Time to write up another of Ayumi’s studio albums. This time it’s her fifth album “Rainbow”, another massive success for the Japanese singer, selling over a million copies in Japan its first week, a number that is almost unheard of in Western countries. Flanked by three number one singles, including the best-selling single in Japan of 2002, the “H” EP including three tracks from “Rainbow”.
Obviously Ayumi was still at the height of her powers, with this album released less than a year after her multi-million selling “I am…” album. I don’t think it’s got quite the punch that “I am…” has, but it has a clearly defined sound, and there are plenty of great moments. I only wish it didn’t have to be such a LONG album!
08 Everlasting Dream – The standard intro to the album first, with a futuristically sparse soundscape, with some light percussion, synths and even some lovely orchestral flourishes. Really pretty, and a great lead-in to the album.
08 We Wish – A pretty poptastic first track, with more than a little resemblance to the Swedish-penned pop smashes from the USA at times, with a thin veneer of R’n’B and even some guitars creating a rather confused soundbed. But the song itself is quite memorable, lots of little features that make this an enjoyable experience. Her vocals fit this one pretty well too, and don’t get drowned out by the excessive production.
10 Real me – One of my first strong memories of Ayumi now, with a wonderfully glossy video that I first saw with my original (possible dodgy) VCD collection from eBay. A futuristic setting with dancing robots set the scene for a gorgeous poppy R’n’B-lite track. There are even some just-about-English sections, something about women being nuns in order to survive? Well OK I’m not quite following it, but the song is so catchy, even if it might be showing its age a little now.
09 Free & Easy – Not sure of the title, this sounds anything but free & easy, it’s a change in feel from the upbeat “Real Me” just passed. A really beautiful piano-led intro accompanies some lovely orchestral sections. A bit of a disjointed ballad, some very downbeat verses are well carried off. But don’t go to sleep, suddenly the chorus hits you like a truck, some big beats and some church-sounding synth organs smash into the track, but then they are gone again. It’s a very stop-start track that could have lazily been the sequel to “M” but ends up feeling quite different. The chorus feels a bit more like a ‘normal’ track, but ultimately this is a curious track, utterly bewildering choice as the lead single for this project, but it kicked off an as-yet unbroken string of No.1s for Ayumi.
05 Heartplace – Sombre drums play us into what feels a lot like “We wish”, with some quite whiny-sounding guitars that leaves me a bit cold. The vocals don’t really help the situation, it’s just really a bit of a drag. The string section that comes in halfway through is very welcome but can’t rescue what I think is a bit of a dull (6-minute) entry on this album.
06 Over – Still stuck in MoR territory, even if the production is more to my tastes. The brief English phrases are quite sweet “I can’t smile without you”, even if they are difficult to understand. The chorus doesn’t have much fire to it, but it’s alright. But that’s about it really, it doesn’t quite deliver on any promise it might have.
06 Hanabi – Now this is better, one third of the million-selling “H” EP. A clunky music-box intro works quite well, but we are still in that boring ballad territory established by “Over”. It does happily start to build to a nice chorus via a pleasant bridge. I was excited about this one, but I think it’s “Hanabi II” I like, we aren’t there yet. Again the chorus is a bit whiny, but it works quite nicely with the sparse production. I just wish that in 5 minutes they could have had more of a climax to it.
08 taskinillusion – Interlude time, with a pretty Euro-poppy distraction to get the beats back into this album. Certainly reminiscent of the better moments of earlier albums, so is this a chance to get optimistic?
06 Everywhere nowhere – Erm… maybe not. A rather bleak-sounding intro, but the beat does kick in eventually. I don’t really like her vibrato voice on this, and the song has a weird tone to it that I’m not quite getting into. The chorus is slightly more upbeat but overall it’s a bit of a struggle to get your hooks into this one. Not sure I really like it, even if that chorus is pretty decent.
09 July 1st – Another part of “H” now, and finally a return to some upbeat dance music. A gentle intro takes us straight into the action, and a killer chorus. Her vocals on it are a little screechy, but it’s a fun dancey track with bags of energy. Not sure of the significance of July 1st, but I’ve just realised with a shock that I’m writing this on July 1st, how freaky!! Certainly a return to form on this album at least.
07 Dolls – Another ballad, even if it has a fast pace than some of the dreary ballads we’ve had already. It’s almost waltzing along for the first 90 seconds, until it hits a quite tender mini-chorus. Lots of sad-sounding synthy effects, not sure how to describe it, it’s all very icy-sounding. It does drag on for a lot longer than it needs to, but that key-change is certainly welcome towards the end.
07 Neverending dream – Another interlude now, a bit of a spacey backdrop in what feels almost like a continuation of “Dolls” sound-wise. A little unnecessary but it’s inoffensive.
09 Voyage – Third single now, and finally it’s back to basics with a straightforward J-ballad. Quite heartwarming intrumentation on the intro, and then some really gorgeous strings sweep into the action. Really love that part, and sets a nice tone for a beautiful song. I seem to remember this having a bit of a strange video, isn’t she strapped to a chair and drugged for most of it?? Either way it’s got a warm and memorable chorus to it. And of course I LOVE those orchestral sections.
08 Close to you – How do you follow up on a great ballad like “Voyage”? Well it seems in this case (and the same on many albums) is with a not-quite-as-good ballad. Such is the position “Close to you” is in. It’s not a bad song really, her vocals are nice and the choral accompaniment really helps out, I think. But the song doesn’t really get anywhere. It might have even been better as a closing track for the album, it’s got a nice feel to it, but is perhaps a bit too sleepy to sit in the shadow of “Voyage”. Still, very nice.
09 Independent – Not counting the hidden track coming up, here is the final main track, and final piece of the “H” EP, an energetic guitar-driven anthem in the same vein as “Audience” I think. Not too noisy, the guitars mostly stay out of the understated verses and bridges, which I think is a good move. That saves some impact for a lovely chorus, it’s fun and carefree without being too sugary. I’d say this would probably have been responsible for many of the million sales this EP generated. A great track, even if it’s a curious thing to place it at the end of the album.
07 + – Hidden track time now (thank God Independent wasn’t really 10 minutes long!). So hidden that it’s difficult to know when it started and “Independent” ended. Partly this is down to it having a similar feel to that track, another fast-paced pop song. Doesn’t really have much identity though, quickly descending into a rather flat-sounding “la la la” chorus. It’s not that bad, but pretty generic. It’s still a nice one to listen to, and I think it fits quite nicely with “Independent”, even if it might dilute the overall effect of that song.
So there we have it. A long album, and it really sagged in the middle when some diverse but generally quite dull tracks outstayed their welcome quite considerably. But it’s not an album without its highlights, as some of the (good) single choices demonstrated. I’m amazed “Real me” didn’t get a single release though, especially since they filmed a video for it. I think Ayumi may have a quality control issue, she has been popping out albums at a rate of one per year for a long time, and these are often quite bloated albums. I pray for a tight 60-minute album, but I’m not sure I will get it. Fortunately I will sort of get my wish, as “mini”-album “Memorial address” is next. Funny really how a 40-minute album is considered a mini-album in Japan, but many of the Eurovision artist albums seem to weigh in at around the same length!
Keepers for the iPod: Real me, Free & Easy, July 1st, Voyage, Independent