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

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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.

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

Review: Shiina Ringo- Oishii Kisetsu

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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 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: 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.

Review: Utada Hikaru- Fantôme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Utada Hikaru- Fantôme

QUICK REVIEWS: SHIINA RINGO- 13 jours au Japon ~2020 Nippon no Natsu~ and Jiyuu Dom

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13 jours au Japon ~2020 Nippon no Natsu~.

Let’s just say it outright. Yes, this may be a cover, but this is the best Shiina Ringo song since her work on the Ichigo Ichie- Doku Ichigo record. It’s a beautiful, gentle, frail track that for what seems a lifetime- feels truly personal and touching. The most surprising element is how much it holds back- it’s just humble and lovely- and never ever gets showy. The production here- and yes, we’re talking about a Shiina Ringo release– is absolutely beautiful- it’s warm, organic and the instrumentation comes across perfectly. The sense of perfect control is truly majestic, and far from the unneeded pompous explosions of sound from more recent works.

This is the Shiina Ringo I’ve so sorely missed. More like this, PLEASE!

8/10

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Jiyuu dom on the other hand, is not so hot. The NHK variety show “Gatten“s theme song is exactly as it sounds- a goofy throwaway, inoffensive variety song. However…

At least it does one thing, reminds of the old days. A song so clearly Phase 2 Tokyo Jihen (even featuring the group as part of the backing band, along with Saito Neko‘s usual generic fills) is at least a little bit fun to hear in 2016, and makes me yearn for the times where if a Ringo song was bad- it was at least still fun to laugh at. The sense of playfulness that Tokyo Jihen had- even in their lesser moments- is front and center here- so it’s hard to fully hate this one. Sure, there’s nothing remotely interesting to speak of and it still has that awful, stale, cold, digital production value that has plagued Shiina Ringo releases for the past few years (not to mention it being released during the insipid DO IT FOR A PRODUCT TIE-IN phase that hopefully, now that Ringo has gotten her “Olympic kicks” out, will calm down) but at least it still sounds like Shiina Ringo just being Shiina Ringo, for better or worse. I certainly won’t be playing it much but as long term fan, I can accept it. The remix is completely forgettable but cute.

Basically, it’s fundamentally terrible but it’s fine with this listener.

5/10

QUICK REVIEWS: SHIINA RINGO- 13 jours au Japon ~2020 Nippon no Natsu~ and Jiyuu Dom

SEIKO OOMORI- Aishiteru.com/Gekiteki JOY! Before After

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Seiko Oomori has just released her first single after her maternity break- serving as a lead in to her upcoming album “TOKYO BLACK HOLE” due out March. After binge listening (something that is super easy to do when it comes to Seiko Oomori), this is what I think about it:

Seiko’s first post-birth release was quite a big announcement for yours truly at the time (avid Seiko Oomori fan here) and also a strange one- the main A-side was “Aishiteru.com“, a song we already had from the “Wonderful World’s End” soundtrack. I then read further into it- only to find out something that made me more than just a little worried: it was to be produced by Kameda Seiji. For those of us that have been following Kameda Seiji and in particular, his work with Shiina Ringo/Tokyo Jihen– it is well known that he’s a notorious softy– and “neuters” quite a lot of the work that he’s involved with. DAMN IT I DONT WANT HIM FUCKING UP MY OOMORI!. Lucky then, those fears were blind and he actually does a nice job adding extra layers to the mix and truly brings out the infectious melody of the track. It isn’t as deep as other songs in Oomori’s catalog, but when it’s this damn cute- it really doesn’t need to be. A real “bop” added to Oomori’s catalog, I’m sure a lot of people will love this one.

Gekiteki JOY! Before After” is the track that will likely come off as the crown jewel of this release. Originally penned for the “Heavy Shabby Girl” short film, it is a beautifully structured, lyrically potent (thank you Tokyo Girls Update for the thorough lyric investigation), amazingly produced and catchy as fuck track that effortlessly hits a home run. It is the first time male backing vocals have appeared on an Oomori song, and this really was quite suprising on first listen. The chorus is great, and I found it hard to get out of my head long after the song was over.

Fan Letter” is not going to be a public favourite here- but for oldschool Seiko Oomori fans, its always delightful to know that she hasn’t left her roots behind. The original version of the song came out a while ago on her youtube channel to say thankyou to her fan’s support, and it’s a short, sweet and heartfelt ditty that has been boosted with her now trademark vocal layering. The major label mastering really brings some extra warmth to the track rather than detracting and weakening it, which is pretty amazing really. I’m glad AVEX still allow room for the songs like these.

I have no real complaints here, sure it doesn’t have anything on par with “Magic Mirror“, but Oomori is perfectly comfortable here and it’s a nice return single. It’s lovely when an artist gets into a groove that sticks- and Oomori has obviously found that groove. Perhaps she’s a bit more upbeat now, but other than that, after childbirth she’s still releasing top tier tracks and this single is evidence of it. It whets my appetite for the album immensely- and it’s going to be a LONG wait for it.Come on March!

Oh and the boxset must be mentioned- from the pictures I have seen, it looks AMAZING (and about the size of a laptop). I guess that has something to do with it’s 10,000 yen price tag. Once I receive I’ll surely be uploading some photos, so stay pressed if you’re interested.

8.5/10 Welcome back Oomori. Another great release in the bag.

SEIKO OOMORI- Aishiteru.com/Gekiteki JOY! Before After