Hirone-Chan proves that third time really is lucky with “Yume no Yume”

It always sounds presumptuous and conniving when someone tells you that an album will ‘need multiple spins to truly appreciate’, but Hirone-chan‘s subtle, gorgeous and mysterious third LP “Yume no Yume” fits that bill perfectly. It’s not so much in that it’s ‘strange’ or ‘weird’; it’s that it shows so much growth and maturity over her previous works that it’s almost like listening to a different artist.

However, the way she shows this growth isn’t through a massive change in sound, it, instead shows it through the most subtle ways that really do need multiple listens to fully reveal themselves. It’s labyrinthine in it’s complexity, yet constantly approachable and pop in the broadest sense. It’s a career-developing step forward for the artist, and it’s striking lack of fanfare doing so will make it one of the most revisited albums of 2017.

Hirone-Chan’s albums have always been a bit on the fluttery side; enjoyable but never really strong enough to leave a lasting impression. With this third album however, all the doubt has been put aside and she has touched a level of quality untouched before. This is a much more refined work, with a lot of detail and care put into its fleeting length. Hirone-chan seems determined to etch her own path, alongside rather than with the generation of ‘alt-girls’ she is generally lumped with.

One of the most notable things Hirone-chan has accomplished here is how encapsulated her little world of “Yume no Yume” is; it feels like any slight change would bring it all crashing down on itself. A great amount of thought has been put into the delicate structure of the album and there isn’t a single track that seems out of place or unneeded. It creaks and floats along like a beautiful old ship, that is truly adored by it’s captain.

Hirone-chan has also lifted her vocal game tenfold for this album. Where she usually gave a decent, workable performance, she now is highly emotive and pushes the songs to a much higher, harder hitting level. She’s still cute as ever but now seems to have found her calling; and it’s exiting as hell to experience.

Musically, it’s a very pretty experience. Hirone-chan has somewhat dropped the electronic part of her music (there are still a few samples and loops in play) for a more natural, jazzy experience. It has expanded her signature sound quite dramatically, with interesting chord changes and time signatures not unlike more experimental music strewn throughout; but most importantly, still somehow manages to stay in that cute pop sphere the entire time. Not to let her backing band go to waste, there are two absolutely gorgeous instrumental pieces here that sit perfectly behind the two singles of the album- which also happen to be the most breathtaking, theatrical songs on the album.

Whether it be the two singles “Omoidasenai Yume Mitai ni” or “Yokusou Plankton“; with their sweeping, gorgeous choruses or more jazzy, sweet moments like “Wonder Tender” or “Slow Parade”, every song has something lovely to offer to the listener. The latter half of the album offers more delicate, minimal tracks that showcase Hirone-chan’s ability to capture the listener’s attention without the need of a backing band or glitzy production.

In the end, Hirone-chan has ultimately offered up a truly wonderful piece of Jpop pie; one that you will no doubt be begging for a second slice as soon as you’re finished with the first slice. Essential listening and will likely end up in this reviewers top 10 of 2017 this year. Get on it.

9/10 Hirone-chan’s Yume no Yume is the first album that Hirone-chan truly feels like her own artist, and she shines because of it.  Just make sure you listen to it a few times to let it really sink in.

Hirone-Chan proves that third time really is lucky with “Yume no Yume”

REVIEW: CHAI’s Homegoro Series is the sweet little EP you’re looking for.

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On appearance alone, you could be forgiven to think that CHAI would be another cutesy idol group- anyone new to the group could take any frame from their video clip for “Sayonara Complex” out of context and it would fit that stereotypical mold. However, upon actually listening, what is revealed is something much, much more exciting. This is a ROCK outfit in all senses of the word; and despite the cute veneer, there’s some truly hard hitting, focused tunes coming out of this surprising beast of a band.

The first thing you will notice when hitting up CHAI’s second EP is how damn punchy it is. Sure it’s loud (but playfully so), but it’s also very crisp. Guitar work is always front and center, and the drumming simple but tight. The bass is beautifully buzzy and holds quite a bit of weight to it, has great key work, and is all held together by ridiculously appealing and cute vocals from all members of the group- it almost feels like you’re at a private live set.

