Review and discussion: Shiina Ringo & Tortoise Mastumoto- Menukidori

229777

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.

c0pyztquoaa3gij

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

214820

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

212330

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

212333

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

196884

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

Megumi Hayashibara- Usurai Shinju

196086

There’s always been an element of intrigue whenever Shiina Ringo pens songs for someone else. You can never really guess what they’re going to sound like until the final product is revealed- and because she has written for such a variety of artists (from Rie Tomosaka to SMAP), it’s arguably often more surprising to hear the final product than her own solo work.

When she announced she was working with famed voice actress/singer Megumi Hayashibara (for me, I know her most fondly as the voice of Rei Ayanami on Neon Genesis Evangelion), interest was quite high. I admit my personal love affair with Shiina Ringo is waning at this point, after a slew of releases that really did nothing for me- well, except fuel my smarm, but- this release really has reignited some fond memories and brings back some of my favorite elements from earlier Ringo outings. Perhaps to a fault. But I’ll go into that later. First up, lets have a look at the songs themselves:

The main single “Usurai Shinju“, is immediately a blast. It’s great. There’s no denying it. The balance of the composition and frail vocals is impeccable. That kitten-like, sexy sound of the Sanmon Gossip era bursts through in a brazen blast of reds, and it leaves this listener utterly delighted. Instruments play off each other in a way that hasn’t been heard in Ringo tunes in a long while- it’s just plain wonderful to listen to. The abrupt ending at 3:00 only makes it hit all the harder- its such a trademark Shiina Ringo element and it’s truly surprising for me to hear in 2016.

Wagare wa kuchinashi” instantly reminds of the Hesei Fuzoku era of Ringo. More distinctly- of that album’s “TAMEIKESANNOH” version of “Karisome Otome“, just with a different voice. Infact- it’s almost the same to actually seeming a tad ridiculous. While I truly appreciate the composition here- it’s just waaaay too similar to the point of being distracting. I do admire the stop/start nature of the arrangement though- it’s simultaneously brilliant and weird– and very surprising for a release such as this. The balance of Megumi’s vocals here does not work as well as the first track though, they are a bit too weak and the recording/mastering really just makes them feel like they are barely there. It really does not play to her strengths and unfortunately, it seems almost pointless having Megumi there to begin with.

Nothing, from a Shiina Ringo perspective, is new or next level- BUT, it certainly is a step forward from whatever she pulled out her wig last year. From a Megumi Hayashibara perspective- this is by far the best musical work I have heard her involved in- but that’s likely an unfair assessment, seeing as I haven’t listened to everything she’s done. I’m quite sure the hardcore Shiina Ringo fans are the ones who will get the most out of this one- but those who didn’t like Sanmon Gossip or Hesei Fuzoku are advised to sit it out- because it really does sound like leftovers from either of those albums. It also makes me question how old these songs actually are- but that’s a whole discussion and we will never know for certain.

Oh, and there are two instrumental versions of the songs included with the single, which are nice to listen to if you want to enjoy the compositions here without any vocal distraction. Inessential, but still a cute bonus.

7/10– Megumi Hayashibara’s single is the best Shiina Ringo single in quite a while ;-p

Megumi Hayashibara- Usurai Shinju

PETROLZ- RENAISSANCE

azma0005-img435x422-1442112038jxqo0z25316

“Renaissance” is the latest album by Ryousuke Nagaoka‘s (better known as Ukigumo from Tokyo Jihen/Shiina Ringo lives) project PETROLZ. It was released in Setember of 2015, and I have only just gotten round to giving it a spin now. To be honest, I haven’t been too big of a fan of previous PETROLZ releases, so expectations weren’t running high. In-fact, I was kinda dreading it, never being able to take his work seriously for various reasons. However, it had been appearing on some end of year lists and one particular description was it was the ‘most soulful‘ Ukigumo (and I’m going to use Uki in this review from now on, cause it just feels natural :-p) had ever sounded… so, hey, here I am, checking it out!

Opens (more like just STARTS) with the herky-jerky “Taito !” which immediately makes this listener reminisce back to the Phase 2 days of Tokyo Jihen (how can you not???). However, unlike Jihen, the focus is solely on Uki here. And that means more precise production. You know WHAT you’re supposed to be listening to. It also gives him more room to really play guitar the way he wants, without it sounding really goofy (for the most part). I have to admit, I’ve never heard him sound more in his element, without the pressures of being “THAT GUY FROM TOKYO JIHEN“, he seems to be way less stiff, and more organic with his playing. And that’s definitely a good thing.

What continues is a nice, if somewhat safe selection of funky tunes- and this is fine. There’s never anything that really ‘pops’ but there’s never any real moments where it drags too much either. The production has somewhat stepped up from earlier PETROLZ releases, and the extra level of clarity is really appreciated. Uki’s vocals- which are one of the main deterrents for me when it comes to his work– are surprisingly easy to listen to, he sticks to his comfort zone, and the use of layering is quite a good effect.

Other band members are just there– they never really try to hog the spotlight- it all works in tremendous unison- and like as mentioned before- for Uki’s sake, works far better than a lot of the tracks he output with Jihen. Drums are minimal and simply there to drive the songs along, bass is punchy and funky. There are also some excellent, and I do mean EXCELLENT guitar solos throughout the album- the one on “Fuel” is especially delicious.

While I personally don’t imagine it becoming a favourite, I do imagine wanting to come back to it every now and then whenever I feel like something smooth and easy to listen to- it will certainly serve as great background music (and I do mean this in the best way possible). It’s certainly the best work Ukigumo was involved in last year (lets try to forget that embarrassing rapping on Shiina Ringo‘s “Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri“, shall we?), and for this listener, it’s easily the best PETROLZ album so far.

Overall, though, it’s a great light album and certainly will please fans. For those who haven’t listened to PETROLZ before, it’s probably a much better introduction than any other releases, with its superior production and track ordering. For those who have followed Ukigumo through his Tokyo Jihen years, it’s a real reminder how much of that trademark sound of Phase 2 belonged (or should I say, should be held responsible) to Ukigumo. And hey, what do you know- Pretsy was right, he really does sound the most soulful he ever has on this one too.

And last, but not least, it comes in a triangle case!

7/10– A smooth, enjoyable ride, with a lot to keep you coming back.

PETROLZ- RENAISSANCE