REVIEW: KARIN.- IDENTITY CRISIS

Newcomer Karin. quietly released her debut mini album “Identity Crisis” earlier this month, causing a little ripple for those in the know. It is gaining slightly more traction as word of mouth spreads. This is for good reason too, Karin. manages to find that sweet nostalgia for last generation’s pop-rock and runs with it quite naturally. Often, when an artist doesn’t try anything new on debut, they are either dismissed outright or written of as an (insert artist name here) clone. Karin., however manages to take many, many inspirations and avoid being pinned down by any given comparison.

She certainly is a child of her generation. The music presented here is what she grew up, knows and most importantly- loves. Her cute, nasal vocals really will resonate with those who have been into Japanese rock for a long time, and the cute, punky songwriting is refreshing from being so simple and direct. There is a quaintness to the whole thing, it has a karaoke vibe to it, which also gives it a real aura of authenticity that is often hard to come across in bolder recordings. Quite a stark contrast to other major J-pop albums of 2019, its a breezy listen that impresses without shoving itself in your face.

Karin. has a lot of sweet naivety in her songwriting, which in instantly relatable to young and older listeners alike. Songs like “Teenager” and “End Roll” bring up memories from earlier years, when J-rock seemed much simpler and insular, and remind why so many people fell in love with it to begin with. Production is bright and glossy, but never too clean to take you out of it’s sweetness.

Mostly, Karin.’s “Identity Crisis” will be a nostalgia trip for those that miss the likes of late 90s pop-rock in their mix. What little this mini album has to offer in originality, is fully made up in absolute love for the artists it takes inspiration from. As we leave Hesei and enter Reiwa, it is safe to say that Hesei‘s sound is still going to follow for quite a long time yet.

7/10 A really lovely debut from Karin., it will be interesting to see where she goes next. For now though, a much needed listen in the dry spell that seems to have hit traditional J-pop of late. Check it out!

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REVIEW: KARIN.- IDENTITY CRISIS

FIVE SHORTIES VOLUME 2

Here’s a little catch up on some of the recent releases that have caught my attention over the last few months, compacted into a new gauntlet of short, snappy reviews.

sakanaction- 834.194

sakanaction‘s long awaited 834.194 is finally here, and it is what it should be- for fans it delivers on all fronts, it’s ambitious, varied and has enough new material alongside the pre-released singles to still feel like a new record. However- for a casual listener like myself it’s overproduced to a fault, excruciatingly long (18 tracks over 2 discs) and required three sittings to listen to it all. That’s all personal preference though, I feel that it could be chopped in half and be a much stronger album. Still, what’s good, is very good, and it’s still the best mainstream pop record from Japan that I’ve heard in 2019 so far. 7/10

Seiko Oomori- Re: Re: Love feat Mineta Kazunobu

Seiko Oomori’s latest single is not only great- it happens to be the greatest single she’s put out since 2015’s Magic Mirror. Ging Nang BOYZ’ Mineta Kazunobu helped with the songwriting chops on the title track, which is the most poignant, potent and romantic song I’ve heard this year so far. Seiko’s backing band are at their absolute best here, the production is raw as fuck and the punk origins that Seiko came from seep through it’s pores. The two b-sides are also very strong, JUSTadICE is a hard hitting and wild ride, a very shounen anime inspired track (it indeed is the new opening for BLACK CLOVER) complete with a ridiculous nu-metal breakdown in the middle and the third song Mekkawa is the cutest ‘traditional’ Seiko Oomori song she’s put out in a while- a really nice, short acoustic number complete with the layered vocals that she used to experiment with back in her earlier catalog. It’s a real fan treat and definitely worth picking up. 9.5/10

Otoboke Beaver- ITEKOMA HITS

I guess since both Pitchfork and Fantano have now highlighted this one, I’d put in my two cents too. It’s pretty damn great. Over its 26 minutes it never lets up, and at such a short running length- it still feels complete. That’s quite an achievement in itself. The vitriol and absolute frustration spit from these women is palatable, the blazing hardcore punk instrumentation is so tight that it puts listeners on edge, a single fuck up and it would all fall apart. Everything goes hard as hell and is one of the most blistering ‘fuck you’s’ to the Japanese patriarchy I have come across in all my time I have been into the Japanese music scene. Vicious, angry and meaningful, Otoboke Beaver have released a record that will be talked about for years to come. If you’re not interested in all that and just in for some hardcore punk- then think of this as a Kawaii Converge. 8.5/10

Non- Babyface

Non’s “Babyface” is a neat little mini album of 90’s inspired rock songs. While it never breaks any new ground, the playfulness and notably improved instrumentals from before are enough to keep the listener engaged and entertained for its duration. Cute, sharp and intelligent, this one will capture the hearts of her fans and likely bring in some newcomers to her fan-base too. 7/10