Secondly, and most importantly, the tunes are fantastic. REALLY fantastic. Every song on the five track EP offers something equally charming and memorable. Whether it be the sweetly upbeat march of single “Sayonara Complex” or the bouncy, hard edged rapping elements of “Boys Seko Men“, nothing here seems redundant or out of place. It’ll hook you in from the opener “Sound and Stomach” right through to the end of its short and sweet 20 minute run-time.

So go ahead, go and listen to this surprising little gem while it’s hot. Conventionality is definitely NOT what the group are going for- and bravely have given a surprising, charming mix of pop, funk and indie all wrapped nicely in a rock coating with this EP. If you’re even remotely into Japanese rock music, this is a sure fire bet that you will enjoy it. It leaves the listener satisfied, encourages repeat listens and makes you crave more from the group. One to keep an eye on for sure!

8/10 CHAI’s second EP is a fantastic listen, it’s boundless energy, bouncy tunes and heavy dose of playfulness merge to create one of the most un-skippable releases of 2017.

REVIEW: CHAI’s Homegoro Series is the sweet little EP you’re looking for.

Review and discussion: Shiina Ringo & Tortoise Mastumoto- Menukidori

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Menukidori (or The Main Street), the theme song for new high end luxury mall GINZA SIX, is the latest single from Shiina Ringo. This time she’s teamed up with Tortoise Matsumoto, the end result being one of her trademark showtunes, apparently riding the ass of the La La Land craze now hitting Japan. That’s about all there is to say about the tune- it’s a jingle. As far as Ringo showtunes go, it’s totally run-of-the-mill. We’ve been hearing the same thing for a decade now and this one is likely the messiest- due to it being a hodgepodge effort of extending a one and half minute jingle to a three-minute single. There’s no heart to be found here- it’s all for the money. Vocal performances are fine but limp, there’s hardly any real harmony between Ringo and Matsumoto, they just plod along for the tracks duration. Casual listeners are bound to be wooed by it’s ‘classy’ charm, older fans depending on their tolerance for Ringo ponce, will at most, find it pleasant but unexciting, Saito Neko giving another shoehorned-in backing track that we’ve heard a thousand times before.

4/10.

But I have more to say about Ringo in general. I’m sure most people who follow me will no doubt know of my current… disillusion with Shiina Ringo and her choice of career direction. I would like to take this opportunity to best as possible explain the exact issue, and why I feel it should be addressed.

I’ve been a Shiina Ringo fan for a long, long time. I’ve seen it all. The fall at Expo 14, that terrible NIPPON peformance, the fart sounding BB Queen, the goofy Tokyo Jihen moments, Ukigumo’s sloppy guitar work, the delayed single cause of a certain drunken drummer, the Variety controversies, the showtunes, the change in sound, the terrible mastering, everything. I’ve defended her through most of this. But the current thing, her new ‘direction’, is the thing that I, and others are finding very hard to ignore or look over is impossible to defend. I talk of course, of this (now ridiculous) period of doing solely tie in tracks.

One thing people who show disdain for the constant tie ins are accused of are hating them because they are tie ins, that we’re just being ‘snobs’ or ‘just don’t understand how the industry works’. Sure, not everyone is an industry expert, but we do understand the need to make some money. ON THE SIDE. Let’s have a look back to how it used to be. Not too far, just a couple of years.

In the days of Tokyo Jihen (particularly latter era phase 2), there were many tie ins too, but the key difference was that Jihen’s song inspired the CM, rather than the song being ordered for the CM. The songs of Jihen still felt like they were coming from a genuine place, even if the songs themselves weren’t always their strongest efforts. Most importantly, Jihen released much more material alongside these releases too, it never felt exhausting or a major focus of their career.

Today, Shiina Ringo fans patiently wait 7 months between studio singles- only to be treated to- you guessed it, another tie in.

Our cross to bear for being less-than-positive long-term Shiina Ringo fans is this underlying idea that we were unable to adapt to change- where the fact of the matter is that Ringo’s music has not changed whatsoever in a decade. It’s just become more dispassionate, detached from any kind of warmth. There’s a sense that she’s now this ‘classy’ product; when really all she’s doing is making sketchy pop songs half baked with lazy, entry level jazz. Nothing she has released in the last three years has been for the sake of being a musician, everything has to be a tie in of some kind. The desire to stay relevant is important and understandable, but at the cost of becoming a joke to the people that got her to where she is in the first place? It’s such a shame.

