Tuesday, June 1, 2010

All those albums I've missed

More to come soon...? Or not.

March 24, 2010

Salyu, "MAIDEN VOYAGE" (Toy's Factory, 2010)


Salyu has been quite impressive as of late. Since the release of her best album "Merkmal" in 2008, she has been churning out quality single after quality single, and all of them come together to shine in this new album. This new album, co-produced by Salyu herself and famed producer Kobayashi Takeshi 小林武史, continues to be marked by obscure and eclectic pop sounds, combined with Salyu's intentionally overly pronounced and overly emphatic vocals. If there is a change from her past songs, it may be perhaps that she tones down the eccentricity of past albums: many songs on this album have catchy pop melodies designed specifically to capture a more mainstream market. In the case of Salyu, that might not actually be a bad thing. Hopefully this album will allow her music to reach a much broader audience.

April 20, 2010

Tokunaga Hideaki 徳永英明, "VOCALIST 4" (Universal Sigma, 2010)


I've always been a fan of the VOCALIST series. There's nothing like having Tokunaga Hideaki belt out the "I'm just a woman" from Kobayashi Akiko's 小林明子 "Koi ni ochite -Fall in Love- 恋におちて -Fall in Love-" on VOCALIST 3 to make you feel like you've arrived in magical fantasy land. This project, which has since culminated in this album, purported to be the last in the series, is conceived as one in which Tokunaga Hideaki covers many famous songs by female singers. The series has been incredibly successful in Japan, and it's hard not to see why, as Tokunaga's adult contemporary-influenced ballad vocals blend incredibly well with the light classical arrangements provided by Sakamoto Masayuki, who registers on my radar for being the current producer of Onitsuka Chihiro 鬼束ちひろ. Perhaps because of this connection, Tokunaga covers Onitsuka's "gekkou 月光" on this album. The album feels rather completionist; it is as if with the knowledge that this is the last album in the series, there is an impetus to get the remaining famous ballad songs recorded. As such, this album contains covers of some songs that, looking back, come as a surprise that they haven't been covered yet. Such songs include the top song, Teresa Teng's テレサ・テン "toki no nagare ni mi wo makase 時の流れに身をまかせ," Matsuda Seiko's 松田聖子 "akai SUIITOPII 赤いスイートピー" and Utada Hikaru's 宇多田ヒカル "First Love." Covers of Matsutouya Yumi 松任谷由実, Nakajima Miyuki 中島みゆき, DREAMS COME TRUE and others round out the album. Not a bad album to check, although admittedly this album is probably not the definitive album of the series for me (VOCALIST 3 would be). If you haven't tried the VOCALIST series, I'd give this album a listen and see if it takes.

April 28, 2010

Onitsuka Chihiro 鬼束ちひろ, ""ONE OF PILLARS" ~BEST OF CHIHIRO ONITSUKA 2000-2010~" (UNIVERSAL SIGMA, 2010)


A pleasant and surprising best album outing from Onitsuka Chihiro. What makes this album interesting is that it is a rather broad best, pulling songs from Onitsuka's Toshiba EMI days, complete with arrangements by Haketa Takefumi 羽毛田武史. This album is particularly interesting to examine in order to view the subtle changes in Onitsuka's songwriting style, as well as the differences in production style as the album traces her work with initial producer Haketa Takefumi to Kobayashi Takeshi to currently Sakamoto Masayuki. The album is not comprehensive, and so there is always the usual quibbling over which songs are and are not included, but overall it's a rather good and well-balanced selection, and the unproduced song, "wakusei no mori 惑星の森" is good B-side quality work. Worth your valuable money if you haven't bought an Onitsuka album yet.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Periodic album review: Shimizu Shota

My apologies for the last week of postings. I'm still trying to figure out how scheduled posting works, and did not notice that the posting did not show up as scheduled. Even more odd is that the original entries are now missing. Ah, well. On to this week's (late) posting.

Shimizu Shota 清水翔太, "Journey" (Sony Music Entertainment/MASTERSIX FOUNDATION, 2010)

"Journey" is the second album by singer/songwriter Shimizu Shota, who made his major solo debut in 2008. A big deal was made about Shimizu when he made his debut because he had performed at the amateur night of New York's Apollo Theater and received a good deal of praise for his performance. This is according to Japanese media, who also praised Shimizu with accolades such as "a one-in-a-million talent" and "the most sensational singer in Japan."

