Review: PHEW- VOICE HARDCORE

If one characteristic comes to mind instantaneously when you think about legendary experimental artist Phew, it’s her vocals. A unique balance between spoken word and singing, Phew fleets between a sense of cool indifference while ever daring to show bright enthusiasm. It creates this real sense of tension, which encapsulates her listeners and creates an utterly compelling listen every time. An album created entirely of her vocals then- creates one of her most outlandish, yet minimal works to date, one that will both excite and challenge fans simultaneously.

The appropriately entitled VOICE HARDCORE is a minimalist’s fantasy. It bares a stark contrast to last year’s LIGHT SLEEP, which verged on noise music with it’s whirl of electronic fuzz. This time, Phew offers an ambient journey that feels like it is held together by a thread. For those not put off by its instant lack of accessibility- repeat listens are rewarding, as the album is a grower in every sense of the word.

Some people have likened this album to an “opiate haze”- though I find that a bit of a hard take to swallow, as there is definite focus and structure to these pieces. Sure there may be no “catchiness” or melody in the broadest sense of the terms, but Phew has a mission and she’s damn determined to get there.

In her Facebook press release she describes the album as “an attempt to make new reverberations that I have never heard before by using only my body”. She also states that a voice only album has been brewing in her mind since her debut solo single “Finale”- way back in 1980. When she finally got round to recording the album, she bashed it out in an three day period- an astonishing accomplishment when listening to the quality of material here.

The work’s mixing and mastering must also be mentioned, it sounds absolutely divine. Hiroyuki Nagashima is responsible for this and has tweaked the album to perfection, truly bringing Phew’s vision to life. For something so minimal to sound so massive is a triumph. Ultimately, the fact that Phew is delivering such brilliant and challenging works this late in her career- is truly her greatest gift to music. Bold.

9/10– Another amazing yet challenging late-career Phew release that will reward anyone that is willing to stick with it.

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Review: PHEW- VOICE HARDCORE

REVIEW: DAOKO- THANKYOU BLUE

Late last year, DAOKO released her sophomore major album “THANK YOU BLUE”, to an interestingly mixed reception. On one hand, you have early fans, dejected by her apparent move from her signature ‘whisper-rap’ sound; on the other, you have those fully embracing the change. Whatever your personal preference though, it’s hard to deny how successful her last few years are, and that’s certainly something to take into account when reviewing this album.

I understand people who are detracted by the ‘pop’ DAOKO- believe me, I really do. However, I don’t think it’s as big a change as some let on, and it’s not like DAOKO had dropped any kind of defining previous work to cement her image in one way or another. It is a shame that we have lost quite a bit of her uniqueness through the transition though, and this album’s lack of cohesive character is a direct result of this.

Her blend of pop shines most when she is doing traditional, 80s style tunes. Tracks like “ShibuyaK” andMoshimo Bokura ga GAME no Shuyaku de” really do sound lovely and shine above more gimmicky sounding tracks, like the god awful TeddyLoid tune “Daisuki” with it’s tired “bro-step” drops and lame breakdown. The less added, the better the tunes are.

The one thing that will affect everyone- is the lack of new content. Indeed, the majority of this album (if you only consider the regular playlist) are songs that have already been released. To call it a ‘new album’ becomes a bit of a stretch. It feels like a best of collection. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the decision of actually buying it a questionable one if the singles are already owned. I mean, there are literally only FOUR tracks exclusive to this album. Yikes.

By the time the album ends,  it is hard to really say much about it. Hearing so much of it previously really wrecks any kind of chance it had to make any real impact, and having so many producers and guests (ranging from Kenshi Yonezu to Yasuyuki Okamura) working with her makes it feel more like a Various Artists compilation than her own release. It’s unfair to say that it doesn’t have some truly enjoyable moments- but barely enough to warrant any repeated listens. In the end, I can only really recommend the purchase if you wanted an easy way to bundle all her singles together- no more, no less.

THANK YOU BLUE is ultimately, a safe but somewhat tasteful collection of bops from DAOKO that is enjoyable, if inoffensive. It surely will gain it’s detractors- many old fans will truly feel left behind. But looking at it from the perspective of what DAOKO is trying to achieve- become a POP STAR, she has ultimately made quite a stepping block of an album- which one can only hope will be expanded upon in the future. For those feeling left behind, don’t worry, just head over to Seiko Oomori’s album “kitixxxgaia” and hear DAOKO belt out her old self on the track “Chikyuu Saigo no Futari”.

