Category: Reviews


Note: This review covers both volumes of Omoide In My Head 2 ~Kiroku Series~.

Number Girl live albums don’t not offer any new insights to the band’s music. There are few extended jam sessions to capture, fewer wild departures from what’s heard in the studio.

Number Girl live albums don’t serve the same purpose as, say, Grateful Dead or Phish live albums do. They don’t capture singular moments never to be replicated at other performances. They don’t commemorate audience reaction.

Number Girl’s performance of “Toomei Shoojo” from one show is bound to sound the same as another performance months or years later.

So why is a Number Girl live album such a commodity? Pretty much for one reason — the chemistry of the band’s four members reaches far beyond the stage, the amplifiers, the magnetic tape, or the digital bits.

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Reaching out

Higurashi Aiha formed her band first, then learned to play an instrument. It’s that kind of adventurousness that drives her work.

She can be noisy and brash, tender and tuneful, and she’s not afraid to try new things.

That said, Higurashi’s second solo album, platonic, is all over the place, and that could be good or bad.

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Break the cocoon

On the surface, Yorico’s music doesn’t seem all that remarkable. It’s the kind of piano balladry endlessly compared to Carole King.

But there’s a quality beneath the surface, something seemingly intangible but attributable only to Yorico — much like how Utada Hikaru’s R&B had a maturity beyond her years, or how Onitsuka Chihiro’s unchallenging pop had a rough edge.

A previous review on this site name-dropped these same pop figures, and the comparrisons are still worth exploring.

Yorico was 16 years old when she released her first independent album in 2002. She managed to sell 80,000 copies and even scored a minor hit with “Honto wa ne”. After taking a break in 2003, she re-emerged in 2004, still sounding freshly-scrubbed but more seasoned.

And so she released Cocoon in January 2005, her first album for a major label.

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Sing a song

Who would have thought when Cocco made a comeback, she would return as a country artist?

And not just a country artist — an alt-country artist.

When Cocco teamed up with Quruli’s Kishida Shigeru to record a Japanese version of her English song, “Sing a Song ~No Music, No Life~”, she transformed an alt-rock anthem to a country-rock jam session.

The band from that recording session became Singer Songer, and that free-wheeling spirit was channeled into an additional nine songs on the group’s debut, Barairo Pop.

Cocco takes sole songwriting credit on the album, but it’s evident the singer who announced her retirement in 2001 is not quite the same person who brought two-thirds of Quruli and their support musicians back with her in 2005.

Perhaps it’s Kishida’s affinity for American roots music that gives this music a brighter feel. Dr.StrangeLove’s Takamune Negishi highlighted the intensity of Cocco’s work. Kishida brings out her exuberence.

It takes some effort to adjust to the shift in styles. The prominent banjo and half-time backbeat of “Amefuri Hoshi” shows off its country flavor with pride. “Ame no Lullaby” bears a striking resemblence to “Tennesse Waltz”.

(“Oasis”, on the other hand, sounds a bit too much like the brilliant green’s “Tsumetai Hana”.)

With a few more diminished chords, “baby, tonight” could have felt more like Delta blues.

Cocco hasn’t totally abandoned the muse that marked her early career. She still includes a children’s song (“Home”), and she offers tunes both majestic (“Millions of Kiss”) and rocking (“Shoka Rinrin”, “Romantic Mode”).

The band produced the album itself, and its sound has a lot more breathing room than Takamune’s dense arrangements. Cocco’s voice is as alluring as ever, and the brighter tone suits her just fine.

In short, she sounds like she’s enjoying herself, and really, she deserves to. There’s a trade-off, though — the intensity so intrinsic to her earlier solo work has no room for this new collaborative dynamic.

As such, it sometimes feel like Barairo Pop is all appetizer or dessert — no main course. Breezing by at a brisk 40 minutes, the album ends before it’s really had a chance to take off.

But Barairo Pop is a Singer Songer album, not a Cocco solo album. The fact Cocco would take a chance on a drastic creative makeover is admirable in its own right, and really, it’s refreshing to hear joy so prominently in her voice.

Pretty little picture

Kudos to PS Classics for including in the liner notes a quote that will be excerpted in every review of Sondheim Sings, Vol. 1, 1962-1972. So states Stephen Sondheim in 1971:

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of hearing my voice before, I tend to sing very loud, usually off pitch and always write in a keys that are just out of my range.

Sondheim’s estimation of his singing voice may be on target, but his gruff delivery sounds like he’d be great at karaoke. Not that he’d need a karaoke machine to back him up — he’s an incredible pianist, as this first volume of Sondheim’s personal demo tapes demonstrates.

