Nashville, Tokyo-style

Onitsuka Chihiro’s debut album Insomnia is a country album. No, really.

Just pick up Kathy Mattea’s Love Travels or any of the last two Kim Richey albums. Play it side-by-side with Onitsuka’s Insomnia. Translated into English, any one of Onitsuka’s piano ballads could be crooned by a Music Row chanteuse.

And don’t think that’s a knock either.

Onitsuka’s introspective piano baladeering is supposed to come across as Tori Amos- or Kate Bush-like, but it doesn’t quite escape the confines of adult contemporary radio.

Had Onitsuka’s producers employed more R&B beats, Insomnia could have shared some shelf space with Soraya or Laura Pausini.

But those big rock beats in “Innosence”, that big cadence in the chorus of “Back Door”, and those twangy acoustic guitars in “edge” just whiff of Nashville.

But where those tracks hinted at country, “We Can Go” goes all the way, sporting slide guitars, gospel-like backing vocals and a majestic chorus as optimistic and middle class Americana as pre-lawsuit LeAnn Rimes.

The only thing that stops Insomnia from being a Nashville-by-Tokyo lovechild is Onitsuka’s blessfully limited vocal range. Onitsuka is no powerhouse singer. She doesn’t indulge in the acrobatic histrionics of western singers. But she can hold a note well enough to do her songwriting justice.

And despite — or perhaps because of — her propensity for writing ballad after ballad, Onitsuka has assembled a pleasing collection of songs. Insomnia, the album, is a perfect antidote for insomnia, the sleep disorder. No, these songs aren’t so boring they put you asleep, but they are soothing enough to facilitate quicker entrance to la-la land.

(Zakzak magazine erroneously compared Onitsuka with Utada Hikaru. The only thing those two share is a record label, namely Toshiba-EMI.)

But don’t let the country-leanings of Insomnia prevent you from picking up this disc. Onitsuka has recorded a pleasant album, uplifting as it is haunting, skillful arranged as it is unpolishedly performed. It topped the Oricon charts for good reason.