5/10. Decent enough, but won’t make much of an impact, negative or positive.

REVIEW: DAOKO- THANKYOU BLUE

REVIEW: FEMM- 80s/90s J-POP REVIVAL

It’s hard not to feel a sense of desperation with FEMM’s covers album; its as if they know the time for their gimmick is up, and they pumped it out contractually rather than it being from a well thought out place. Where FEMM were playfully tacky before- this time round it’s just plain old tacky. Most concerning however, for a  group of such intense nature- it’s woefully dull.

Indeed, my experience with “80s/90s J-POP REVIVAL” was mainly that of boredom and waiting for the album to be over rather than any kind of scoffing or smirking at the delightful trashiness that FEMM have become known for.

Perhaps having these songs embedded into my childhood would have helped, as I am sure there is a lot more on offer for those who grew up with these tracks. However, for the songs that I do know, I felt an certain level of awkwardness and discomfort. Wink’s “Samishii Nettaigyo” lacks any warmth and Kenji Osawa’s “Konya Wa Boogie Back” is the most clunky rendition I’ve come across yet. In-fact, the only track that really does anything for me at all is the opening cover of Misato Wantanabe’s “My Revolution”- and that probably stems from it featuring Akina, Anna and Mikako from FAKY, giving it a little bit more character than most of the other tracks. It’s a bit telling when guests are required to make a track standout.

The main element really holding all these tracks back is the production value. The compressed digital sound of FEMM does not mesh very well with the more organic sounds of past eras. While it’s true that this is no doubt intentional to try and make it sound like a “FEMM” release; ultimately it really makes for no more than a distraction. The arrangements themselves are pathetically safe and feature no real deconstruction, departure or re-imaginings- basically, just imagine your favorite old-school J-POP track with the added bastardization of auto-tuning, brick-walling and a sense of disinterest.

The sense of disconnect from the material is strong. FEMM feel like they are just girls doing vocals on oldies rather than adoring the songs they are covering. Most cover albums showcase, or at least give an idea of an artist’s inspirations. Knowing FEMM’s style, the songs chosen couldn’t seem more distant, or uninspired. While these songs are beautiful classics in their original form, FEMM are barely the go-to group that people would want to hear covering them.

That leads into the issue of target audience. How many of FEMM’s fans who have fallen in love with their bad girl image are going to be interested in them covering traditional idol pop? How many old idol pop listeners are going to give a damn about a niche group like FEMM potentially murdering their all-time favorites? The more you ponder these things, the more the release feels truly unnecessary.

I’d like to say that the album is at least tight, but it suffers from being overlong and has a questionable song order to boot. There’s no real momentum to the track list and the album just dithers off rather than closes, with two completely forgettable remixes at its ass end. It only heightens the feel of being slapped together over a short period of time with little thought or fanfare. Perhaps releasing it as a mini album would have helped in the end, who knows.

Ultimately, “80s/90s J-POP REVIVAL” is a clunky collection of half baked tunes that are nowhere near as cool as FEMM would like you to think they are. It serves as a disservice to fans waiting for a followup to their debut, and ironically, is one of the least interesting additions to the 80s and 90s revival albums of the last few years.

3/10 FEMM should just stick to being FEMM and carry on doing what they do best- creating trashy bangers with teeth. The way things stand, I really can’t recommend this to anyone, and that’s a shame. It could have been something unique.

REVIEW: FEMM- 80s/90s J-POP REVIVAL

REVIEW: SHIINA RINGO- HI IZURO TOKORO (A.K.A. SUNNY)

sunny

In this world there are two types of horrible albums.

  1. Those so misguided in their intent and execution that they completely miss the mark and are just a terrible listen
  2. A great artist stops giving a damn about their integrity and opts for the cash in approach

Shiina Ringo’s “Hi Izuro Tokoro” (from here on out, “Sunny”)  is the latter, and in my opinion, most unforgivable of these. This wasn’t just a change in direction or a ‘moving on’, it was a complete abandonment of what made Shiina Ringo so great. It’s true that at that stage, she had been flirting with what she eventually ended up embracing; but still, the heart and soul that was “Shiina Ringo” was still there behind every questionable turn she may have taken. “Sunny” is the first time we saw raw abandonment of the artist for sheer sales.

