Emotional rescue

As a songwriter, Onitsuka Chihiro is a one-trick pony.

A balladeer not far removed from Carole King or Vonda Shepard, Onitsuka’s albums pose few challenges and offer few surprises.

That’s not to say there aren’t any.

In early 2002, Onitsuka released This Armor, the follow-up to her hit debut Insomnia. In the middle of a tour to promote that album, the singer-songwriter fell ill and canceled her remaining dates.

Instead of spending her recuperation doing nothing, Onitsuka went on a songwriting tear, recording new material and releasing her third album barely nine months after her second.

The downtime did her good — Sugar High is Onitsuka’s most emotionally charged album to date.

Onitsuka has gone back to the rawness of Insomnia and jacked it up many-fold.

Yes, the piano ballads are in great supply, and yes, her earnestness can be cut with a proverbial knife. But beyond the surface, Onitsuka has tapped a direct line into an honest performance, going so far to overcome a language barrier.

The opening track, “Not Your God”, is sung in English, and Onitsuka addresses her quick and surprising rise to fame: “I’m not your God/I’m not your hero/I’m not your Messiah/Don’t break my heart”.

“Tiger In My Love”, the album’s token fast-tempo track, sounds decidedly darker than “Rollin'” from This Armor or “We Can Go” on Insomnia.

In fact, “Tiger In My Love” marks a turning a point in the album, and thereafter, Sugar High actually remains pretty dark. With only piano and cello as accompaniment, “Hyooryuu no Hane” takes baby steps into Cocco’s wrenching terrain.

The Bill Frisell-like atmospheric guitars on “Suna no Tate” evoke ghost town images, but it’s on the concluding track, “Borderline”, where Onitsuka makes her boldest statement.

The track starts off quietly with just Onitsuka and her piano. As the song progresses, a string quartet chimes in, providing an almost violent counterpoint to the singer’s simple piano pulse. By the end of the track, the string quartet is whipped into a fury with Onitsuka improvising her own vocals.

It’s shocking to think she’d have that kind of angst in her.

No, Onitsuka isn’t the most daring songwriter in the world. But she is a tremendous performer, and the saving grace on all her albums — a naked, emotional rawness — becomes the star on Sugar High.