For someone trying her hardest to appear so dignified, she’s doing it with absolutely no dignity. Sure she might not be flashing her tits from the rafters, but this is Shiina Ringo we’re talking about. If you can sit by and watch her become a soulless product, that’s fine. But never did I once imagine that someone so amazing would one day end up selling us a fucking shopping mall.

To end on a lighter note- there is still one hope though- her live shows, which, sans Expo ’14, seem to be holding strong. Fingers crossed she doesn’t let that go next.

Review and discussion: Shiina Ringo & Tortoise Mastumoto- Menukidori

Review: Seiko Oomori’s “kitixxxgaia” is her most ambitious work yet

For the first time in Seiko Oomori’s discography, kitixxxgaia feels gargantuan; it focuses on bigger themes such as religion, idol culture and female equality, rather than previous work’s more singular and personal themes. Every track feels towering and monolithic, even the stripped back songs are huger than anything that has come before. Sure, the personal touches are still there, but this time Seiko seems to be pushing the wide scale themes touched on in songs like Magic Mirror to the forefront. At points she sounds more furious, angry even. She screams, wails, laughs and talks over the phone throughout. It’s a fiery, sensory overload and it’s impossible to take your attention from.

So where does this album fit in the big picture of Seiko Oomori’s discography? The first thing instantly noticeable when comparing last years’ TOKYO BLACK HOLE to kitixxxgaia is the huge personality shift. Where TOKYO BLACK HOLE felt warm, motherly and refined, kitixxxgaia opts for abrasive, hard hitting and epic. It feels like she’s bringing her punk roots back to the surface but still keeping the colorful and glossy production style of her avex works, and it’s an insatiable mix. It’s rougher round the edges, has a dry sense of humor and is slightly bitter underneath even the brightest parts. It constantly carries a melancholy unlike anything before and thus makes her avex debut, Sennou seem innocent in comparison.

Without going into a full track by track, and excluding repeating what I said about the previously released singles, I will go into a few of the strongest of the new songs. But before that, it must be mentioned that Seiko has worked wonders with the singles she already had here. Upon announcement, I, likely along with a lot of others, was worried about how well some of them would have fit in with this. To put it short: they fit wonderfully. When reviewing the singles as a standalone project, everything felt a bit clunky and all over the place. Here, the singles- are all spaced out to perfection. They might not be Seiko’s strongest singles ever (sans Dogma Magma which is a beast) but this helps the overall flow of the album. Whether this was a conscious decision, amazing luck, pre-planned or a mix of all of these elements, this listener is grateful for the effort made with the album layout and the payoff it brings.

Dogma Magma sets the scene wonderfully, a twisting, turning, profound track that is easily one of the finest tracks of Seiko’s career. Seiko doesn’t attempt to make that balance of pop and rock, she throws it to the wind and brings something truly extraordinary here; a Dadaist inspired lamentation on religion and pop culture that throws away standard catchiness in exchange for a more breathtaking experience. Most artists who attempt this, usually would likely come across as lame or tryhard. However, with Seiko on the helm, this is one mighty hard hitter and an amazing opening track; perhaps her most amazing opener to date. It no doubt will go down as one of her iconic moments, and will no doubt become a fan favorite.

IDOL SONG, with its unashamed referencing to the idol culture which Seiko so dearly loves (featuring references and mentions of groups like Neggico, as well as idol catchphrases as lyrics), is a wild trip, igniting memories of the sensory overload of Harajuku’s fashion or Akihabara storefronts. It’s loud, in your face and there’s no escape; yet you feel no desire to leave.  It’s a perfect platform for Seiko’s blend of cute madness. Similarly cute and playful is the following track, JI・MO・TO no Kao Kawaii Tomodachi which bounces along on an adorably groovy melody, reminiscent of Shoji Meguro‘s work on the Persona 4 soundtrack.

Daoko featuring track Chikyuu Saigo no Futari is a loving homage to the songs of Shiiina Ringo, both artists particularly vocal about the impact of Ringo’s music on their songwriting. It is one of the most tender and groovy tracks on the album, a bop in every sense of the word. The string work is gorgeous, elevating the already beautiful song to new heights. Daoko’s rapping sounds great and at home here, and is likely this reviewer’s favourite guest appearance on the whole album.