Ringo had set the tone to “OMG HERE SHE COMES!” after her mixed but daring self covers album “Gyakuyunyuu ~Kouwankyoku~, or Reimport”. That album had seen her step out of her comfort zone a little, with less obvious arrangements, new collaborators and producers. It had shown her fans that yes, there was still some fire behind her. I personally, was pumped to see what she was going to do with new material.

Then the track-list dropped. Oh. 6 new songs? “Ariamaru Tomi” as the closer. Ohhhh……. Hmm. Still, I was optimistic, as I was still quite forgiving and not as jaded as some of the fellow fans who had been sick of her since the mess that was Tokyo Jihen‘s “Variety“. Still. I ordered it and listened to it the second I had a chance to. I still don’t think I’ve tried as hard to like something that really isn’t good. So much time denying to myself that Shiina Ringo, queen of J-rock, had released something truly awful.  So what is it exactly that sucks about Sunny, apart from the ‘commercialism’ of the whole thing?

Ringo here, at best, plays to our sentimentality of her older material. There is never a moment where it sounds like something we haven’t heard from her before- one of the more exciting staples of previous solo releases. Nothing really feels like a development of her persona; it truly is treading water in the worst way possible.

And while yes, you can argue that some of the songs on Sunny are decent (they are), there just simply isn’t enough of them to go around- a quarter at best. It’s also very telling when the best cut on the record is one that is five years old and from her last album’s recording sessions. What enjoyment can be found from these tracks is killed by their surroundings anyway- like finding nice food in a dirty food-court.

It opens with the promising “Shizuka Naru Gyakushuu”; which truly does rock underneath all the over-processed orchestration. At first it’s exciting as hell- until you realize it sounds strikingly familiar. Indeed, it’s just a reworked version of one of her early demos. Out of all the new tracks, the best one is over 15 years old. Let that sink in. I’m not saying I have a problem with Ringo reworking older material- she has become notorious for it after-all- but I do have to question it when all the legitimately new material pales in comparison.

The other new tracks range from decent (showtune “Chinchinpuipui” is too good for this album) to what the fuck was she thinking (the fake-ass latin tinged “Sekidou o Koetara”). Lead single “Arikitari na Onna” truly sounds like a Phase 2 Tokyo Jihen leftover and makes you question why she bothered to break up the group in the first place. Many listeners consider “JL005-bin de” to be the prime pick of these new songs, however, it never really did anything for me. It’s bleep-bloops ultimately are inoffensive, stale, just ‘there’. I never remember what it sounds like until I play it.

The previously released songs are a mixed bag too- the best of them being the powerful “Irohanihoheto” or the wonderfully subtle “Carnation”- both of which sound better on their original single releases. There’s the sickly awful “NIPPON” that makes me cringe every time without fail, the bland forgettable Jihen leftover sounding (are you noticing a pattern here) “Jiyuu e Michizure” and the goofy ass “Kodoku no Akatsuki (Nobu Neko-ban)” (making an ‘eh’ song even more ‘eh’). As mentioned above, the best track on the album is the 5 year older power ballad “Ariamaru Tomi” which I can never fault- but it simply shouldn’t be on this, especially as a closer.

Then of course, (there’s no way we can discuss the album without mentioning it) there’s the mastering, which has almost become the fabled low point for all Japanese music to be compared to. It’s practically become a meme. It almost seems like someone intentionally wanted to sabotage Ringo’s album (a bitter Tokyo Jihen fan perhaps?) with how ridiculously bad it sounds. It’s a talking point and a great example of how brick-walling can truly destroy a listening experience. It is no exaggeration to say that you feel literal physical pain or fatigue when listening to Sunny. Every negative element of the album itself is amplified tenfold as it melts your eardrums to mush. Not even the high resolution Mora download can save this sinking ship. There is never, ever a need to sound this crap, even noise albums have more dynamic range.

Things haven’t really taken much of a turn for the better either, every studio track released post Sunny has been a shadow of what Ringo used to put out, and the vapid, soul sucking commercialism behind every move is truly a downer. Arcade Fire were ripped apart for putting out an album that parodied this kind of move, Shiina Ringo is doing it for real.

If anything, the album is a grounding reminder that even the greatest of artists can make massive stumbles. It’s just a shame that this wasn’t really something Ringo learned from or shows any kind of intent to move on from. This is what Shiina Ringo is now.

So yes, Sunny was, and still is, a pretty depressing experience.

Oh a score?

Stick to the first four albums/10.

