Review: Utada Hikaru- Fantôme

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Utada Hikaru‘s last Japanese album, HEART STATION, in this reviewers humble opinion, was a true masterpiece in the genre. Not just because it stood on it’s own right, but because it was the culmination of everything before it. Hikaru had taken all the elements she had built up and gave us a impeccably produced, truly trademark and SUBTLE album that has stood the test of time (it still sounds fresh after eight years!). Fantôme, then, should be a continuation, a homecoming. However, its not. Instead, it throws all subtlety aside and holds your hand through every track. THIS IS A SOPPY BALLAD, THIS IS A CUTE BOP. No interesting production choices here, folks, just plain, simple pop that, like, for use of a recent example, J.J Abram’s The Force Awakens, truly is there just to pander.

The opener “Michi“s intro instantly gives a glimpse of hope- THIS IS AMAZING!– but is dulled when the main melody jerks in and- while still rather pretty- also is noticeably overproduced and just a little bit ‘too much’ for any kind of real effect. By the end of the track you’ve lost interest and are simply waiting to see ‘what’s next’. The same goes for “Ore no Kanojo”. It’s so promising with it’s jazzy setup, but again, deteriorates into overproduced fluff by the time the chorus hits.

The much revered  track “Nijikan Dake no Vacance” is really nothing special in the end. Just a little ditty that has the novelty of featuring Shiina Ringo on guest vocals. It’s sweet and it’s cute, but it really holds no weight with this listener, especially after hearing the potential that these two artists both can reach. This coupling should be EXTRAORDINARY, not just another radio friendly tune that blends in with everything else.

This continues for the remainder of the album, humble songs that have so much promise but feel a need to go ‘big‘, a trying lack of patience seems to be widespread across the release. What’s interesting is that out of the six tracks that have been released already, the ones this reviewer found the most lackluster and underwhelming- ballads “Hanataba wo Kimi ni” and especially “Manatsu no Tooriame” now feel the most poignant and “real“. Closer, “Sakura Nagashi” is still as brilliant as the day it was released- and while an ‘old’ track- can be forgiven because it’s just so damn good.

There is one major, surprising exception to this though- the track “Boukyaku” featuring rapper KOHH. On paper it seems like a pretty awful idea- and before I heard it I was dreading the end result. Luckily then- it does not take the ‘rap, chorus, rap’ format expected, but tries something intriguing and fresh. A brooding, almost haunting track that doesn’t let up. It gives a sense of reflection– thoughts lost in the moment. It never goes for a big cheesy payoff, and it’s rewarding because of it. It’s definitely a unique piece in the scheme of the album and truly the standout track.

Finally, one thing that must unfortunately be addressed is the mastering and mixing. None of the previews or music videos before would suggest that it would be an issue- but after hearing the final album master- it sounds as digitally brickwalled and similar to label-mate Shiina Ringo‘s latest releases. Whether this is a Universal Music thing or something that Utada has chosen herself- it really sounds quite discerning for the kind of music here. There are basically no mid-levels, highs roll off. There’s way too much hiss on Hikki‘s voice, to the point of distraction. It’s a damn shame and truly saddening to see happen to an artist such as Utada Hikaru of all people. It all accumulates to a very fatiguing experience for the listener. She and her fans deserve better than this.

But hey, perhaps I am just being a grumpy old fart with unreasonable expectations. Go ahead, lap it up. I’ll be interested in Utada Hikaru again when they reissue HEART STATION on vinyl.

6/10- Utada Hikaru’s comeback release hints at some truly amazing heights, but is squashed under its own weight and mastering issues. Let’s hope Hikki plays it less safe on future releases.

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Review: Utada Hikaru- Fantôme

REVIEW: Leah Dou- Stone Café

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19 year old singer-songwriter Leah Dou‘s latest album “Stone Café” has had quite the buildup to release, with five singles and now it’s finally out in full, in all it’s sad, sexy glory. Beautiful instrumentation, great vocal performances and warm production are the name of the day, and it’s definitely a standout in the C-Pop field this year.

Dou bandies with the melancholy on a lot of these tracks- but never really manages to hit those deep emotional depths that she seems to be going for. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- it makes up for it with a lot of dark playfulness throughout- particularly in moments such as the steamy “Bitter Sweet” where she croons over a wonderfully sexy beat. It’s seductive and dangerous, as is later track, the jazzy “Drive“. “Lola” shows Dou’s absolute mastery of subtlety, with such smooth chord progressions you barely notice them happening. It’s truly a hypnotic and relaxing experience and the dirty synth in the latter half is just the icing on the cake. The hardest hitting track on the album, the aptly named “Explosions“, is just outright neat to listen to, and you will find yourself nodding along to the beat naturally.

Leah Dou’s album, as great as it is, stops just short of being amazing– with the latter half being bogged down with more filler like tracks (“River Run” tries to hit the heights of “Bitter Sweet” but comes off like a pale shadow) and dull ballads (“May Rain“, while pretty, feels uncomfortably lighthearted in the murk, “Chimes” feels phoned in). The closing track “Blue Flamingo” by itself is a delightfully jazzy ditty, but feels like a fizzle rather than a bang in the scheme of the album.

It also suffers from sounding slightly dated at times, unintentionally or not.The production style evokes 90s trip-hop, which unfortunately doesn’t work 100% of the time here. Sometimes things get a little muddy and confused and instruments mush and melt into one another. However, none of these nitpicks are enough to ruin the experience as a whole.

Dou will always live under the shadow of her parents (legendary singer songwriter Dou Wei and even more legendary pop diva Faye Wong), but Stone Café really is quite the entertaining experience- Dou has truly made a name for herself here in her own right. It’s very exciting to see such a beautiful release come out of the Chinese pop scene this year, and the fact that its entirely in English will make it even more approachable for the international audience. I’m sure more than a few people will receive this album warmly. Sure it has it’s imperfections, but it’s certainly an album that everyone should give at least a serious spin to.

7/10– Leah Dou’s latest album is a sexy, sultry listen that only just misses the mark from being something amazing.

REVIEW: Leah Dou- Stone Café