The Apollo Theater also hosted a Wada Akiko concert in 2008, and seems to have some sort of presence in Japanese media consciousness and popular culture as a place where incredible talent manifests and claims the stage. This is why it is important you know that Wada Akiko also performed there.


At any rate, this second album is both pleasant and disappointing at the same time. "Journey" is a very well-executed album, which comes across as polished but not over-produced. In particular, this is accomplished by focusing on sharper bass beats rather than the duller, muted beats that are the hallmark of work of a singer like Aoyama Thelma. The manipulation of the beats, as well as other instrumental arrangements, causes the sound to feel fresh and bright. Shimizu's voice is also always on the mark, emoting and elaborating without resorting to gimmicks to sell the songs on the album.

One pet peeve that I had with this album was the return of the programmed high-pitched synthesizer in the background that seems to be the hallmark of sound coming out of MASTERSIX FOUNDATION as of late. This sound seems to have first popped up, at least for Shimizu, in "Love Forever," the 2009 duet that he did with Kato Miliyah, another MASTERSIX FOUNDATION singer. The synthesizer seems to have been rather abused since, showing up in several Kato Miliyah tracks, and even here in at least four of the tracks of the album ("Journey" (T1), "FOREVER LOVE" (T2), "kimi ga itara 君がいたら" (T7) and "DAYS" (T11)). Since in theory Shimizu Shota writes these tracks, perhaps it is the fault of the arranger in an attempt to create some type of MASTERSIX house style. At any rate, it works well in all the songs (perhaps justifying its use), but ends up feeling a bit like the Wilhelm Scream: you pick up on the unique quality of the sound the moment you hear it, and its obvious presence detracts from enjoyment of the track just a little bit.

While "Journey" is a solid album overall, it also feels a bit formulaic: there does not seem to be much development from Shimizu's earlier album, 2008's "Umbrella." To me, this points out the limits of what Shimizu is able to do, despite being a dependable and solid singer. Much of the "problem" with Shimizu's music is that it is distinctively limited by the R&B formula: every song is a subtle monotony of melody which can't easily be replicated in other genres without having that flat nature become overemphasized. Shimizu's nasal voice, at the same time, does not lend itself very well to music outside the R&B genre (his solid but unremarkable performance of his debut song "HOME" within "22'50"" in Oda Kazumasa's "Kurisumasu no yakusoku 2009 クリスマスの約束2009" concert is an example of the limitations of both singer and song). As a result, it is rather telling that "Journey" stays within that tried and true R&B sound, with the one really deviant track, the funk-influenced "Let's Groove," relegated to a bonus track with somewhat good reason. "Journey" is a very solid album by a very solid singer, and is worth your money if you want to hear well-produced and well-executed Japanese R&B pop music. However, it also drives the point home that it's best if Shimizu's future experimentation with sound remains in the vein of "Journey," in mainly superficial manipulations of the instrumental palette of the song without changing the fundamental structure. Whether this is a limitation of the singer or a hallmark trait that separates him as a "musician/artist" from an average "pop singer" will, for now, remain a question at large.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Periodic album review: Kamiki Aya

Kamiki Aya 上木彩矢, "AYA KAMIKI Greatest Best" (GIZA, 2010)
Kamiki Aya 上木彩矢, "INDIVIDUAL EMOTION," (Avex, 2010)


Now that I actually have the physical products in my hands, it seems like Kamiki Aya's transition from GIZA to Avex has been incredibly smooth. As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe that this is because her managing agency has always been and remains BOX CORPORATION, who must have been the primary orchestrators of the transition. The albums in question, "AYA KAMIKI Greatest Best" (GIZA, 2010) and "INDIVIDUAL EMOTION," (Avex, 2010) reflect this smooth transition: there is a cross-promotion for consumers who purchase both albums, the same fonts are used for the promotional labels on the plastic shrink-wrap, and, most notably, the insides themselves are surprisingly judicious. The first press of "INDIVIDUAL EMOTION" comes with a second disc, "AYA KAMIKI fan best," which contains fan-selected songs from Kamiki's GIZA period. It's definitely the first time, as far as I can recall, that I've seen songs written by GIZA's stable of in-house songwriters, most notably Ohno Aika, on an Avex album, and Kamiki certainly thanks a lot of GIZA people in the liner notes. I suppose the point is that I am amazed at Avex's generosity in all this; it will be interesting to see how this contract plays out in the future.


