Oh I really need to buck my ideas up, how long as this bloated Ayumi back catalogue voyage been spun out for? I’m sorry. But I should start making the push through the albums, she’s releasing them almost as fast as I’m reviewing them!
We are approaching the fringe of my working knowledge of one of Japan’s hugest stars. I didn’t stop liking her or anything, I think I just sort of drifted out of buying her CDs. The next one “Guilty” is the last one I bought and I really can’t remember that one, so this is brave new ground for me!
I keep forgetting how many of my favourite Ayu singles are on this one. It’s a slim album, coming in under 1 hour with only 11 1/2 proper songs, that certainly makes a nice change from some of the bloated efforts I’ve listened to so far. And it’s a good one!
09 Not yet – A half-song to open the show, a lone bell chimes quietly as Ayumi kicks off with an acapella segment that gradually fizzes into life with a flurry of synths. Once that beat kicks in, it’s a massive boost of energy, and one of the best kind of J-pop album openers. GENKIIIII. Over too soon!
08 Until that day… – I sort of hoped it would merge a bit more smoothly in from that intro, but no, this is a pacey and rocky pop song. Distorted vocals and a guitar riff that doesn’t sound unlike “Back in Black” (it’s a bit tenuous but whatever). It’s more of a rock-dance rhythm setter than a solid pop song, though Ayumi makes up for lost time from the sparse verses to offer a rapid-fire onslaught in the chorus. It’s not quite “Evolution” but it’s got a similar energy to it. Very good!
08 Startin – I think this is one of the first singles I heard from this album, and a pretty crazy video to go with it. It’s got good humour, striking visuals and a strong song behind it. This is much more of a pop song than the previous tracks. I think I prefer the buildup to the actual choruses, but it’s still memorable and strong. There’s a great pounding rhythm to it, and doesn’t rely too much on the rock sounds borrowed for the occasion. It’s faded over time for me, but still a great song.
06 1 love – Thinking about it, I think it’s the regular use of a rock band vibe in her songs that slowly put me off Ayumi for a while. I mean the girl who sang gorgeous ballads like “A Song for XX” or “Rainbow”, or power-pop songs like “Real me” doesn’t seem to be there at the moment. It has a memorable (if monotone) chorus, but it just doesn’t do a lot for me musically, I don’t really want crashing guitars all over the place! It gets a bit out of control for a large portion of the middle and that kills it for me.
06 It was – OK the tempo has finally relaxed a bit, but the rock band sound still lingers. I’m happy for her to use different styles than synths and ballads, but she’s just fixated on these fairly boring guitar-led numbers. The melody is nice but not anything really special. Pfft… where are the singles? I do like that little pause and middle-eight, but that’s about it.
09 Labyrinth – First of two interludes, this is more like it, I love these things. Really mysterious and immersive, I love it. Totally disjoint from the song before it though, but an improvement. These little interludes are always beautiful, and this is a brilliant example of that. I just wish it was a full song. That outro is just so uplifting!
07 Jewel – Oh careful what you wish for, this is some old-school Ayumi balladeering. It’s just more in the vein of the less affecting ones like “Endless sorrow” or “Forgiveness”. I mean I do lap up these things, piano-led ballads? Come on!! The melody is pretty, and the chorus is decent. But that’s about it really, it doesn’t really build up anywhere, it’s just a nice song.
08 Momentum – Ah this is a bit more like it, that almost-acapella intro into another chilly synth-encrusted soundbed is classic Ayu in a good way. It takes a little while to get that momentum, but once the chorus finally reaches ignition it’s a highlight moment. It sounds familiar in the context of her back catalogue, but I still love it. I only wish it didn’t keep building those choruses up and losing the momentum with quiet bits. I mean it’s CALLED momentum!
07 taskinst – No, that’s not a typo… hmm… no it’s another interlude by Tasuku, who has contributed a lot of interludes to Ayumi albums over the years (it’s probably only like three). Hopefully it’s not gearing me up for more rock-pop filler, I’ve heard better from him! I think “tasking” was pretty hot though.
10 Born to be – Hold the phone, this is AMAZING and one of the highlights of latter-day Ayumi. Released as a single to coincide with the 2006 Winter Olympics coverage, you can totally tell it’s one of those “everyone’s trying their best for glory” songs. It’s full of energy and a relentless tribal beat behind it all. Totally uplifting and gorgeous. Just when you’re high off this one, then hits that glorious middle-eight with the piano and those massive beats, it just gives me goosebumps. A total triumph, I love it.
08 Beautiful fighters – More whimsical pop now, thank God she hasn’t renounced it completely. But the comical videos just make it feel a bit cheap, as fun as they are. I don’t know, something about this song never QUITE clicked, like it’s trying too hard. That said, it’s still a cute pop song with interesting production and a weird ear-catching English title. I like it a lot, but I don’t think I’d ever end up rating it up there with her best.
09 Blue Bird – Now THIS on the other hand is much more like the Ayumi I love. Gorgeous island paradise video, it’s such a summer sound. It builds gradually and gracefully into a really beautiful little chorus. Lots of energy and positivity. Not QUITE as joyous as “Fairyland” was, but that middle-eight is still really good.
08 Kiss ‘o kill – What?? Is that supposed to be ‘or’? I love that grand church organ sound at the start, but it soon makes way for a full-on electroclash bit of drama. How exciting. It at least has a different flavour to the rock-pop tracks from the start. The chorus is big and ballsy, I quite like it. Not a song I immediately remember when I’m not listening to it, but hardly a low-point.
07 Secret – Last track now, and a traditional old ballad. This feels like familiar ground (think “Carols”), and while it’s not particularly catchy, it’s a dignified conclusion to the end, even if it’s a little downbeat. The chorus is nicer than I give it credit for, it just doesn’t have that killer hook. Still quite sweet though.
Well it’s not a perfect album, there are plenty of trends here in Ayumi’s music that I’d rather she wasn’t pursuing, but what can you do? The singles at least proved that she still had some killer songs in her, and “Born to be” really is a wonderful highlight of the album. What the later albums are going to sound like is a bit of a mystery, but I hope it doesn’t rely so much on guitars.
Keepers for the iPod: Not yet, Until that day, Startin, Labyrinth, Momentum, Born to be, Beautiful fighters, Blue Bird, Kiss ‘o Kill
it’s so annoying that her full videos aren’t on Youtube, you’ll have to settle for some snippets to whet your appetites, including a clip of “Born to be” that shows none of its selling points and the ludicrous opening minute of “Startin” (don’t they have normal English-speakers in Japan? Or guidelines for the use of power tools?).