In Meryle Secrest’s 1999 biography of Sondheim, the composer noted how he wasn’t an orchestrator, leaving that job mostly to Jonathan Tunick. But Tunick usually had his work cut out for him — Sondheim’s piano scores had enough material from which to draw.

The most telling track is a private performance of “The Glamorous Life” (from A Little Night Music) in front of guests. Sondheim explains the staging of the song to his audience while not missing a beat of his incredibly full accompaniment. It’s tough to imagine one person doing everything in this track.

The remaining tracks on Sondheim Sings, Vol. 1 were recorded by a friend with enough money to invest in home recording gear at the time. We’re not talking ProTools here — the use of reverb on some of recordings is a surprising embellishment.

Sondheim enthusiasts will no doubt find this album a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of his work. PS Classics annotates the material well, noting which songs were cut from which show and where lyrics have alternate versions.

Thing is, I’m only familiar with his latter-day work, so I have no real point of reference for most of this material. The notes are helpful in this regard.

It’s easy to see how A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through two different opening songs — “Invocation” and “Love Is in the Air” — before settling on “Comedy Tonight”.

“Multitudes of Amys” has some clever wordplay that teeters on annoying, but it’s interesting to see how bits of it worked its way into “Marry Me a Little”. Both were scrapped in favor of “Being Alive”.

Still, there’s something special about hearing a guy who would write music sung by hundreds of performers doing it himself.

And if the tongue-twisting aliterations of “Pretty Little Picture” are any gauge, that’s an amazing feat. (Amazing from my haphazard training, at least.)

There are about 74 demos in Sondheim’s library, which means more volumes in this series are forthcoming. So waiting will be the hard part.

True breadth

When previous editions of the Japan for Sale series were released, mainstream music was dominated by teen pop and nü metal. Underground tastes were splintered at the time, but if generalizations could be made, those tastes could lumped into the umbrellas of indie rock and electronica.

Sony Music hedged its bets on electronica as the “underground” music likely to crossover and stacked the track listings on the Japan for Sale compilations accordingly.

But in the recession of teen pop and nü metal from popular taste, indie rock emerged not as a driving cultural force but as a diffused common ground, where the likes of the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand and the Flaming Lips can achieve the same amount of success and remain distinct from one another.

Electronica, on the other hand, has had a difficult time shaking its association with a club culture driven by the drug Ecstacy.

With Japan for Sale, Vol. 4, Sony Music plays catch-up and showcases the diversity of Japan’s underground rock scene. It’s about time.

There are only so many ways a four-on-the-floor dance beat can be repackaged, and I don’t have a subtle enough ear to distinguish Takkyu Ishino from Ken Ishii and Kyoto Jazz Massive. At least DJ Krush has enough sense to bring guest performers on his ambient hip-hop adventures.

The first three tracks of Vol. 4 alone jump among some drastic styles. Tommy heavenly6, the second alter ego of the brilliant green singer Kawase Tomoko, offers some pop-friendly grunge on “Swear”. Rhymester immediately follows with a rapid-fire rap on “The Great Amateurhythm”. Then Guitar Wolf blasts through with the garage rock fury of “Can-nana Fever”.

The rest of the disc doesn’t let up, either. Asian Kung-Fu Generation does a better Weezer than Weezer on “N.G.S.” Boom Boom Satellites demonstrate how rock guitars and electronica can drive each other on “Dive for you”, and Kokeshi Doll finishes things off with the wonderfully disturbing “Hasuike no Uta”.

Some choices on Vol. 4 are curious. “baby beautiful” is a tender selection from ex-Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her mastermind Higurashi Aiha, but it’s not the best track from her solo debut Born Beautiful.

Mean Machine’s “Johnny Back” is a terrific inclusion on the compilation, but the one-off project featuring singer-songwriter Chara and Judy and Mary’s Yuki has been on hiatus. Its one-off album, Cream, is currently out of print.

“lang” wonderfully demonstrates the adventurousness of ACO’s most recent work, but the single “Machi” from her album irony would have been a natural choice.

A few tracks show Japan’s off-kilter tastes. Orange Range’s “Shanghai Honey” sounds like a mutated version of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”. L’Arc~en~Ciel’s “Ready Steady Go” is a maniacally bouncy tune, and Polysics continues its quest as Most Annoying Band in the Universe with “Kaja Kaja Goo”.

Japan for Sale, Vol. 4 is so far the strongest installment of this series. The program stays interesting throughout by jumping among a number of different styles, and the true breadth of the world’s second largest music market is finally revealed.

