Album: Ayumi Hamasaki – “LOVEppears” (1999)

It feels like AGES since I had the bright idea that I would conquer the back catalogue of J-pop supserstar Ayumi Hamasaki. I’ve loved her for years now, and she’s got several albums of great pop songs behind her (and hopefully a few in front of her too). I have held back a bit on these reviews though because I had this impression that the earlier albums were a bit of a drag. “A Song for XX” was quite good in the end, but maybe dragged down by a lot of ballads. I feared that “LOVEppears” would suffer the same, but it’s a pretty dance-oriented album, which regular visitors to my blog will know is definitely a good direction to go in.

08 Introduction – Let’s get whipped up into a frenzy with a pretty manic opening shot. Straight into the dancey stuff, just take a minute to get accustomed. Love the feel of this, feels like I’m at a concert! Why don’t they use intros more?

10 Fly High – On to one of the jewels of her early catalogue, a euphoric dance track, preserving the cute vocal style of her early album but dragging it right into the present day. This is something like 14 years old now, doesn’t sound like it. I love the little rap diversions – is it still rap in Japanese, she might just be talking. Really relentless dance-pop, and very defined sections of the song, all of which are great in their own way. That chorus really is lovely though.

08 Trauma – A more electric-guitar-led intro, though that’s not an indication of the feel of the song. The fast pace continues, though maybe the production sounds a bit more dated now, or at least sounds like the time period it came from. It’s hard not to imagine it as the theme tune to an anime show! Difficult to really tell where the chorus is though, but it’s a nice tune, very melodic and pleasant.

10 And Then – OMG I love this so much. Sinister electro effects, very dark and futuristic (or a 1980’s idea of futuristic anyway, like TRON). When that beat kicks it, it’s just amazing. The song strays into more generic territory for the verses, but that spooky intro tune keeps creeping into the verses, I love that. The song really builds up, and that outro with the beats really makes my day. Really love all the production in this one. I realise I haven’t mentioned Ayumi’s vocals yet, she’s consistent, hasn’t picked up that really cutesy tone that she uses later in her career, which is a good thing.

09 Immature – Oh god, another amazing synth moment. After an almost baroque intro, suddenly there’s this tremendous keyboard riff, sounds like “The Final Countdown” or something. Really naff but brilliant. The rest of the song doesn’t quite live up to the feel of that moment, but I really love the choruses, a really strong melody. If anything, her voice is good, but not exceptionally good, so it’s easy to not look at it too closely. It’s very enjoyable but she does seem to take the back seat to the production sometimes. But as a whole I really love this song.

09 Boys & Girls – Taking it down a level now, for one of her big singles. In fact this was her first million-seller in Japan, with her second being an EP made up from four songs on this album (Trauma, Monochrome, Too Late & End Roll). You can see why, it’s a really mainstream pop-dance song, and she gets some chances to not be drowned out by the backing track. The bridges in this song are really positive and fun, love it! That chorus is really infectious, even if the tune doesn’t quite feel right, I’m not sure why! But the whole package is really top quality.

07 To Be – Another single, from before she was releasing straight #1s (I think she’s on about 25 in a row now, an unbeaten record in Japan). Anyway we finally take the tempo down and try a ballad. It’s very cute, and the melody is simple, maybe too simple. The chorus gets a little boring really, and the note she keeps having to hold really messes up my head! The bridge to the chorus is really sweet, I love that. But the rest of the song is just a bit… boring?

07 End Roll – Another ballad now, with some simple production behind it. That little intro is quite lovely, very simple but sets the scene well. As this wasn’t a ‘proper’ single (though bundled in with the “A” EP), I wasn’t exposed to this so much as “To Be”, so it doesn’t feel so boring. The tune is stronger, but still is does go on for quite a while without much going on. The guitary middle-eight is good though, as is the chorus straight after. I need more variety like that in these ballads, especially as Japanese songs are usually quite a lot longer than Western tracks.

07 PS II – Not a song about the Sony console, but the beats kick in early so we are out of ballad territory now. Though despite the rockier sound it’s still a pretty downtempo song, all a bit sad and emotional instead of the excitement of the early part of the album. I don’t really like the way she sings some of the notes, she can’t just sing “iiiii”, she sings “ii-hiiii”, just sounds like she her voice isn’t strong enough to do the note. The key change is good, but the song isn’t really changed at all. It’s okay but that’s about all I can say.

