Album: Ayumi Hamasaki – “A Song for XX” (1999)

A bit of a change now, and I’ll start doing something I’ve threatened to do for a while. Back in … 2004 perhaps, I had a sudden spike of interest in Japanese stuff. Twinned with a flirtation with eBay-mania, I ended up with a dodgy VCD box-set of Ayumi Hamasaki’s videos up to 2003’s A-Ballads. I was totally blown away, and went on a major J-Pop binge that ended up with me having her back catalogue up to 2008’s “Guilty”. I’ve since cooled off a bit, so I need to get back on that horse and have a proper explore of her back catalogue, starting with her 1999 debut “A song for XX”.

I’d previously shyed away from giving this too much attention, as she hadn’t quite found her feet as a popstar, there were more sloppy ballads than I was comfortable with, and her voice can get a bit shrill. But we’ve all got to start somewhere, and this did the business for her at the time, debuting at #1 and shifting over a million copies.

08 Prologue – A nice bright instrumental track to kick off. Sounds like a video game soundtrack, in the best kind of way. Charming and cute.

10 A Song for XX – Now this is one track I DO like to revisit, the title track presumably about a love that she hasn’t met yet. I think that title is clever really, it’s simple but I don’t think I’ve seen it used before. Not a ballady start, from a quite chilled opening, it builds into a second string-led intro full of drama and purpose. I really like that chorus, got a lot of power behind it. Are those little cat noises I hear in the quiet bits? Anyway this is a great song to kick off on, her voice isn’t forced to high as I’ve heard before, and has survived the overplay I’ve subjected it to.

08 Hana – Some dated-sounding uptempo backing now, like the theme to an 80s anime. But there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a nice production. I’m glad we are into an uptempo, I usually prefer those of hers to the ballads. The chorus is memorable, though her vocals sound a bit bunged-up, like she has a cold. It’s punchy and fun, and easy to listen to.

07 Friend – A bit of an R’n’B feel to the production now, but it settles on something more poppy, like Janet Jackson’s cheesier mid-90s moments, or early Britney. The chorus again has a nice hook, but her vocals sound a little bit iffy in places. It’s a bit cheesy really, not unpleasant but not something I’d be in a rush to revisit. The second verse when the “Oooohh” harmonies join in are quite nice.

07 Friend II – Early for a sequel isn’t it? It’s times like this I’m sorry I don’t know what the words mean, and what relationship this has to the first “Friend” song. This is a rockier sound (well not really, just has some guitars in it), and has a bit more life to it. The chorus is quite good really, and the brief pauses between chorus and next verse is pleasant. Again, nothing bad about it really, but doesn’t inspire me to re-listen.

07 Poker Face – Ma-ma-ma-maaaa. No, not that Poker Face. This was her debut single released back in Spring 1998, and has a similarly 80s Anime theme sound that earlier uptempos did. I think her inexperience as a vocalist at this point counts against her on this one, I could imagine a stronger voice doing more with this. There is a good chorus in there, but her vocal are almost off-key in places. The higher moments in the chorus really represent a bar set too high I think.

06 Wishing – Starts off like an early 90s diva ballad, I’m half expecting Mariah to start singing. But no, it’s our young heroine with her shaky vocals. Actually she’s better on this than Poker Face, and the sound on a less demanding ballad does come over better than in “Poker Face”. The issue here though is that the chorus is a bit of a drag. It reminds me of later songs by her, but it’s not a favourable comparison. Maybe the lyrics are really insightful, but sadly they are lost on me.

07 You – Her second single, and immediately a more instant intro, I can see why this was chosen from the selection so far. The lyrics might even quite simple, even I can understand bits… “one word”, and a chorus about the seasons of the year, winter being cold, perhaps something about spring’s wind? Anyway it’s a pretty simple tune in the chorus and I can imagine it getting stuck in the head of a native speaker. She does sound a bit immature on this really, but it’s something that experience will sort out in later albums.

05 As if… – Another sort-of-uptempo track, it’s a bit generic really, we’ve had enough of these sort of things for me to start struggling to distinguish them. Some naff guitar bits, and an uninspiring melody. Sorry, not really feeling this one.

07 Powder Snow – I wonder why all her song titles are in English? Unlike many J-pop acts she rarely uses English words in her songs. This starts off pretty slow and quiet, but there’s always a flash of recognition when I get to the first chorus. It’s a nice tune really, but it takes its sweet time to get going. Japanese songs tend to be LONG, here averaging well over 4 minutes, so after 2 1/2 minutes I’m starting to get bored of waiting. But a midtempo beat kicks in, the synthy swirls in the background (almost like a church organ) and even a key change take the second half into good shape. Not the most exciting song but recovers by the end.

07 Trust – Lovely intro, very traditional Japanese, you can almost see the cherry blossom etc. The third single now, and another simplistic melody for the verses. The chorus is strong, but the high notes are a bit grating. If you can see/hear past that, it’s a strong pop song, but it wheels out its main hook a bit too early, so I’m a little bored of it by the end. Naff guitar solo too, lucky us! I see how it would be one of the more accessible moments of this album, but it does wear out its welcome.

09 Depend on you – The fifth single now (this is before the album even got released!) and a much stronger pop-rock combo. That chorus – which opens the show – is quite instant, while the verse-bridge sections aren’t boring enough to kill the momentum. Those synthy shimmers before the choruses really make them into events, and I think it really reflects well on the song as a whole. It’s not a surprise that this became her biggest hit so far, and launched the album with a flying start less than a month later.

08 Signal – Really going for the uptempos now, and a catchy synth intro that’s got into my head over the several listens I’ve given to this album. The tempo of the singing is quicker too, so it’s harder for her vocals to be shown off as a bit shaky, even the high notes are reached without too much trouble. It’s quite energetic and beat-driven, all very good really.

06 From your letter – A bit of an odd intro, like some 90s R’n’B diva track, a bit of a slow-jam beat to it, interesting change there… the flute over the top is a bit of a weird mix though. The chorus has an unusual downbeat feel to it, I’m not entirely what I think about it if I’m honest. It’s a little too slow for me, it’s difficult to know what they were going for. It gets points for deviation from the sounds earlier in the album (particularly after 13 tracks before it).

04 For my dear… – One last single now, and another ballad. Unfortunately it falls into some of the pitfalls we’ve encountered so far, long shrill notes, boring accompaniment. It does finally get moving after 2 minutes, sadly with a particularly painful long note, ack… This doesn’t really go anywhere for me, I don’t like that chorus much, and she repeats it a LOT.

07 Present – A nice plinky-plonky intro, like some nice glass music box. But it kicks into a perky pop song, with some endearingly naff trumpet effects too. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking note to go out on, but it’s full of fun and optimism, and in all honesty that’s all we could probably hope for. The chorus is melodically quite nice, and those trumpets!

Well that’s that, I was a little reluctant to go back to this, knowing its dependence on shrill vocals and rather boring ballads. The uptempo moments rely a little too heavily on naff electric guitar solos, but you have to start somewhere. It’s only a few albums until it really starts getting GOOD, so I’m not put off yet.

Keepers for the iPod: A Song for XX, Depend on you

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