There’s a self cover of Seiko’s song for ℃-ute, “Mugen Climax”, a solo piano arrangement that really hits home entitled Mugen Climax Kamome Kyoushitsu-hen. There’s something truly satisfying hearing Seiko take the track back and it no doubt is a far more striking rendition due to its simplicity. Less is truly more here. Finally, there’s gorgeous, newly arranged kitixxxgaia version of Kimi ni Todokuna is outstanding, with some of the most beautiful instrumentation and chord progression ever to hit an Oomori record.

Even as a Seiko Oomori veteran, and with all the odds stacked against her, she still manages to release an album that is cohesive, compelling and most impressively- surprising. Where most artists at this point in their career would have settled for the solid but safe approach to a new album (having proven their selves many a time), Seiko still seems to be pushing forward; aiming to break new ground in her discography. After a pleasant, but somewhat rocky and random three single project, chances were that this was going to be her first ‘average’ (on a Seiko scale) album- but here she makes what seemed random work- wholly and convincingly.

The hard part is giving this album a score. It does have its share of imperfections- digital clipping is audible in a few spots (though never intrusive enough to raise alarm bells), Communication Barrier is a little bit weaker than all the new songs and finally, it does not have the strongest closer she’s ever penned. Sure, the track itself, Analog Syncopation is fantastic, with its beautiful beat and chorus, but as a closer, it just feels a little hollow. This can be easily remedied if you have any of the versions of the album with an acoustic bonus track (particularly “M“, one of the most heavily emotional tracks since her debut), this allows the listener to wind down quite easily and gives a more satisfying closure to the massiveness of the album. But, as the album stands in its regular form, with no bonus tracks, it kind of feels a little anticlimactic, as if someone is turning the album off before it’s finished.

With those imperfections in mind, I cannot give it the perfect 10. However, the imperfection of the album does leave a far more immediate resonance and edge than TOKYO BLACK HOLE did on initial spins. Where that one was refined to a tee, this one seems to take joy in it’s slight crustiness.

Ultimately, the score I give kitixxgaia is:
9/10

TOKYO BLACK HOLE, to me, was likely going to be a hard act to follow on from, at least so soon. To be proven wrong once again is both staggering on a personal level, and a massive achievement for any musician. kitixxxgaia is another essential album from Seiko Oomori and it’s no doubt going to be a strong contender on a lot of people’s Album of the Year lists.

Review: Seiko Oomori’s “kitixxxgaia” is her most ambitious work yet

REVIEW: SHISHIDO KAVKA RETURNS TO FORM WITH “DO_S”

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Ex- The News member, drummer, vocalist and all-round cutie Shishido Kavka‘s last release was her full length “Toridori“; an overly-long, forgettable mess that only had a few highlights floating amidst a sea of filler. It was one of the bigger letdowns of 2016, and certainly the one of the most short-lived albums in this listeners playlist. It is then, no surprise that I went into her latest EP, “DO_S” with no expectations whatsoever. Lucky then, it’s actually quite a bit of fun and worth giving her another chance for.

It opens with the cute, bouncy pop track “Tachiagare“, which sets the bar for the EP high. It’s colorful, wonderfully produced and Kavka’s vocals are on point. The bouncy fun continues into the funky “Boku was Boku de Aru to Iu Koto” which has one of the grooviest bass lines of 2017 so far. It’s easy to love the vocal delivery on it’s chorus, and the cheesy synth strings just add to the experience. 90s Jpop fans, this track is for you!

We fall back into the more traditional Kavka sound with “Ken to Hanataba” (and later on with “FLY HIGH!“) where rock grrrl is the name of the day, and it’s easy enough to just ‘go’ with it and have a blast. The rest of the EP features the funky “3.2.1….cut” and what would this EP be without the classic Jpop ballad style “Tatta Hitokoko” (complete with it’s glorious, unabashed string section that just makes this review give a big nostalgic grin). It’s a safe, but fairly mixed bag of jams that never lets up the energy and is a far cry from the bland uninspired work of her full length.

