REVIEW: HARU NEMURI- HARU TO SHURA

There occasionally comes a release that totally changes everything you expected from an artist. Haru Nemuri, who has made a name for herself making early Daoko-like tunes with previous releases has come and reinvented everything. Her latest album Haru to Shura is confident, wild, aggressive, punky and most of all- feels like a living, breathing thing. If she was grounded before- this time she’s shot herself into the stratosphere.

Opening with the rowdy “MAKE MORE NOISE OF YOU”, a fist shaking punk anthem that would make for a legendary T-shirt slogan, Haru sets the tone for the album ahead. Unbridled youth energy is the name of the game here, and with massive choruses like the one on “Narashite” or title track “Haru to Shura”, its hard not to get swept along with it. The instrumental work matches the energy (those soaring guitars!), and considering that it’s a “Jpop” record, it rocks harder than most rock bands.

Everything sounds organic and important. Nemuri has a flow that is impeccable and matches her explosive backing tracks perfectly. She growls like a pro- not a wail, a genuine, gut churning growl that shakes the soul. Production is appropriately rough around the edges, with no cookie cutter lining to soften the hits.

Track picks include the punchy single “Sekai o Torikaeshite Okure” (which will bore its way into your brain and sit there for hours after listening to it), the fun “Lost Planet” and finally, my personal favorite track “Nineteen”, which has one of the most impressively hard hitting hooks and transitions I’ve heard in a long, long time.

Usually, ending your album with remixes is a sign that you’re just filling the record up, but in this case- the remixes have had so much thought and effort put into them. They flow naturally with the album’s rhythm and they are surprisingly as satisfying as the original versions. The “Narashite” lazy jazz/trip-hop arrangement is particularly great- and makes for brilliant, sleepy, tripped out sendoff.

The grandest sentiment given from this extraordinary work is knowing that this release comes from a place that is entirely genuine- Haru Nemuri is giving her all on this album, the stakes feel high. It truly feels that she made this to prove herself- and without a doubt has on every level. There literally isn’t a single track you will want to skip- even the “zzz” interludes have the function of tying the album together neatly. A masterpiece.

10/10 You aren’t just experiencing a new J-pop album, you’re experiencing a new J-pop LANDMARK. Essential. Buy it. Play it everywhere you go. Perfect.

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REVIEW: HARU NEMURI- HARU TO SHURA

REVIEW: MANATSU NAGAHARA- GREAT HUNGRY

Early 2018 has been quite the dry spell for Japanese Pop, at least compared to recent years. Thankfully then, Manatsu Nagahara has brought the rains of goodness with her debut full length GREAT HUNGRY.

Sometimes it doesn’t take reinventing the wheel to create a truly delightful album, and Nagahara has done just that here; provided one of the most catchy, heartwarming and truly outstanding ALBUM experiences in quite a while. She wears her previous work in pop punk group SEBASTIAN X on her sleeves here- but here there isn’t a sense of having to stick to one sound, leaping from genre to genre with gleeful abandon. While on paper that sounds like a mess- there is a well developed structure to the proceedings here- and the album is wonderfully easy to consume on first listen.

The energy and bounciness she brings to each and every track on her album is the thing you will notice immediately. Manatsu Nagahara is really having a lot of fun in the process- all the while showing a lot of care and concern for the final product. She uses her vocal styling to great benefit, that intensely nasal delivery both intoxicating levels of cute and piercingly catchy. It may not appeal to every listener- at first, but given time to settle, you’ll find yourself falling under her spell.

Album highlights are the folky opener “Dancer in the Poetry”, pop-punk blazer “Boku no Ikari Kimi no Hikari”, delightful lead single “Asonde Ikiyou” (try getting THAT out of your head for the next week) the ridiculously playful “FIRE” (with it’s absolutely uneccesary but charming cheer-line chorus), and the appropriately titled closer “SUPER GOOD”, in a new rendition for this album.

The thing is though, even the songs on the album that don’t hit quite as hard at the beginning all have some kind of eventual payoff, making none of them ‘skippable’ and impossible to ignore. Whether it be a goofy guitar solo, beautiful harmonization with her backing vocalists or a wild breakdown and faux-rap, it all has something to offer.

In the end, the takeaway experience from this gem of a record is one of absolute and utter delight, and one that will stick to the memory of anyone who chooses to take the plunge. The first truly great mainstream J-pop album that this listener has heard in 2018, and surely one that I will continue to return to throughout the year.

8.5/10 Manatsu Nagahara’s GREAT HUNGRY truly feeds that hunger for some wonderful J-tunes that we have sorely missed for the last four months.

REVIEW: MANATSU NAGAHARA- GREAT HUNGRY

REVIEW: SAYUKO NANO- TENGOKU HAJIMEMASHITA

When Sayuko Nano dropped her first major EP “Kimi to Issho Nara Jigoku Demo Iiyo” in 2015, she struck a chord with her intended audience. She fit right in with the new wave of ‘alt-girls’- hitting a perfect midpoint between the likes of sparkly pop artists like Seiko Oomori and Hanae, whilst also touching on the sound of whisper-rap artists such as Izumi Macra and (then) Daoko. It went down perfectly with her intended audience- and was one of the most widely accepted and easily digested EPs from the emerging current scene.

And then, she sorta disappeared– delving into the world of seedy photo-books and occasional tweets to let us know she was still alive. Last year then, when she announced that she had recorded a new EP was very exciting news for anyone following her. The followup, 4 track mini album “Tengoku Hajimemashita” hit late January to a fairly lukewarm response. The lead single was a bit concerning to say the least. Still, I persevered and tried it out regardless. This definitely wasn’t the Sayuko Nano who sent shivers down our spines three years earlier. This was, well, disappointing, generic J-pop.

While there isn’t anything particularly atrocious or offensive about it, nothing really pings or stands out. The character of her early work has all but disappeared, instead favoring the trappings of lesser idol groups or casual contemporary pop. No teeth, no soul. Production opts for highly polished, overly glossy bops instead of the dreamy murk of her last outing. Unfortunately, it means that the mere four tracks just pass-by without any fanfare, just a slightly pleasant time kill.

Other than that, there really isn’t much to say. No individual tracks are better or worse than the others, so no “listener picks” can be discerned. The EP is concerning to anyone who has followed her from the start; in many ways it reminds of Wakusei Abnormal, who after blasting off with an amazing debut, ended up falling into the depths of generic pop with their followup releases. Hell, Sayuko Nano’s songs here even kind of sound like later Wakusei Abnormal at times. It’s not a release I can recommend to anyone, and that is a saddening thought for someone who had caught my attention so much just one release earlier.

4/10 Hopefully it’s just a misstep, but for now, Sayuko Nano has provided the most disappointing release of 2018 so far.

REVIEW: SAYUKO NANO- TENGOKU HAJIMEMASHITA

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.

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)