Let it lift

Used to be, electronica had no use for words.

A sampled one-liner here, maybe a verse of freestyle there — vocals were subjugated as music, never intended to convey a very detailed message.

Boom Boom Satellites, by virtue of its heavily electronic sound, has been lumped in with the techno crowd, but for a band filed under that genre, it certainly uses a lot of guitars.

In the past, the duo didn’t have much need for vocals either. And seriously? Kawashima Michiyuki wouldn’t give Kusano Masamune, Kishida Shigeru or Fujimaki Ryouta any sleepless nights.

But electronica in 2005 doesn’t have the kind of cachet it had in 1995, and Boom Boom Satellites are cognizant of the change in hipster taste.

Full of Elevating Pleasures, Boom Boom Satellites newest album in three years, finds the band remodeled for the new indie rock world order. Yes, the band still relies heavily on electronic effects, and yes, it still integrates a healthy dose of guitars into its highly kinetic music.

But now the band is writing actual songs.

“Let It All Come Down” sees Kawashima singing verses and choruses. He almost delivers a scream worthy of Mukai Shuutoku on “Moment I Count”, while “Dive for You” could almost eschew its electronic components to be a straight-forward rock song.

Some tracks effectively employ some soulful backing vocals. A gospel chorus blares out during the chorus of “Rise and Fall”, while “Back in the Night” goes so far as to “testify”.

A few tracks still fall back on the heavy-handed rhythms of its past work. “Spine” gets batshit crazy with the drum machines, and Kawashima doesn’t have much to offer aside from the one-liner, “Wake up and check your pulse.”

“Anthem” is not much more than an exercise of echo effects, but a compelling one at that, while “Echo Tail” goes so far as to use a lot of found sounds.

“Stride” concludes the album with a guest vocalist delivering a spoken word piece over the band’s more ethereal music.

Full of Elevating Pleasures is both Boom Boom Satellites most mainstream album and its most daring work. Of course, to fall back on traditional song structure after avoiding it on its first few albums is something of zag to the normal zig.

But the ease with which the duo flexes its rock muscle — while still maintaining its juice as far as electronic wizardry goes — reveals depths to the band’s music only previously hinted.

Boom Boom Satellites asserts itself as the rock band it always considered itself to be, but with Full of Elevating Pleasures, listeners will be very hard pressed to file them back under electronica again.

Summer in San Francisco

What makes Kicell a compelling listening experience is the way the duo creates lush but economical music. The brothers are fearless in incorporating all manner of strings, percussion and special effects, but their songs feel wide open.

On the pair’s last album, Mado ni Chikyuu, they eased a bit on the quirkiness of their arrangements, and it worked well for them.

But this time with its latest album, Tabi, the loosened grip results in less stellar results.

A number of the flourishes added to the song feel more predictable. The string work on “Kimi to Tabi” sounds closer to Paul McCartney than to Kronos Quartet.

“Charry” is a thematically busy song, thoroughly orchestrated with a relatively traditional band of organ, guitars and drums. It’s a feast for the ears, but it feels like Kicell could have done something more — or weirder — with it.

Other songs on the album are performed straight, with little of the band’s eclectic aural vision. “Niji wo Mita” comes as close to a rocker as Kicell gets, while “Hana ga Kudasai” has all the flourish but little of the flash of the band’s richest songs.

The nearly six-minute instrumental “Michi ga Massugu” doesn’t do much more than pulse, and in an odd way, it’s one of the most interesting tracks on the album.

It also marks the turning point — after that track, the songwriting doesn’t have the kind of forcefullness of Mado ni Chikyuu or Yume.

Would these songs have come off stronger if Kicell kept with its usual modus operandi and went crazy with the effects? Maybe not, but it would have given something on which the ears could latch.

Strangely enough, the most stripped down track on the album is also one Kicell’s best performances. “Yuki ni Kieru” is little more than guitar and a pair of voices. This time, the Tsujimarus invite female singer Kudo Hazuna to offer a contrasting timbre.

Kudo is obviously an untrained singer, and her harmonizing with Tsujimaru Takefumi is slightly out of tune. It’s that bit of grit that makes the performance riveting.

Tabi, in a way, is a reflection of the band’s second album, Kinmirai. The less cluttered arrangements on Tabi conjure a feeling of warmth, in the same way Kinmirai felt like winter. The idea of summer seems to weave itself into the songs.

