.

The album is Gear Blues, and the cyclopean yakuza in question are known as Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (yes, two e‘s in “the,” as in Thee Midnighters and Thee Headcoats), or TMGE, as they’re known to fans. The band has been in business for eight years — a lifetime in Japan, where fashion-crazed audiences are as fickle as 13-year-old girls — but they remain obscure in the U.S., where none of their music is readily available; a miserly single is due this month from Estrus Records. Hopefully, all that will change after their current American tour, which pulls into L.A. this week and is being mounted with an eye to securing a stateside record deal. If there ever was a foreign group capable of selling real rock & roll back to the Yanks, it‘s this one.

Some U.S. punk labels have taken a flier on Japanese bands like Guitar Wolf and Teengenerate, but these bands work off a limited post-Ramones punk palette. TMGE also acknowledge punk roots: Witness the eight-second and 22-second tracks on their third album, Chicken Zombies, the double-time climax of the single B-side “Automatic,” and even the band’s moniker, which one fellow fan maintains is either a pun on or a misapprehension of the Damned‘s album title Machine Gun Etiquette. But they cut a far broader musical swath.

On their earliest records for Japan’s Triad Records, 1996‘s Cult Grass Stars and High Time (which followed an indie mini-album), the members of TMGE located themselves in a line of English rock, pub and punk bands that forwarded a soulR&B-derived sound: Johnny Kidd & the Pirates (hence those eye patches), The Who, Doctor Feelgood, The Jam. But the band’s iconography indicates a wider list of sources. One photo in the booklet for Cult Grass Stars shows the group surrounded by albums by the Kinks, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five and the Flamin‘ Groovies (and, inexplicably, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past). The album art for Chicken Zombies is a to-the-letter knockoff of Blue Cheer‘s 1968 thud-and-blunder opus Vincibus Eruptum.

TMGE’s first album tracks and singles, like “Candy House” and “Get Up Lucy,” sound as if they may break into “In the City” at any moment, while more expansive tunes such as the eight-minute “Letter to Uncle Sam” reflect a fondness for Live at Leeds–style jams. But the band found the template for its most recent work with the 1997 single and Chicken Zombies cut “The Birdmen,” which boasts an exhilarating chorus (sung in English, as most of TMGE‘s hooks are), focused and decidedly nonfunky ensemble playing, and a construction at once melodic and ultrahard.

Gear Blues, released in Japan last November, is the work of a poised and experienced unit that is moving beyond its influences once and for all. Brit-rock now sits below the surface in the record’s 14 songs; the imprint of the Pirates pops up in a tumbling little “Shakin‘ All Over” figure that guitarist Futoshi Abe works into the album’s leadoff track, “West Cabaret Drive,” and in the forceful stop-time devices (again courtesy of “Shakin‘ All Over”) that animate that track and such other winners as “G.W.D.,” “Soul Warp,” “Danny Go” and “Free Devil Jam.”

There are no weak links in this group. Vocalist Yusuke Chiba is a hoarsely authoritative presence, and bassist Koji Ueno and drummer Kazuyuki Kuhara have eliminated the Who-derived busyness of their early approach in favor of seamless, no-nonsense propulsion. But the man among men in TMGE is Abe; while his taut comping and highly dramatic solos bow to his leadrhythm predecessors Pete Townshend, Wilko Johnson and Paul Weller, he’s also capable of dropping Hendrix-style bombs on “Give the Gallon” and unreeling a ripping slide excursion on “Soul Warp” that feels like it was recorded somewhere deep in your cerebellum.

Thee Michelle Gun Elephant‘s Japanese lyrics don’t present a problem — not that the excruciatingly non-idiomatic translations found in the promo version of Gear Blues aid one‘s understanding much. The sense of the band is to be found in the sound of TMGE’s self-proclaimed “ultra feed back groove.” I‘ve been listening to Gear Blues almost daily for nearly five months, and I’ve never found myself longing for an English version; the sheer brio and electricity of this exceptional rock band transcends any language barrier.

Thee Michelle Gun Elephant appears at the Garage, Wednesday, September 22.

LA Weekly