REVIEW: SHIINA RINGO- HI IZURO TOKORO (A.K.A. SUNNY)

REVIEW: SEIKO OOMORI- MUTEKI

2017 has been the most turbulent year yet for Seiko Oomori fans . Not only did Oomori release a major album, she also released a plethora of singles, music videos, collaborations, wrote songs for other acts, live material and now this, “MUTEKI”- her second album for the year. It’s quite amazing really, knowing she’s also a parent while all of this is going on.

Recently, Seiko Oomori has been pushing herself on a thematic level; Religion, Sexism, Idol Culture were all staples of March’s “kitixxxgaia”. The massive expanse in sound was exciting and breathtaking, and while many were keen for this exploration, it undoubtedly left some of her earlier fans behind.

MUTEKI then, is probably a breath of relief by those left a bit perplexed by Seiko’s excesses. With this album, Seiko gives a spine chilling collection of her greatest moments, stripped down to their essence, trading in fanfare for naked truth- and it works to a soul shaking tee.

Let’s talk about the odd ones out here first, the new tracks- they are full studio productions- and they are both rather good. You have the opener, “Ryuusei Heaven”, a jazzy ballad with some really hard hitting lyrics and “Mix Juice”, a cute, bouncy coming of age track that while probably a minute too long, is still a lot of fun.

The rest of the album is as mentioned above, stripped down versions of Seiko’s biggest songs from the last few years. It must be noted that it feels like Seiko never aimed to create a definitive version of any of these songs- just a new experience. Which version you end up liking entirely comes down to taste; personally I feel “SHINPIN” reveals itself for the first time here- but others may opt for the style of the Sakurai Kenta original.

Outsiders might look upon this release as being pure fan service- and they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s what Seiko is really going for here- it’s a love letter to her followers. The songs are all chosen by her fans and are mainly comprised of more obvious choices (“Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu”, “TOKYO BLACK HOLE”, “Magic Mirror” etc.). While this was at first a bit of a let-down- how many times do we really need “Kimi to Eiga” acoustic, honestly? – ultimately, I found myself falling in love with these tracks once again.

Unlike other ‘acoustic’ releases by Seiko- these are produced in a much more professional setting with sugarbeans at the helm (producer and piano). What are brought forth are tracks that are wonderfully realized, enveloped in a gorgeous studio hiss that feels like a warm hug. Sugarbeans adds his incredible piano work to some of these tracks and Seiko’s vocals have a sense of control unheard before on other bare-bones recordings.

Sure, because of its nature, the album never really feels like a ‘proper’ album as such, the ‘collection’ feel is very much present throughout its (admittedly over-long) runtime. However, despite that large quantity of material here- the vast majority of it is quality enough for repeat returns. Like many other people have noted- every time you start to fade out, Seiko hits you with a track that you adore and grabs your attention once again.  Every song represented on here is strong or notable to begin with- and presented in Seiko’s trademark stripped down style makes it all the more appetizing.

MUTEKI is capped off with the addition of a DVD of the kitixxxgaia tour finale, a roaring, amazing set that showcases Seiko Oomori at her absolute live best. It’s almost 2 hours of power, wildly energetic performances, a varied and unique setlist and likely this reviewer’s favourite Seiko Oomori concert so far.

Overall, MUTEKI is one of the best packages you’re going to pick up in J-pop this year, and would work both as a collection of alternative versions of songs for hard-core fans, and as a good introduction to newcomers to some of Seiko’s biggest hits. It’s perfectly imperfect, and fitting of Seiko’s persona. It feels like more than just a mere best of, and the amount of love and care put into it really shines through. It no doubt will float very well among those who experience it, and I dare say it will be many people’s favorite Seiko Oomori release this year.

At the very least, you get a bang for your buck, and the amount of quality material on this is worthy of purchase alone.

8/10– Another great Seiko Oomori release. Can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next!

REVIEW: SEIKO OOMORI- MUTEKI

Review: Shiina Ringo- Oishii Kisetsu

disgusting

As if to put out a true endurance test of our patience, Shiina Ringo‘s latest single is a new arrangement of a song that many in the casual public either missed or have just plain forgotten. That is, the first main single Ringo penned for Chiaki Kuriyama‘s now dead music career, “Oishii Kisetsu

This isn’t the first time Oishii Kisetsu has perplexed me as a long-term Shiina Ringo fan. When it first came out with Chiaki Kuriyama on the helm, I wondered why Shiina Ringo had given out her best song in years (with it sparking up those classic Muzai Moratorium vibes). This time, it is more the wonder of “How is the Chiaki Kuriyama version BETTER?”

