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.