That being said, it is also interesting to see how "INDIVIDUAL EMOTION" itself acts to juxtapose GIZA's songwriters with those of Avex, as some of the usual suspects, such as tasuku and Hara Kazuhiro, make appearances in the album. Ironically, the album leans on Kamiki's first release with Avex, "W-B-X 〜W-Boiled Extreme〜," the theme song to the new Kamen Rider (which, admittedly, is a posh deal and a good way to promote her out of the gate), which was written by people who are more associated with, well, writing the theme songs for the tokusatsu franchises than writing music for "established" musicians. In terms of the music, as you might expect from a move to Avex, the music seems to lose just a slight touch of the rock style that characterized Kamiki's GIZA period and gains a slight touch of the pop style that is the standard of Avex artists (damn you, Masato "MAX" Matsuura). In particular, there is an overemphasis on synthesizers and a "crystalline" sound on some tracks that is most reminiscent of, for example, Hamasaki Ayumi's music. On the other hand, production value of the music appears to be more lush, with more layers to the sound. Lyrics as usual remain written by Kamiki, though, and to be fair, there was already a gradual movement towards a more poppish style on Kamiki's part that only was rethought offhandedly on her last album, "Are you happy now?" At any rate, "INDIVIDUAL EMOTION" is interesting to check for the industrial back story, but as an album itself, it feels more like trading six of one for half a dozen of another. Perhaps time, then, will tell if Kamiki is able to carve a more distinctive niche for herself among the many other Avex artists who rely on their in-house music production staff.


On the other hand, Kamiki's transition from rock to pop and (slightly) back is the focus of her GIZA best album, "AYA KAMIKI Greatest Best." It moves in roughly chronological order from her rock beginnings (her second single, "piero ピエロ," was a cover of a B'z song, albeit released first), towards a more pop-influenced sound that centered around her second album, then back to a rock sound (presumably after someone realized what a mistake it was), with some songs from Kamiki's "indies" days thrown in. Highly recommended, as all best albums should be, for someone who is interested in learning more about an artist in a short period of time, but nothing really new to write home about for someone who owns Kamiki's other albums.

I should also note that my previous mention of MISIA was slightly erroneous: while Rhythmedia Tribe was created at Avex in 2002, the 2007 move back to BMG JAPAN was not just of MISIA, but the entire Rhythmedia Tribe label. Rhythmedia Tribe is the label of Rhythmedia, the managing agency for MISIA, and she is the only artist under that label now, the label having shed all its previous artists by around 2008. I had gotten mixed up because while at Avex Rhythmedia Tribe had its own label numbering scheme (RXCD), whereas upon moving back to BMG JAPAN returned the sub-label to the larger numbering scheme there (BVCx), and Rhythmedia Tribe is less overtly a presence in MISIA promotion than it was during its Avex days.

Monday, February 8, 2010

On Kamiki Aya, Avex and GIZA

Apologies for skipping a week (technically two, but I told you about one of them first!).  I've been waiting for some CDs to arrive, but the shipment has gotten messed up.  For now, some scattered, incoherent musings.

Among those CDs are the two new Kamiki Aya albums: one an original album from her new record company, Avex, and one a best album from her old company, Being/GIZA.  I've been thinking a lot about this move between record companies recently.  What makes this move so significant? Her original record label was Being/GIZA.  Although Being/GIZA has acquired a sort of reputation for producing genuine artists as opposed Avex (in particular through the emphasis on GIZA and its indie label background), essentially both are pop factories: pretty faces singing songs not written by them, despite ventures into lyric writing.  Does this movement mean that Avex made a good offer (probably)? It's fascinating to think about (and certainly Avex's higher production values and marketing costs are clearly seen on the inside and outside of Kamiki's new album, particularly in contrast with the best album put out by Being/GIZA at the same time.  Furthermore, since Kamiki only switched to Avex as a record label and not as her artist management, it will be interesting to see how Avex markets her.  Will she be forever doomed to obscurity like the artists on the SONIC GROOVE sub-label, all graduates of Okinawa Actors' School? Or will it turn out that she was just signed for a promotional boost for the company, much like MISIA was notably signed in order to help kick off Avex's Rhythmusic sub-label, and quickly moved back to BMG JAPAN immediately after her contract was up.  Whatever the reason, and despite Kamiki Aya's somewhat marginal status compared to B'z, Kuraki Mai or other artists at Being/GIZA, this is definitely a move that sends a strong message to Being/GIZA, whose emphasis on their image as a producer of real musicians has often been used to preclude or explain things like negligible artist promotion or low quality product.

