A well-done sophomore slump

Shiratori Maika’s second album, Toogenkyoo, is something of a conundrum.

It’s actually a pretty decent album, and at the same time, it’s also an obvious sophomore slump.

Shiratori’s 2002 debut, Hanazono, sifted the folk-pop sensibilities of Bonnie Pink through the alt-rock muscle of Cocco. Not surprising since Cocco’s producer, Takamune Negishi from Dr.StrangeLove, helmed the album.

Toogenkyoo, which means “Shangri-la” although Shiratori alters the spelling of the word, loses the edge of Hanazono. It’s a pretty album, almost genteel.

And that loss of muscle makes Toogenkyoo hard to accept at first.

Shiratori possesses a classic folk singer voice, sweet and powerful, a direct descendent of Joni Mitchell. Without the rough edges, that voice threatens to get lost in prettiness.

She first sounded like the apparent heir of Cocco. Now, she sounds like yet another Suzanne Vega.

And while the songs on Toogenkyoo may be buried in arrangements that don’t heighten their brute power, they’re still very well-crafted songs.

“Someday” may sound too much like a hit amongst the Lilith Fair set, but “now or never” has a chorus that could make even Bono proud.

“Circle” deceptively starts off as an earnest piano ballad, but half-way through, it expands to inhabit its full breadth. “Hoshi no Michishirube” keeps a tempered feel, but its four-on-the-floor beat gives it some real momentum.

The lyrics on “Practically dead”, meanwhile, are incredibly direct.

Toogenkyoo reaches its apex on “Yoru no Hitomi”. The song originally appeared as a coupling track on the single “Anata no Ude wo”, but the “in the city mix” on the album fleshes the song out into something remarkably engaging.

Takamune reprises his role as producer on most of the album, so it’s surprising to see his usually rocking production work scaled back so significantly.

Even on songs where Takamune unleashes the wall of shiny guitars, they don’t possess the same kind of majesty as on Hanazono.

But if the quality of Shiratori’s writing can shine through despite its less direct arrangements, then Shiratori and he shouldn’t have held back.

In terms of songwriting, Toogenkyoo holds up to Shiratori’s strong debut, even if its trappings don’t.