Park Soyu- Night Greetings

The lead single ‘Oskar’ from Park Soyu’s mini album “Night Greetings” was fun, dark and sexy. It drew me right in, and thus like all K-pop, I went into the full release with some trepidation- worried that it would be another case of great single, filler tracks for the rest of the record. Thankfully then, it was not, and actually turned out to be a very adventurous, genre hopping delight. No dud tracks are to be found at all, and Park Soyu’s vocals are really versatile throughout. It’s one of the best K-pop mini albums I’ve come across in a while, and warrants further re-listens. Recommended! 7.5/10

FIVE SHORTIES VOLUME 2

REVIEW: SHIINA RINGO- SANDOKUSHI

Well, it’s finally arrived, Shiina Ringo‘s long, long awaited sixth record, entitled ‘Sandokushi‘. It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of her later output, I really didn’t enjoy ‘Hi Izuro Tokoro’ and I’ve been especially disgruntled by her most recent singles, so to say that I went in wary and with undeniable pre-determined bias is an understatement.

I did however, try to go in as open as possible for an album I’d already heard the majority of (as will be explained below). I’m not going to be treading old ground and comparing to anything from her ‘legacy’ releases either- that dead horse is fucking beat as it gets. I guess in a situation like this the main question is ‘Were there any more surprises to be found from the record?‘ Read on to find out.

So let’s start by having a look at what is actually on offer here. 13 tracks total, and at the point of it’s release date, only three left unheard. That’s already a pretty bad start for Ringo fans and enthusiasts, more disparagingly so because some of the songs are getting on a bit- some being almost five years old already. Secondly, outside of the ‘new’ compositions for this album, there doesn’t seem to be a real flow to the record, it’s almost juvenile in it’s composition as a whole. It definitely is reaching to say that it has a distinguishable theme other than that which Ringo has tacked on recently via Kronekodow.

But that’s not to say it’s 100% awful. Cast aside non existent album flow, blink and you’ll miss it non-gaps between songs for a second and just look at some of the separate songs. ‘Ma Cherie’ is quite nice (though was nicer in it’s Ringo Expo ’18 rendition), the faster, upbeat version of ‘Donzoko Made’ is decent, ‘Kamisama, Hotokesama’ is an oldie but a goodie, still the best single she’s released in the last few years. ‘TOKYO’ is an OK song, if bringing up an intense sense of déjà vu despite it’s stripped back arrangement. Finally the closer ‘Ano Yo no Mon’, is the most wonderfully creative Ringo has been in years, even if it never gets fully realized and seems to cut off just as things are about take off. The rest of the album, however, ranges from passable (opener ‘Niwatori to Hebi to Buta’) to downright nails on the chalkboard grating (HZM featuring song ‘Isogaba Maware’, ‘Jiyu-dom’ and this reviewers all time most hated but fan favorite, the somewhat now legendary ‘Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri’).

While it’s true that the titular “three poisons” mythology is certainly interesting, the Hansel and Gretel trail of corporate jingles scattered throughout rarely gives this idea time to bloom and reach a level that that can be truly believed; instead what is delivered is a strange absurdity that is, dare I say it, nearly deviant in nature. I feel Ringo really is trying to say something here, but the message is so misplaced and buried in the sea of its own camp that it gets bogged down and murky as soon as the album’s introductory track is over.

Which brings me to the real questions people should be taking into consideration from this album. Up until recently, Shiina Ringo had made a massive and dutiful point in killing off the earlier, edgier image that she had; in lieu of a classy, jazzy output, aimed at the high end, stay at home housewife market. Why then has she tried to integrate this faux edginess again? A fucking centaur? Is this a premeditated FUCK YOU or troll, or is it -and far more likely- a sort of midlife crisis or last hurrah; a reach back to them earlier days but coming off a little bit Madonna-like in the process?

Ultimately I think the answer might lie right there in the packaging. The booklet contains a picture of herself in a knights helmet from twenty years ago. With the Olympics upcoming and her talking about Sandokushi being the end of a 2nd trilogy of records, it will not surprise at all if this turns out to be her final album. It’s a damn shame then, that it’s a bit of a clunker, chock full of duets and only a few really meaty cuts.

5.5/10 In short, an interesting tone is set by Sandokushi, but never really explored. It’s a very mixed bag, and it definitely can’t be denied that it’s truly a compilation rather than an album- which is very disappointing because the mythology and concept Ringo has created is by far the most interesting aspect of the album (even if it really only applies on a superficial level). If it does turn out to be the last album by her ever, at least it carries with it a certain ‘WTF‘ aspect that is almost admirable.

