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カテゴリー: English

entries written in English

中村佳穂 (Kaho Nakamura), AINOU, 2018

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is known for its cultural scenes. Regarding music, there’s plenty of musicians playing indie rock, electronic music, hip hop, and more eclectic things. This is maybe because of the nature of the city, where is known as students’ city with lots of universities in rather a small area. Of course, there’s also precious historical heritage making this town enchanted.

Kaho Nakamura is a Kyoto-native singer and songwriter, and is one of the most prominent figures in recent Kyoto cultural scene. Her second full-length AINOU was critically acclaimed for its distinguished composition, sound design, and excellent vocalization. Praised by senior musicians like Kan Takano, Shigeru Kishida, and tofubeats, she was already known for her playful performance which was full of virtuosity. However, the album was the real breakthrough for her.

From a groovy mid-tempo like “きっとね! (Kitto Ne!)” to a neo-soul flavored slow jam “get back” or a simple piano ballad “永い言い訳 (Nagai Iiwake)”, AINOU takes a very eclectic approach which mixed Techno, R&B, Neo-Soul, City Pop, House, and Japanese Folklore etc. Then Nakamura’s voice gives unity to the entire album. She sings in a very delicate and nuanced manner as if she’s trying to precisely trace the feeling inside the song.

I think the biggest charm of this record is a tension between her raw genius and the post-production. In “you may they”, the vocal is slightly glitched and the beat is like a fusion of L.A. beats in the late 2000s and indie pop today. While the delicate yet eloquent character of her voice is obvious, the song seems trying to deconstruct it. This may be a reflection of the recording process, which took two years and a half to finish.

The turning point was James Blake’s performance at Fuji Rock Festival 2016, where she also played at. His performance, the dubstep-influenced complex texture of sound fused with a soulful voice, inspired Nakamura’s creativity. She decided to make a “sound-oriented” work different from her previous “song-oriented” ones. One massive sub-bass can tell something emotional. Some delicate reverberation can move someone’s heart. She tried to make something like these. Well, as far as I understand by her interviews.

With help from fellow musicians like Masahiro Araki and Yuichi Fukaya (from Remi-gai), Ryo Konishi (from CRCK/LCKS), Shuhei Nishida (from Yoshida Yohei Group), she finally made it. Thus, AINOU‘s eclectic approach is the result of her creative ambition and collaboration with the devoted fellows.

If you love AINOU, you better try listening to Remi-gai, CRCK/LCKS, and Yoshida Yohei Group. Their works also represent the cutting edge of Japanese alternative pop music. Particularly, Remi-gai’s recent work is quite interesting. In 2016, they worked with students’ glee club and brass band, and released two EPs (the dance we do, GIANT). You can feel how they influenced the production of AINOU.

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崎山蒼志 (Sohshi Sakiyama), いつかみた国 (Itsuka Mita Kuni), 2018

Sohshi Sakiyama is a singer and songwriter from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. He’s only 16-year-old but has gained enormous attention throughout 2018, since he appeared on AbemaTV’s program “日村が行く!(Himura ga Yuku)”, where he played his song “五月雨 (Samidare)”. The video went viral as soon as it appeared on Twitter and quickly built a huge fan base among the listeners including well-known Japanese rock musicians such as Enon Kawatani (from Gesu no Kiwami Otome), or Shigeru Kishida (from Quruli).

The song’s lyrics were full of unique metaphors and bright poesy, and also the song itself was quite sophisticated in terms of melodies and harmonies. However, I think the most attractive thing in his performance was his singing voice. His high-tone, shaking voice reminded me of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or David Byrne in a way. Of course, they’re not quite similar though. Some might even say they’ve never listened to such an idiosyncratic voice. I almost agree with them.

The fans immediately started digging YouTube for the singer’s performance vids which had been uploaded before then. Fortunately, there were plenty of his live footages on the net because he frequently played around Hamamatsu music scene and the audience has recorded his performances for several years. More they found, more they loved him.

Finally, he signed to Sony Music and began releasing several singles from last summer to autumn. On December 5th, he released his 1st full-length, “いつかみた国 (Itsuka Mita Kuni)”. This 7-track LP includes the breakthrough “五月雨”, fans’ favorite “ソフト (Soft)”, as well as new songs.

Throughout the nearly entire album, Sakiyama just strums the guitar and sing (except one song, “龍の子 (Tatsu no Ko)”, which he tried DAW for the first time). That’s all and enough! There seems no edit, no effect, you can only hear his properly recorded performance. But thanks for his elegant guitar skill, they sound like kinds of Post-Rock, Prog-Rock, or even Electro. I strongly recommend to try this album once, and I’m pretty sure you’ll fall in love with it. Even if without words, his vibrant voice and excellent guitar play should move your heart.

For your information, one of Sakiyama’s favorite release in 2018 is Yves Tumor’s “Safe in the Hands of Love”, according to his tweet. Isn’t it very curious, is it?

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宇多田ヒカル (Hikaru Utada), 初恋(Hatsukoi), 2018

If you’re acquainted with the Japanese pop culture, you may know Hikaru Utada. She’s one of Japan’s most famous singer and songwriter in these decades. Her debut album First Love sold over 10 million copies worldwide. It is the best selling J-POP album in history–and no one will ever break this record.

