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Album: Utada – “This is the one” (2009)

Five years after the success of English-language “Exodus” (in Japan at least), Hikaru had a contract to fulfil and flew Stateside to complete a follow-up.

Perhaps mindful of the experimental nature of “Exodus”, you can hardly blame her for taking a more mainstream approach to try and break America. Unfortunately some fans felt this was a bit of a sellout, as the album maybe sounded a little too mainstream for fans of her Japanese crossover sound. Ultimately the album didn’t quite manage any of its commercial goals, unusually missing the No.1 spot in Japan and languishing at #69 in the US.

I wasn’t too fussed about this first time I heard it, but it’s a perfectly listenable RnB-lite album, with maybe not enough of Utada’s personal touch as I was hoping.

 

09 Come back to me – A dramatic piano intro, lovely … seamless segues into a totally different RnB ballad, I could imagine Beyonce doing something like this (and having a big hit with it). It’s really grown on me, it’s pretty standard but something about her voice just makes it so easy to listen to. The scales she does on the bridges are really gorgeous, and the harmonious backing vocals on the chorus really lift this one. OK it’s not going to win any originality awards but it’s really sweet.

08 Me Muero – A sexy rhythmic Latin number, with some quite strange lyrics thrown in there. She’s feeling suicidal, her lover’s gone to Istanbul(!) and she’s reading old emails in her pyjamas. It’s quite an endearingly strange little song, especially those weird “shabba dabba” backing vocals. That rhythm really does make it, and it’s got a very likeable attitude to it.

08 Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence / FYI – A great use of a sample from the famous movie score, forming a really interesting soundbed for the song. Not sure what the relevance is to the song though, but it works as a good mash-up. An understated sexy theme, again supported brilliantly by the backing vocals, even a few “uh uh” points just set things off. A lot of the lyrics seem to be total nonsense (“mp3 mp3, ching-a-ling, ching-a-ling, uhhhoohh”), but it doesn’t hold back my enjoyment.

09 Apple and Cinnamon – Complaints that this is a bit of a generic RnB album won’t be answered by this track, you could imagine any of the high-profile RnB females doing this, Jordin Sparks anyone? That chorus is pretty undeniable though. A bit dependent on repetition, but the second hold of the chorus is touching and heartfelt. In fact a lot of this album seems to be a bit downbeat in style, this isn’t really a “cheering up” album in any sense. But this is one of my favourites of this album.

06 Taking my money back – Instead of mourning more lost relationships, Utada’s on the attack now (sort of). Well the lyrics certainly sound like they should be attacking, but there’s not really the conviction in her delivery. I don’t know why I’m bringing up Beyonce again but this does just remind me of how much ballsier earlier Destinys Child songs were in comparison. Bills Bills Bills anyone? Not bad to listen to, just a bit toothless.

08 This one (crying like a child) – If you’re going to be sad, at least play it to your strengths. Fortunately that’s exactly what happens here, nothing very original, but I love her tone of voice. Those bridges are lovely, and the interesting sound to her vocals on the verses are really listenable. it’s downbeat again but it just has more passion and pain behind it then a lot of other tracks on here.

07 Automatic Part II – Enough misery, time to take it to the cluubbzz. Sort of. It’s not a massively uptempo number or anything, but it’s got a vaguely RnB beat to it, reminds me a little of Aaliyah. Lyrics are a bit naff, but that beat really works well. Is she using a vodka tonic as a contraceptive?! Oh dear me… Just sort of chugs along, the “oh oh oh” backing vocals help out a little at the end but it’s a bit more autopilot than automatic.

08 Dirty Desire – Well she seems to be over her heartbreak at least, and she wants to get some and doesn’t care who knows it. I suppose as a Japanese artist I thought she’d have a bit more class than dropping cliches like “love you long time” and eyebrow raising moments like “during my 9-to-5, I’m thinking 6 & 9”. Sort of makes me question what she was prepared to do (musically) to try to get some US notoriety, not the sort of question that sits well with me. It’s annoyingly catchy though, even that rather scary “BRING THAT BEAT BACK” woman who appears right at the end.

07 Poppin’ – What a weird one, it’s like the theme music to a cat-burglar or something. An unusual bouncy rhythm, but at least it breaks the mould of this album a bit. Her high-pitched vocals on the chorus is memorable but I’m not sure what I think of it. The talky bits are curiously captivating, she’s got a pretty sexy speaking voice. An odd one in this album’s tracklist but not a bad thing.

