Playing it safe

Second albums are pretty tricky.

It’s not enough to establish a pattern, but it’s more than enough to indicate a direction.

And in pop music, rarely is the distinction made between continuing success and repeating it.

Hayashi Asuca delivered a strong debut with Saki in 2003. Rather than dress her up in techno beats and walls of synthesizers, Hayashi’s handlers gave her a relatively unconventional sound.

The maturity of the young teen-ager’s voice demanded it.

So it stands to reason what worked the last time on Saki would work again on her second album, Hatsukoi.

Thing is, this time around, the producers and writers have backed off.

The non-single tracks on the album aren’t very distinctive. Some are pretty forgettable. “Zutto Issho” is a predictable electric piano ballad, while the light jazz of “Shinryoku” is just plain trite.

(Aside: Although AJICO named its album and title track “Fukamidori”, it’s spelled with the same kanji as “Shinryoku”. What if Hayashi had covered “Fukamidori” instead?)

A lot of the tracks attempt to incorporate the tribal rhythms and acoustic guitar combination that worked well for Hayashi on the singles “ake-kaze” and “‘Haha'”.

“Negai” nearly quotes Sting’s oft-sampled “Shape of My Heart” guitar lick, while “Hanamusubi” and “Juuni Hitoe” refer to flamenco and Latin music for inspiration.

The singles from Hatsukoi are a bit more blatant about referring to the past. The chorus of “Rin no Kuni” possess all the drama of “ake-kaze”, while “Sanctuary” avoids a straight-forward pop beat, instead relying on tablas to provide rhythm.

Oddly enough, the singles are where Hayashi takes the most risks.

“Rin no Kuni” may resemble her past work, but it’s the kind of drastic song that challenges her to give a full-throated performance.

“Moo Ichido Anata ni Aitai”, on the other hand, numbers among the album’s weaker tracks, and a second acoustic version at the end only confirms it.

Hatsukoi finds Hayashi playing it safe, not fixing a formula that isn’t broken. Thing is, the album doesn’t exactly rise to the expectations set the last time around either.

Through it all, Hayashi gives more of the same wonderful, magnetic singing, which is perhaps the biggest saving grace on this disc.

But it wouldn’t be very responsible if the next time around, the material doesn’t serve the instrument.