In 1998, with her debut single “Automatic / time will tell,” she changed the entire landscape of J-POP. Heavily influenced by the contemporary urban music like R&B, she showed Japanese audience how the Japanese language can groove on the R&B-oriented beat.

Of course, there were many precursors in terms of this kind of practice in Japan. From pre-modern Jazz to Rock n Roll to Soul to Hip Hop, Japanese musicians had been trying to adopt Western music into their musical vocabulary. Roughly, their main concern was how Western pop music could be sung in Japanese. Utada’s debut was like its ultimate answer emerged at the very end of the 20th century. 

Since then, along with her comrades such as Ringo Sheena, she’s been recognized as the most prominent artist in contemporary Japanese pop music. However, she took a hiatus from 2011 to 2015, saying that she wanted to live an ordinary life for a while.

In 2016, Utada announced come-back and released Fantôme, which featured several guest singers. Before then, she rarely invited guest singers in her music. Given that, the album seemed like a thankful gift for her fans those who patiently waited for her come back.

Moreover, it displayed her development as an artist in terms of singing rhythm and flow. I bet you can hear it clearly when you play “忘却 (Bo-kyaku)” with KOHH. On the atmospheric heartbeat-like beat, here she’s chanting like a prayer, rather than a pop star. The repetition of the same rhythm figure emphasizes rhymes between the lines, just as KOHH’s unique vocalization and flow do. His approach is more complicated, say, kinds of polyrhythmic one, though.

Two years later, 2018, she released her latest, 初恋 (Hatsukoi). The title means “first love” in English. This obviously refers to her debut album. It seemed as if she was trying to reboot her career for it was her 20th anniversary year as a singer and songwriter.

The album was thematically pretty delicate and self-reflective. For example, she frankly revealed her mixed feeling towards her mother, who deceased in 2013. On the other hand, in some songs, she showed her blissful and dramatic feeling in love with her lover, even singing people would be envious of her entire life with him.

From musical aspects, the album was quite challenging. With help from distinguished musicians such as Chris Dave on the drums, the rhythmical experiment which had been pursued in Fantôme became more sophisticated than ever. She tapped into the recent Trap style singing and rhyming, the polyrhythmic structure of the beat, and the subtle but definitive change of flow.

Listen to “誓い (Chikai),” which is now known as “Don’t Think Twice” outside Japan. This was the theme song for Kingdom Hearts 3 and led to Utada’s recent collaboration with Skrillex. According to Utada’s vocal, the song sounds basically 6/8. But if you focus on the piano, you can feel 4/4 with a bit swing or a loose groove. Still more, Utada sings very straightforward 16 beat at the bridge. These factors give this song a very interesting texture in terms of rhythm. Keeping this texture throughout the song rather than make a dramatic catharsis at the end, listeners are left emotionally confused a little and prompted to play it again and again.

Some argue that this album is the best release of 2018. I half agree with it. Honestly, I don’t like the lyrics, the messages they contain. However, there’s no doubt that this exquisite songwriting and arranging has no equal among contemporary Japanese pop music. It’s great pleasure that such an incredible album gained so much popularity in Japan (it reached #3 in the Billboard Japan year chart 2018). I strongly recommend to check out Utada’s recent works including 初恋 and Skrillex collaboration “Face My Fears.”

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折坂悠太 (Yuta Orisaka), 平成 (Heisei), 2018

Heisei era, beginning in early 1989 as Emperor Hirohito deceased, is going to end in April 2019. It was the era of increasing depression both economically and socially. These three decades are known notoriously as “lost decades,” Japanese people went through the collapse of the economy and severe disasters like several great earthquakes, ane even faced the fear of terrorism by some religious cults.

Yuta Orisaka was born in 1989. His life has been therefore along with Heisei era. At the very end of it, perhaps he’s inevitably conscious about what these three decades meant to him. So he wrote a song and named it “Heisei,” moreover he decided to make it the title of the entire album.

Heisei is his sophomore full-length, which is critically acclaimed for its elegant use of Japanese poetic styles and various singing methods. Before Heisei is released, Hikaru Utada, the most famous and popular singer and songwriter in Japan, said Orisaka’s “あさま (Asama)” from his debut was her favorite. Since then, he gained much attention and finally he did meet people’s expectations by Heisei.

Although some of its motives in the album are apparently taken from recent events like the great earthquakes, these songs sound just like recordings from a hundred years ago, the early days of Japanese pop music history. It is, in some way, because of their rhetric (poetic or literary rather than colloquial) and use of musical scales that are often said “traditional.” Also this is because of the lack of Rock feeling. Orisaka’s music is a fusion of Jazz, Latin, Country, and Japanese Folklore, etc.. But there seems few traces of Rock. Thus, his music reminds me of pre-Rock decades of Japanese pop music.

Orisaka also shows off his voice in different ways. He sings, shouts, read aloud his lyrics and poetry. Often his performance gets very theatrical, especially in “逢引 (meeting).” This surrealistic narrative fuses a love song and a monologue in a battlefield by the power of his voices. As you can hear in it, he’s a quite skillful and unique singer.

Through Heisei, the singer shows us some visions and emotions rather than telling a story. They feel like pale shadows both comfortable and a bit depressing. And this ambivalent feeling is like what I got when I reminisce Heisei era. I’m sure that almost everyone spent these decades in Japan would feels the same.

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