06 On & On – What a generic urban clubby beat! Still, her breathy vocals are lovely as ever. I don’t know who that guy is yelping over the backing track, it’s not Fatman Scoop is it? A real sell-out for the closing track, but it’s OK. Actually why pick this as a closing track, just sort of underlines how this album doesn’t really have much of a running narrative, just a bunch of potential radio singles.

While her voice is growing on me, more as a result of “Exodus” than anything, I am a bit disappointed at how diluted this album sounds compared to that album. Creative direction seems to have taken a back seat to securing an American breakthrough, something it didn’t managed at all. As interesting (to me) a Japanese artist breaking Stateside is – let alone THE biggest Japanese artist – musically there was nothing to sell that wasn’t already being done a lot and to a higher quality.

The album stands up to repeated listens, but I doubt if I ever made a list of my favourite Utada songs that many (or even any) would make the cut. Of course I’m still interested in another English-language album from her, but I don’t want it at the price of her sound..

Keepers for the iPod: Come back to me, Me Muero, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence/FYI, Apple & cinnamon, This one, Dirty Desire.

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Album: Utada – “Exodus” (2004)

This has been on my to-do list for a long while, the debut English album of J-Pop colossus Hikaru Utada. Utada had astounding levels of success in Japan since her debut album in 1999. Three of her albums are in the all-time Japanese top 10, including the biggest-selling album with her debut “First Love” and the biggest opening week ever with follow-up “Distance”.

I haven’t really listened to her earlier stuff, it’s a bit too R’n’B influenced for my tastes but I’m sure I’ll get around to it. I really started to love her after hearing some of her bigger hits, and 2006 album “Ultra Blue”. However in 2004 she released her first international English-language album “Exodus”. I loved some songs off it, but overall it was a bit of an oddball and I never quite gave it enough attention at the time. I’ve had a big turnaround in the last few weeks though, and it’s revealed itself to be a pretty smart offbeat little pop record.

09 Opening – I have her amazing 2006 concert on DVD so this just reminds me of the mesmerising intro to that. A light, airy and mysterious introduction that really sets up the mood and sound of the album.

09 Devil Inside – A moody electronic intro, the whole album has this unique tone to it, I was surprised to hear it was Timbaland behind a lot of the album, and even Danja (whose work I really know from that Britney’s great “Blackout” album). This is a dark electronic with a subtle but strong beat under the surface. This ended up being the biggest hit in the US, but it doesn’t sacrifice its Japanese side, there are plenty of Asian influences in the mix. So many memorable little riffs!

08 Exodus ’04 – That strange atmosphere is still in the production, giving a bit of an anxious tone to the song. About leaving her family – I’m presuming here that it’s about Utada’s attempts to break America, or at least expand her horizons outside Japan. It’s got a lovely piano riff that you might not even notice, but is a great bed for the song. The lyrics are quite touching too, communicates the feeling of worry about leaving your roots I think.

07 The workout – There are moments in this album that remind me of Bjork. Not held back by typical pop song structures, there are heaps of interesting beeps and bloops and beats throughout this album, and particularly in this song. A bit of a slutty offbeat track that doesn’t really fit to a genre. I love her lyrics too, just work so effectively to let my imagination fill in the blanks in the story. Not my favourite song but it works so well as part of the album’s sound.

09 Easy breezy – After those serious tracks, something a little lighter. Perhaps a lot lighter than expected, and I remember a few eyebrows were raised at some of the lyrics “You’re easy breezy and I’m Japanesey”. I didn’t really think to much about this song, but it’s so catchy once it gets you. Bouncy and cute, even if it’s about post-breakup feelings. A bit of a strange one to pick for the first single, but still very good.

07 Tippy Toe – This must be a Timbaland track, right? Feeling a bit more like “The workout” in tone, it was never one of my favourites, but still has its place. That squelchy production under a lot of it was memorable. She’s not afraid to sing about sexier topics, even if this sounds like she’s keeping some secrets. I love how this album so far has kept a strong identity in the sound of the songs without it sounding samey.

09 Hotel Lobby – This is one that feels a lot more Japanese than the rest so far. Very robotic and plinky-plonky, I love that whole intro, especially when that beepy electronic riff gets established. The song seems to be about (I’m probably wrong) a high-class business hookers, just trying to pay the bills. It’s got a lightness to the tone but really it’s pretty sad, the woman in question just making herself a bit numb to get through it all, and perhaps even disappearing to society (or worse). Some really gorgeous moments, like the “catch me ‘cos I think I’m falling” bit. Really great stuff.

09 Animato – Very Bjorkish feel to some of it, a really strange effect at the start. Not as beat-driven as the other songs, but quite industrial-soundng. There is still room for some effective choir effects, and an easy-to-miss military drum beat. This really is just gorgeous, I don’t know where to start. The melody is so interesting to listen to, just jumps around unexpectedly. Love this.