Tangentially, it is interesting to note that calling both Avex and GIZA pop factories at the same time separates them from being idol factories, which ironically Zetima has subsumed for itself by the "domination" of the Morning Musume franchise.  In an incredibly Raymond Williams-esque turn, their appearance on the music scene in the 90s has realigned the way that idols are thought of in the music industry, so that, except perhaps for their "rivals" of AKB48, even the most idol of idols in today's music world can be given slightly more credence as "pop musicians."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Periodic album review

I've been stuck on an Ambient/Dream Pop kick out of which I've just been starting to dig myself.  Somehow, rearranging the sentence to avoid the ending preposition made it sound like one of the more awkward sentences I've written in my life (next to this one).  Moving on...

Hirahara Ayaka 平原綾香, "my Classics!" (DREAMUSIC, 2009)

Another CD I'm just getting around to.  Hirahara Ayaka, who comes from a family of classical and studio musicians, rearranges classical music with pop beats and lyrics mostly written by her.  In particular, I like Hirahara Ayaka because her voice is unique: it's both nasally and husky in a way that does not grate on the ear, but instead provides an unexpectedly pleasant musical experience.  I think this is because her voice has a very soft quality to it, and this, combined with her inherent musicality, makes her voice a pleasure to listen to.  At the same time, the fragile nature of her voice limits the types of songs she can sing successfully, and in particular Hirahara floundered for quite a bit with her first few albums before settling on ballad to midtempo numbers with soft beats, often bolstered by strings and other classical instruments in order to cultivate an almost orchestral pop sound that is inherently orchestral in nature, not bound in a focus on the piano that appears to be the foundation of other pop artists of this nature.  At any rate, "my Classics!" is a very strong album that plays to Hirahara's strengths, particularly the classical background of both her persona and her music.  While on the one hand, this may signal a resignation to the popular expectations of her by "covering" classical songs, on the other this gimmick actually serves to make the album much more coherent as a whole than Hirahara's past albums.  The only sore track is the final one, "Jupiter," where it is clear the song has not been altered from its appearance as Hirahara's first single, down to the painful opening line.  It might even be argued that "Jupiter" is much more pop than the other songs on the album, both indicating Hirahara's development as an artist and the poor editorial decision of sticking the song on because it is a classical song as well.  On the other hand, the arrangements for the preceding single for the album, "Nocturne/Campanula no koi ノクターン/カンパニュラの恋," fit into the framework of the album quite well, and in fact improve upon the listening experience of the songs from their original single appearance.  Other worthwhile tracks are the opener, "pavane~naki oujo no tame no pavaanu pavane~亡き王女のためのパヴァーヌ" (T1) and "Moldau" (T6).  A very strong album worth a listen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Periodic album review

This week's albums are...

→Pia-no-jaC←, "EAT A CLASSIC 2" (Boundy, 2009)


A continuation of the pop duo's "EAT A CLASSIC" series, involving arrangements of classical music in line with the group's piano and cajone-based jazz-influenced pop.  I think this album is significantly stronger than the original "EAT A CLASSIC," and it also shows the group venturing into new experiments with sound.  Since it appears that the group's goal is to figure out how to create a plethora of sounds through a minimum of instruments, it makes sense that the classical works chosen here are all ordinarily vivid orchestral pieces.   Whether by altering the piano or the cajone to make new sounds or by emphasizing precisely the absence of sound and the limitations of those instruments to capture the broad sounds of the original, Pia-no-jaC appears to have produced another album both insightful and entrancing.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Periodic album review

Not only reviewing this week, but also testing scheduled posting features!

Lusine, "A Certain Distance" (Ghostly International, 2009)

I had heard the song "Operation Costs" elsewhere, so thought that it would be a worthwhile purchase.  I notice that recently I have been deviating towards ambient electronic music as of late.  "A Certain Distance" is a good album, but somehow it has failed to leave a strong impression with me.  The sounds are vibrant and clear, but for me the album fails to cohere as a whole in a way I had expected it to.  Uncertain.