Challenging and timely still

Although released more than five years ago, UA’s debut album 11 still sounds incredibly new.

Sure, some of the drum programming may be a bit dated, but UA’s strong artistic vision is every bit as challenging in 2001 as it must have been in 1995.

11 is a diverse collection of internationally influenced jazz-pop. The album’s opener, “Rhythm”, could have come off a Basia or Sade album.

But when UA, whose name in Swahili means “flower” or “kill”, tears into the exuberent, flamenco-influenced “Ookina Kina Amaete”, all proverbial bets are off — wherever UA takes you next, it’s going to be exciting, and it’s going to sound good.

The Japanese soul singer who was discovered in a jazz bar in Osaka even flirted with drum ‘n’ bass way before Madonna dragged William Orbit into a studio (“Bara Iro”). The backbeat sounds a bit primitive, but even then, UA knew what would eventually become electronica was more about texture than songcraft.

UA’s smokey, sultry voice works best when she draws inward, and 11 has more than its fair share of ethereal, Homogenic-era Björk-like textures.

“Jelly” and “Himawari” specifically keyed more successfully into the sonic territory Iceland’s most famous export was trying to attempt on Post — big dance beats, atmospheric instrumentation, mellow rhythms.

While UA does create some smart, daring music, she also knows the value of a good single.

On “Kumo Ga Chigireru Toki”, UA skillfully tunes into the melancholy her deep alto can easily evoke. And on both versions of “Jounetsu”, one of which appears as a hidden 12th track, UA gives herself a workout on some jubilant music.

Although UA would go on to make more diverse and challenging albums — Ametora is even more cosmopolitan, and AJICO’s Fukamidori more haunting — 11 finds the alluring singer at a creative high.

She balances her more riskier leanings with a need for hooks, and UA doesn’t stumble one bit.