While Tabi emphasizes more human performances — and less reliance on cold electronics — the songs themselves seem tepid and uninivting. Mark Twain once said the coldest winter he spent was a summer in San Francisco.

Kicell may not have had the City by the Bay in mind when recording Tabi, but for its next album, the should try to keep its heart where it’s been.

Salt in the drum

When TV chef Alton Brown adds salt to his dessert recipies, he always explains that salt is a flavor enhancer.

“You won’t know it’s there, until it’s not,” he says.

The “salt” was definitely missing from bloodthirsty butchers’ previous album, birdy. On the surface, birdy has all the hallmarks that makes the butchers such a reknowned punk band.

It was hard to find fault with the album, but it wasn’t easy to praise it either. (And my meandering review of birdy certainly demonstrates it.)

Whatever was missing from birdy is found again on banging the drum. In fact, repeat listens of banging the drum become more satisfying.

Having played with the butchers as a full-time member for two years now, ex-Number Girl guitarist Tabuchi Hisako makes a significant mark on the music. She serves as Lee Renaldo to Yoshimura Hideki’s Thurston Moore.

In fact, “Sanzan” and “B2” indulge in a bit of Goo-era Sonic Youth interplay. When “B2” concludes with a pair of guitar riffs entirely new to the song, I half-expected it to go on for another 10 minutes, awash in an ocean of distortion.

“Sanzan”, on the other hand, is one of the catchiest songs the butchers have written. The screaming chorus almost harkens to Number Girl, while the harmonizing conclusion offers a nice contrast.

“Yamaha-1” features Tabuchi on the chorus, and the sweetness of her vocals adds a pleasantly shocking shade to a buoyant song.

When the butchers pull back, its songs sound more like the extended, introspective workouts predominant on 2001’s yamane. “Plus/Minus” and the title track could have fit well on that previous album.

Instrumentals also take a big chunk of the program. “Maruzen House” and “This Is Music” are essentially karaoke tracks, hinting at melody and lyrics where there are really none. And the opening track, “Jushoo”, finds the band literally banging the drum — one full kit and a set of taiko drums.

Early reports described banging the drum as experimental, which it is — the butchers sound like they’re stretching themselves creatively and enjoying the results. Oddly enough, the album is also one of the most melodic the band has produced.

Maybe the experimentation brought back that intangible missing thing. More likely, the butchers stumbled onto their salt by simply playing hard and fast. Whatever the case, it’s nice to have it back.

Meet the music

When brilliant green singer Kawase Tomoko donned on the persona Tommy february6, she created music akin to the idea of performance practice in classical music.

Performance practice entails playing music from the past on the same kinds of instruments used when the music was written, such as playing Mozart on a piano that would have been built in the 1800s.

Tommy february6 goes a step further, creating new material in the same style as synthetic pop of the 1980s, using the same timbres. In fact, she was a bit too successful — her brand of ’80s pop possessed as much of its charms as its weaknesses.

brilliant green guitarist Matsui Ryo follows suit, but his focus of study is British rock from the late-’80s to early-’90s.

Matsui enlisted a who’s who of British rock collaborators — Sice from the Boo Radleys, Gary Stringer from Reef, Manda Rin from Bis, Loz from Ride, Nick Beggs from KajaGooGoo, even Howard Jones.

I met the music, meister’s debut album, painstakingly recreates the buzzsaw guitar rock of Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride and My Bloody Valentine. The entire album is sung in English, with the majority of lyrics written by Tim Jensen.

On paper, it seems like a dream project — guitarist for one of Japan’s most successful rock bands creating authentic British rock with some of the music’s most recognizable names in a language suitable for international success.

But like Tommy february6, meister manages to capture both the charm of British rock’s fuzzy guitars and its major weakness — a penchant for homogenous music.

At times, it seems the only way to tell when one song ends and the other begins is when the singer changes. And when one singer is used on multiple tracks, it can get easy to think a track repeated itself.

That’s not to say the material is weak — if anything, Matsui and crew do an incredible job crafting a larger-than-life sound.

The robotic melody of “Be Love” isn’t much of a fetching opener, but thick fuzz backing “Dignity” and the ringing arpeggios of “I Call You Love” make up for it.

“Maestro” shows off the most impressive guitar work on the album, while “My World Down” connects the dots between Jesus and Mary Chain and the brilliant green’s Los Angeles album.

Comparatively speaking, meister shows much more diliberation and thought than Tommy february6. I met the music hangs together better as an album, and despite the overall homogenous tone, there’s fewer filler.

Fans of music from that time and place will find I met the music a satisfying album, but listeners not as savvy to that style may find it trying.