06 Crossover interlude – Echoing the opening intro, a brief moment to re-group, but returning to that “I don’t wanna cross over” mission statement. Doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of that awesome opening track though.

10 Kremlin Dusk – Definitely one of the highlights of the concert DVD I have, and I believe had something to do with The Mars Volta on production duties (though Wiki isn’t being much help). This song just builds the layers up and up until it has a pretty full-on spectacle on its hands. That harpsichord on the bridge really sets off the strange feel to the song, and the various introductions of production effects and noises just flow seamlessly. A few clunky lyrics (“Edgar Allen Poe”?!), and the longest track on the album but certainly doesn’t get stale or outstay its welcome. Eventually the drum tempo just cranks up and it’s a pretty big track. Spectacular!

08 You make me want to be a man – What an odd single choice again (though I don’t have a better alternative). That weird distorted alien noise that makes up the bulk of the choruses might get annoying for some people, but I like it. That beat is amazing too, it’s heavy but not intrusive. The verses are a little difficult but the chorus more than makes up for it. A bit of a struggle for the regular J-Pop fan, but really grew on me after a long while…

07 Wonder bout – God I love that squeaky riff, just so catchy. This feels very Western, I’m sure this must be one of the American-produced tracks. Wouldn’t feel out of place with one of the early 00’s RnB females of choice singing it, like Aaliyah maybe. The melody doesn’t quite suit the production somehow, but definitely has its moments. It’s a fun listen, even if it’s not my usual style. But that squeaky riff really is irresistible.

07 Let me give you my love – That must be a Timbaland track right? That gorgeously deep electro-bassline is brilliant. Going for the sexier subject matter now, and she wants a bit of inter-racial action, make no mistake. Does she really sing “but your body’s so Jar Jar Binks”?! Surely not. A bit of a breathless track, like she’s just reacting to the death she sings about at the start, and might not really be thinking straight. I don’t know, maybe that’s just how I hear it. Love that “Hot hot hot” bit too! Not a standout track but certainly listenable enough.

06 About me – We even get a ballad to round things off then, and no tricks are played here. A pretty straightforward acoustic ballad to start, and doesn’t really get much more demanding. OK a beat kicks in, but it’s a bit of a cooldown from the chaos of the rest of the album, nothing to get fretful about. A bit boring, all said and done, but pleasant enough.

Well overall that was a massive success for me, I only feel bad that I never felt this way years ago when I first heard it. Maybe my tastes have changes, or maybe it’s simply an album that needs a bit more time to blossom. I seem to remember her follow-up English album “This is the one” wasn’t great, but it’s certainly inspired me to listen to Utada more. A really good listen! A rare occurrence, but I’m keeping this whole album on my iPod!

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Single: Hikaru Utada – “Traveling” (2001)

While I recuperate after my Japanese voyage, I will do a quick single review. Jet lag is weighing down on me like a lead weight, and I don’t think I can stay awake for much longer. So on a related note I look at this appropriately-titled single from J-pop megastar Hikaru Utada (or Utada Hikaru in Japan).

“Traveling” was the second single from third album “Deep River” that was another tremendous success to Hikaru’s astonishing level of success in Japan, ultimately becoming the 8th biggest selling album of all time there. It joined previous albums “First love” and “Distance” in the all-time top 10, which are first and fifth on the list respectively as it stands.

I’ve never quite broken through with Hikaru, though there is certainly cause for some investigation, with fourth album Ultra Blue and debut English-language album Exodus being particularly interesting for me. I found the older material from her first Singles Collection to be a bit too R’n’B for my tastes, but “Traveling” sees her in a much poppier state of mind, in a rather sophisticated dance crossover track.

I find this song impossible to detach from the incredible video, a real fiesta of colours and styles, driven by what I’m sure was an eye-popping budget earned by the massive success of her previous albums.

The production is gorgeous, I love that bustling futuristic intro, leading into a quite subtle verse before the addictive chorus kicks in. The middle-eight with those beautiful autumnal video segments are really wonderful, I love it.

The video is almost enough for a blog entry of its own. Full of colour, bright designs, glittering neon lights, and even a stop-motion segment with Hikaru looking beautiful in a more back-to-basics look. A start contrast to the cosplay-esque outfits, all weird creatures and bright wigs.

In short, an uplifting fun J-pop song, that never outstays its welcome after the 5-minute run-time, and even translated wonderfully to the Utada United 2006 tour as a brilliant intro. It’s certainly good enough to deserve a good look at its parent album before too long.

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