For what we have here in this new arrangement, is a hodgepodge of everything that Shiina Ringo does wrong currently. It’s vapid, sounds like garbage, annoying and most of all- completely unnecessary. Marketed as a ‘new’ single to tie in with meiji’s newest chocolate line, its a release that no-one wanted and after hearing it- still probably won’t want.

Shiina Ringo CAN sing right? I mean, her vocals are one of her greatest features. She has been known, at times, to make jaws absolutely drop with her range. Then WHY the fuck is there such a heavy amount of autotune and badly done multi-layering on this track? Stylistic choice? Very tacky if so. I’d dare say that the reasoning is somewhere else, perhaps from disinterest. A take or two and then fix it up? That seems more likely. I mean, it’s a 6 year old song now being used on a chocolate commercial after-all.

It should come as no surprise that the mastering is absolutely ear bleeding at this point, but the amount of distorted sibilance on Ringo’s voice is rather noteworthy. The snares on the drums are so bad they sound like the compression artifacts you get when listening to a particularly low bitrate mp3. The guitar work- particularly on the ‘solo’ is the dregs. Possibly the worst guitar work on a Shiina Ringo recording, period. Then there’s the Saito Neko orchestral fills, which are totally hand off and lazy, I am personally shocked by the lack of care here, even for a late era Shiina Ringo recording. Oishii Kisetsu has gone from being one of Ringo’s better hidden gems to something dreadful that would be better off not existing whatsoever.

The worst Ringo release ever.

2/10

Review: Shiina Ringo- Oishii Kisetsu

Review: Seiko Oomori- draw(A)drow

draw

Rollercoaster rides are fun, exciting, terrifying and amazing. They’re also very short. Such can be said about the general lifespan of the main track on the latest single, draw(A)drow by Seiko Oomori. The TK from Ling Tosite Sigure produced track sounds exactly as it sounds; Seiko Oomori doing vocals on a Ling Tosite Sigure track. While this isn’t a bad thing -Seiko is absolutely breathtaking with her vocal delivery- there just isn’t much to it. The production makes it sound like it’s been recorded in a bathroom, with a ridiculous amount of reverb and it never really sounds as hard hitting as it should. The songwriting itself too, is meager in comparison to what Seiko Oomori usually outputs, and feels like it should be the b-side, not the lead single. Still, fun, just won’t have much of a shelf life.

draw(A)drow‘s lesser songwriting only helps to highlight how strong Seiko’s is, when the b-side Watashimi is played. Where draw(A)drow really seemed all style no substance, Watashimi is pretty much the opposite to this. It lets Seiko lament on what she has built her entire persona on, and is a wonderful nod back to her freak-folk roots while still keeping her eye on her major label outings. It’s a beautiful, sad track that is presented almost fully acoustically, with little added touches like telephones ringing and sparkly electronic overlays. Rarely do we get to see an artist manage to reach this level of truly balancing their original sound whilst never playing it too safe and expanding.

Frankly, a cover of Keyakizaka46‘s “Silent Majority” didn’t really scream “I MUST HEAR THIS” to me at first. The original, to me, is a lifeless, bland ditty that sparked absolutely no interest. Other times when Seiko has covered idol tracks, she has chosen ones that are quite strong and memorable. This time she chose one that had no pizzazz. However, she managed to turn something inoffensive and beige into something much more rewarding. Chills ran down my spine hearing the simple beat as Seiko’s vocals crooned in. Her unconventional vocals warble and ebb throughout, adding a texture the original simply did not have. Top it off with the subtlety of hand-clicks and you get the icing on the cake. It’s a massive transformation and it’s accompanying video of her playing some kind of “idol deity” says so much about her current standing in the Jpop world.

Overall, draw(A)drow is not Seiko’s strongest single, but it’s b-sides are well worth the price of admission. Notably however, even though this isn’t her strongest single, it does feel like her most notable since 2016’s “Aishiteru.com” This is probably due to the fact, that as of time of this review, it is a standalone release and not part of a series like her last three singles. It’s a strong outing, but not an essential pickup. Still, for fans, it’s got enough going for it to hold them over until her upcoming album, MUTEKI drops.

7/10– Come for draw(A)drow, stay for Watashimi.

Review: Seiko Oomori- draw(A)drow