Shishido Kavka is an artist that works better in small doses, and this latest EP truly highlights that. There is no room for fatigue or boredom to sit in; it’s light, fluffy fun without any real commitment on the listeners part. Nobody is pretending there’s anything special or amazing going on here- but it doesn’t need to be- you’re only in it for less than 30 mins. This, coupled with the fact that these are some of Kavka’s most breezy, yet winning tracks yet gives this reviewer no problem recommending it for some casual listening to fill in that gap between more meaty releases.

A short review, for a short, sweet distraction that’s worth the 25 minutes of time it requires to put into it, DO_S restores my faith in Kavka as a fun pop-rock act to keep your eyes on (if you can take your eyes off to begin with). Pick it up!

7/10– DO_S is the bouncy pop record we needed to hear from Shishido Kavka.

REVIEW: SHISHIDO KAVKA RETURNS TO FORM WITH “DO_S”

Review: Maron Hamada’s “Lady Monochrome” is Her Best Yet.

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When Maron Hamada arrived on the scene, with her 2011 single ‘Watashi no Pistol‘ one thing felt certain then- she was someone that no doubt was influenced by smoky jazz clubs and 60s mod rock. The main reason lots of people found out about her was indeed her striking similarity to the more jazzy fixings of Shiina Ringo– and she had that deep, raspy voice that is up there in that ‘Ringo’ sphere. Hell, admittedly, I found out through my “Amazon Recommendations”- and back then I was going through my peak Shiina Ringo phase.

However, since then, she has developed tremendously, tightening the screws on every subsequent release, trying new inspirations and ultimately- with her latest opus, Lady Monochrome, Hamada has fully evolved into her own beast. Truly she has made her own unique footing in the Japanese rock hemisphere, which ultimately makes Lady Monochrome absolutely unstoppable.

Hamada has always had a really strong vocal presence, but this listener has always felt that she could take it that one step further and enter the truly legendary ranks of vocal performances. With this latest album, she does just that- her range and confidence has never been this impressive. She never slips up once- and for the first time ever showcases both her trademark belting alongside a newly found, surprising tenderness, which is guaranteed to induce legitimate shivers. See the middle track, the raw ballad “Kagami” for her most impressive vocal performance to date, where she reaches high notes previously unheard from her before.

As soon as you press play, Hamada makes her presence felt, with the roaring single “Karisome Eros Tokimeku“, one of the most traditional “Maron Hamada” sounding tracks on the album. It offers a blaze of that sexy jazz cabaret that fans have grown to expect and love from her, and it’s just as appealing as ever. From there we get some new and exciting new additions from SKA to 80s synth pop (the fantastic “Ouji ni Tsugu, Hime Iwaku” is a great example of it). The introduction of new sounds and styles musically has helped her branch out more- and it has done wonders for her.

The triumphant, marching ‘Ikiru Nou ga Subete‘ is a real highlight. Not only does it have a fantastic, catchy chorus, but it also takes what seems to be a simple pop rock track through multiple turns and twists, brilliant percussion work and chord progression; and the payoff is unforgettable and uplifting. If only other pop-rock bands were this forward thinking when composing tracks. This is that amazing Tokyo JihenKiller Tune” that was promised, but never was.

It’s easy to forgive the slightly weird mishaps- the occasional tiny bit of clipping or the more-than-just-a-little-bit similarity that “Tsukiyo ni Koboreru wa Aa” has to a certain British superstar’s “Rolling in the Deep“. One may be pressed to question some of the more over-the-top delivery on some of these tracks, but, with that said- its never felt so appropriate to be so ‘theatrical’. Ultimately these little imperfections barely cause a dent in this ship’s hull.

Let’s face it, Maron Hamada is never gonna be trendy. But, for those who have been following her for a while now, one thing is definitely certain: with each album release, she is showing no signs of slowing down her progression. She never takes gigantic leaps or risks, but she does hone her skill and steps it up with every new track. She is undeniably more focused than a few years back; her voice more targeted and intense. Her music has taken a turn for the dark and serious. With every new album, she seems more confident and her sexiness shows through. Lady Monochrome is the latest addition to her near impeccable catalog, and it, without a doubt, is her best offering yet.

9/10 Lady Monochrome has set the bar for Japanese pop rock albums this year.

Review: Maron Hamada’s “Lady Monochrome” is Her Best Yet.