08 Whatever – A remix of an early single from this campaign now, and I remember the video for this song being a bit strange. She’s almost robotic there, or like a mental patient in a very wet asylum. Until I master the Japanese language I’m unlikely to really know what this was about, so I’ll just enjoy the late-90s dance track. The “waa waa waa” bits are memorable but quite annoying. The song really does feel like the late-90s, almost like Sash! or someone similar. The choruses are strong but it doesn’t quite fit with the remix at times, I wonder what the original song was like.

08 Too Late – Straight into another speedy trance track, I really love the production, there’s a lot going on but it’s not distracting, just lays a smooth beat for the song to sit on. As often happens with such long albums, I feel like it’s a bit repetitive, but it’s still very enjoyable. Doesn’t really have the killer chorus that Fly High and Boys & Girls had, but it’s better than a lot of tracks on here.

07 Appears – The (semi-)title track now, lots of atmospheric effects on the intro, sparse electronic noises, wind blowing… and into another ballad. Happily though it’s stronger than the other two main ballads so far, though it does pick up a decent beat after a minute. The verses are a bit whiny but the key-change in the bridge really works well. She’s doing that annoying vocal habit again, the “ii-hiii” one. Five and a half minutes seems a lot too much though, I was getting bored halfway through, with nearly 3 minutes left. It doesn’t really develop after the inital setup, it’s just more of the same for the rest of the song.

08 Monochrome – They are really good with the intros aren’t they? I really like that serious-sounding bassline to start with, they always use such interesting sounds. Sadly though, again I think they played their best cards early in the album, and there isn’t really anything special about this one. Except that I LOVE that middle-eight instrumental though, how creepy and wonderful! There’s nothing wrong with the track particularly, so I can’t be too critical. What a strange finish though, I thought it was an error in the transfer to my iPod, it’s very abrupt. But there’s no mistake apparently, it just fades out mid-chorus in about half a second.

08 Interlude – feels a bit late in the day for an interlude … but here we are. Quite serious-sounding, lots of beeping noises and a sinister bassline . I wonder what it is leading to…

07 Love ~refrain~ – Umm… well the interlude doesn’t really match this at all, how strange. Instead we get a remixed version of her first No.1 “Love~Destiny~”, the first of 38 No.1 singles! I don’t know what the original was like, but this doesn’t really feel like anything special. The beat keeps it from sounding too boring, but the tune doesn’t really grab me. The chorus is quite nice, but it’s difficult to get too excited. A pleasant song to have on in the background.

09 Who… – Another ballad to finish off now, in case you hadn’t quite fallen asleep yet. Actually that’s unfair, this is a really lovely song. OK it starts off a little slowly, but that simple production fits nicely, and the chorus with the choir harmonies are really lovely and uplifting. The verses aren’t really very interesting, but those choruses are great. The rousing middle-eight with the choir building up is really glorious, well done! Reminds me a little bit of her “Rainbow” track (that won’t follow for another 4 years), which is no bad thing. A key change is exactly what we need too, perfectly executed. This is really how a ballad should be done.

06 Kanariya – Oh there’s a bonus track! I’ve only seen a video for a remix of this, which was pretty good, but here we have the original form. It’s more of an acoustic mid-tempo track, and I don’t like it that much. In fact I thought it worked much better as a dance track, so maybe I should treat this version as a remix (or a de-mix?). Her vocals are a bit too shrill, and it just doesn’t work for me. When I put “Who…” on my iPod I have to find a version without this secret track attached on the end!

Phew, that took a while! You can’t say that you don’t get your money’s worth on Japanese albums, they are usually full to capacity. Just as well, last time I went, the CDs seemed about twice as expensive as CDs in the UK. Anyway, this album works best when it embraces the dance flavour that Ayumi seemed to be going in. The ballads in the middle really kill the momentum. She’s done plenty of better ballads too, I guess I’m just not a big fan of J-ballads.

But still there are some really amazing songs on this album, as we get closer to my favourite Ayumi period. The next three albums are really great! At least this album is better than I thought it would be, and not as bogged down in downtempo ballads as I thought.

Keepers for the iPod – Introduction, Fly High, Trauma, And then, Immature, Boys & Girls, Whatever, Who…

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