I still can’t unsee that album cover though, yeesh.

REVIEW: SHIINA RINGO- SANDOKUSHI

REVIEW: Passepied- More Humor

more humor

It’s a strange thing to talk about Passepied in 2019; only a few years ago they were toted to be the next HUGE band. They had at one point, three extremely exciting releases in a row and shared similarities with groups like Tokyo Jihen, Midori and a vocalist that really managed to capture the spirit of legends like YUKI. They had J-pop at their fingertips, but then, sharply, fell off into the world of music nerds and near obscurity.

It didn’t help that their recent works were all missing a real focus or edge, plagued with filler tracks and a sense of lifelessness. I barely even blinked when they announced their latest release ‘more humor‘ earlier in the year, but singles and samples really caught my attention- had Passepied found their ‘mojo’ again? Let’s find out!

While some of these songs are traditional Passepied ‘bangers’ (like the blazing opener ‘Graffiti‘), the majority of the albums magic lies in it’s subtleties. I’ve never found the group to be a particularly ‘sexy’ one, but songs like lead single ‘ONE‘ and the absolutely outstanding ‘waltz‘ (likely this reviewers new favorite song by the group, period) really show a tenderness that one doesn’t generally think of when talking about ‘Passepied’.

The instrumental work has really improved over the years; the band sound massive here- there’s some absolutely breathtaking guitar passages and key work (even when they do fall into the 80s revival trappings that has worn out its welcome in recent times). Drums are mega tight, holding the often intricate and progressive compositions together with gusto. Every member gets their moment to shine throughout, often it’s hard to believe that they aren’t chart topping mainstream favorites.

There’s also a lot more focus here on getting the production right- the ‘brickwalling’ that plagued their earlier works is almost completely gone, and the vocals have been balanced and mixed far more ‘sensibly‘: no longer are they a dominating factor. Nothing is ever out of place or overused, Passepied sound like they’re putting their heart and soul into all of these songs- and for the most part, they work wonderfully.

It’s very rare that I complain about an album being too short- but for this one, the finale just fizzles out, I actually sat there waiting for the next song to play on first spin. For the most part the album is very tight, but would have benefited from either something extra and more punchy to close it, or a track-list shuffle. It’s a nitpick but does drag the album as whole down that little bit.

There’s a couple of songs that don’t hit the mark quite as strong either, the bland R138 is a drag and BTB sounds like a desperate and unnecessary attempt at an early Passepied song to pander to fans. However, despite those niggles, it’s still undoubtedly the finest work put out by Passepied since 2015’s ‘Shabaraba‘.

Ultimately, Passepied’s latest offering sounds confident, mature and oftentimes gigantic. It finally feels like Passepied have picked up where they left off- whether or not those fans that became disinterested will return to the group will be an interesting thing to watch pan out.

7/10– More Humor is a strong, professional and mature comeback release from a band that have lost their way in recent times. Let’s hope they continue in this direction, because there’s potential here for something truly incredible. As it stands, you could pick up far worse to check out.

REVIEW: Passepied- More Humor

REVIEW- MOKA SATO- MERRY GO ROUND

Moka Sato‘s new album ‘Merry go round‘ starts off dreamy with a little ditty ‘Insomnia‘.  This sets the tone perfectly for what is going to come; a meticulously crafted and planned-out dreamland of some of the most gorgeous tracks to come out of Jpop in a while. Managing to integrate elements of many different genres (ranging from RnB/Hip-hop, Jazz and Folk to smidgens of Doo-Wop and Cabaret here) without sounding trite is quite a difficult thing to pull off- but not only does Sato seem to do it right- she absolutely flourishes in doing so.

At a brisk 32 minutes, Moka Sato manages to expand and improve significantly on her debut album, ‘LUKEWARM‘ that I spun on release but never really clicked with (though on a recent return, it still has some absolutely quaint enjoyment to be found). The production is greatly widened, instrumentation tighter, vocals more focused and strong. She’s really hit a run here, and there’s no slowing her down.

The album seems to be written as a full listening experience (complete with gorgeous short intermissions), it breezes by and there’s no tracks that wreck the flow (even when it hits acoustic folk number ‘Tomodachi‘), all building to the brightest and most brazenly catchy single on the album, the lovely ‘melt summer‘.

My favorite song is the jazz heavy ‘Utau Onna‘, which is exactly what I love to hear when it comes to Japanese Pop with jazz influences- it stays bright and bouncy but ever so often feels like its going to come off the rails, creating a gorgeous tension. Oh and that sax/piano solo: amazing. Jazz in J-pop has become almost a cliche/joke at this point, but Moka Sato really seems to understand it and uses it as a tool, rather than merely a tack-on, and it’s absolutely refreshing to hear.

