Don’t call it a comeback

Verbal and Taku are smart.

The remaining members of m-flo knew singer Lisa was a commodity, and they knew any replacement would have a high bar to surpass.

When Lisa announced her departure from m-flo in 2002, a lot of people — myself included — thought the space-age R&B/hip-hop trio was done. (Because let’s face it — Verbal isn’t that strong of an MC to carry it by himself.)

And instead of rushing in, trying to prove themselves, Verbal and Taku worked on their own things, never ruling out m-flo’s continuation.

The time off did the pair some real good.

m-flo 2004 is now a collaborative unit, allowing guest musicians to build upon the duo’s beat-heavy foundation. Astromantic, the group’s first album without Lisa, is m-flo’s most expansive but most focused work yet.

The album features a who’s who of Japanese pop: Crystal Kay, Chemistry, melody., BoA, Yamamoto Ryouhei. It features some eye brow-raising guests as well: composer Sakamoto Ryuichi, rap-rockers Dragon Ash, Pizzicato Five chanteuse Nomiya Maki.

For the most part, m-flo sticks to the dance floor pop that brought them success. melody. (yes, that period is part of her name) and Yamamoto offer a nice interplay on “miss you”, and both anchor the song when Verbal injects his part.

BoA holds her own on “The love bug”, a track that combines acoustic guitar with a driving beat. Taku does an incredible job manipulating the vocal samples of Chemistry on “Astrosexy”, while Crystal Kay delivers one of the band’s most enduring choruses on “Reeewind!”

“I really, really like it,” Kay sings. Amen.

Astromantic gets really interesting when the non-dance collaborators weigh in. “Way U Move” starts off as the kind of rock ballad Dragon Ash masters, but it then morphs into a four-on-the-floor fantasia.

“Vanessa”, featuring the Bloodest Saxophone, is pure swing — Taku was wise to just get out of the way. Nomiya shines on the lounge number, “Cosmic Night Run”, and even the ska conclusion, “Uchuu no Woah Woah” featuring Boy Ken and Bottom Brass Band, is exuberent.

“Don’t call it a comeback,” Verbal asserts on “Reeewind!”, and it’s a forceful statement. m-flo never considered itself gone when Lisa left, but Verbal and Taku certainly knew they had to prove some assumptions were just plain wrong.

Astromantic is the sound of a band embracing an unknown — and rather daunting — paradigm shift, and it does a superlative job of establishing m-flo as something bigger than its individual members.

It isn’t a comeback at all. It’s a new start.