Beautiful thing

Okay, okay. The cliché-writing critic in me has to get the following sentence out of the way. I won’t rest easy if I don’t. Ahem:

If you like Mazzy Star, you’ll love AJICO.

There. I said it. And right away, I’m shaking my head at the inaccuracy of the remark.

Granted, AJICO does share with Mazzy Star some crucial similarities: a slow, haunted, atomspheric sound; a compelling lead singer; great songs.

But singer UA is not Hope Sandoval.

UA’s rich, husky voice immediately calls to mind Patti Smith or Marianne Faithful. When layered over Asai Kenichi’s reverb-drenched guitar work, AJICO resembles more closely the psychedelic influences that inform both groups.

On the opening title track of Fukamidori, UA delivers one of the most bluesy melodies in her career, stamping it with a distinct emotional charge. “Lake” has the quiet intensity that gave Erik Satie a permanent place in the western music repetoire. The eight-minute “Hadou” builds with a “White Rabbit” sense of proportion, only to conclude with Doors-like improvisation.

But not all is moody and grey, mean and restless. The grungey “Utsukushii Koto” (“Beautiful Thing”) approximates what the Velvet Undergroud might have sounded like if they wrote conventional rock songs. “Freedom” breaks the general solemnity of the album with a bouncy, sugary hook. “Garage Drive” thump-whacks along with a “Pretty Woman”-esque bass line.

When the mood does lighten up, Asai takes over vocal duties with a rough, nasal tenor that suites the group’s classic rock tendencies as well as UA’s deep alto. When the two voices join on “Utsukushii Koto,” the combination is astounding.

Fukamidori is a terrific debut, and with UA at the mic, listeners can rarely go wrong.