Overall, refreshing is really the best word to describe ‘Merry go round‘ in general. I’ve not been able to put the album down since listening to it, a wonderful surprise that I’m very grateful to have come across this year. Definitely another AOTY contender for 2019 (watch out CHAI!), and one that I’m sure most of my readers will enjoy.

9/10– Moka Sato has really lifted her game with this one and presents a brilliant, essential sophomore release. Adorable.

REVIEW- MOKA SATO- MERRY GO ROUND

REVIEW: Seiko Oomori- Zettai Kanojo feat. Sayumi Michishige

(This review looks at the single as a package, not just the A-side)

There was always going to come a time where Seiko Oomori eventually dropped a single that I couldn’t defend whatsoever- and this is the one, a reimagining of a classic with Seiko’s personal idol Sayumi Michishige onboard. Even though Zettai Kanojo in it’s original form is one of her finest works to date- this absolute bastardization is a big black blemish on her gorgeous pink canvas. The overuse of autotune, miserably overproduced backing track and knowledge that she has done a better duet with a JAV actress all add up to the worst track in Seiko Oomori’s discography to date.

However, the two b-sides that come with it really soften the blow- for they are two of her best songs since TOKYO BLACK HOLE- particular LOW hAPPYENDROLL — Shoujo no Mama de Shinu, a gorgeous, lengthy power ballad that really embraces Seiko’s most tender side (with sweet, humble, non-autotuned backing vocals by Hiraga Sachie), complete with a gigantic release near the end is everything I love about Seiko Oomori.

The brand new version of VOID is amazing too -a punky rendition of the acoustic bonus track that appeared on certain versions of KUSOKAWA Party– harken back to her wild days in former band Pink Tokarev. It’s adorable, majorly catchy and bound to get stuck in your head for days. It really showcases the best of her live side, and it’s surprisingly even more effectively energetic than most of her previous album. More like this please!

So, overall, what you’re getting into with this single is a really terrible A-side (sorry Sayumi Michishige fans!) and two blisteringly amazing b-sides that deserve all fans attention. It’s a pretty nice 5th anniversary parcel- and the blu-ray edition comes with a pretty damn sweet concert from the Kusokawa Party tour too.

I’m comfortable with giving an overall score of 7/10– Two great, one truly awful track make up a pretty decent single well worth having for Seiko Oomori fans.

REVIEW: Seiko Oomori- Zettai Kanojo feat. Sayumi Michishige

REVIEW: CHAI- PUNK

CHAI‘s ‘PUNK‘ is one of the most immediate, fun, and addictive records that has come out of J-pop in quite a while. It might be bright and silly at times, but it still is indeed, as the album title suggests, a punk record at it’s heart. From it’s ugly ass album cover, to it’s simple, but potent lyricism and punchy, memorable choruses on literally every track; CHAI recognize that their rough edges are perfect for hooking their listeners in to create an unforgettable experience. This album is no exception.

The group’s previous album ‘PINK‘ was a fantastic milestone and got CHAI worldwide recognition (including a Pitchfork feature)- PUNK continues in it’s vein, but manages to be slightly uglier, have more attitude and again, will receive an international release via Burger records. Also like it’s predecessor, CHAI uses a slimline approach to the album as a whole, making a very tight listening experience clocking in at a mere 31 minutes- making it an easy album to digest for newcomers, and a very repeatable listen for established fans at the same time.

Of all the praise I’ve seen for CHAI, I have yet to see anyone focus on what I feel is one of the key elements that makes them so standout- and that is the amazing bass guitar work by Yuuki (ironically the latest member to join the group). Sure, Mana, Kana and Yuna all are essential and irreplaceable here- but that amazing amount of crunch Yuuki brings to the table (listen to “FAMILY MEMBER” for the best example of this) is what really cements the sound fans love. It also happens to have the most adorable song CHAI have ever recorded, with closing track “FUTURE” lamenting on the dreams of childhood.

Most importantly, the album carries the ‘girl power’ that CHAI have made a name for themselves with- which feels absolutely right for a group from Japan- with the serious and current issues of equality and image touched upon throughout all the bops presented here (most glaringly blatant on lead single ‘Fashionista‘). Top that with CHAI’s absolute discontent for ‘kawaii’ culture (indeed calling their blend of music ‘neo-kawaii’) and you have one amazing melting pot that represents more than just a small part of what is going on underneath Japan’s cultural veneer. It’s compelling and exciting- and PUNK as fuck.

9/10. CHAI’s best and most important work to date, PUNK is an album no-one should be skipping off their radar this year.

REVIEW: CHAI- PUNK