Right, a little delayed but I’m back on the J-Pop finally. So I continue with oriental heavyweight Ayumi Hamasaki’s sixth full-length album “My Story”. I think this was the first album she released after my descent into Ayumi fandom, so it holds a special place in my heart. Fortunately it’s also pretty great, possibly my favourite of her albums.
It was the start of a second era in her career, not hitting the towering heights of record sales she had previously, but maintaining her popularity with a million-selling album and more No.1 singles to add to her enormous consecutive tally (25 in a row at the moment, 38 in total). In a slight deviation from her usual habit of releasing dance remix and acoustic remix albums, she released “My Story ~ Classical”, a collection of 11 “My Story” orchestral covers. I have this album but need to give it another spin I think.
07 Catcher in the light – A semi-intro piece now, less than 3 minutes but more fully-formed than her usual intros. An electric guitar strums the opening beats, feeling like the revving of an engine before a green light (unusually poetic of me, isn’t it?). After the initial crash of instruments, the verses are quite subdued. A pleasant listen anyway, and a nice smooth opener for the album.
08 About you – Straight into the rockier pop music Ayumi had been experimenting with in recent albums, this hits a nice mix of melodic pop without getting too rackety. I love that rapid-fire chorus though, I can’t imagine being able to sing that fast. Perhaps it doesn’t quite hit the heights required of a single (this wasn’t one), but that chorus is worth the effort.
08 Game – While not formally a single, it was the B-side for “Inspire” and got a video, so where do you draw the line? Either way this weight much more heavily into the rockier sound, with distorted vocal effects over most of the verses. The chorus has a great melody and desperation about it, makes me a little sad that I haven’t got a clue what it’s all about. The song does boil down to that chorus and the brief and insubstantial verses, but it’s got a good sound to it. I’ve never been a massive fan of her rockier tracks, but this is a good one at least. That outro chorus is pretty good too.
07 My name’s Women – Hmm… clunky title aside, the video left no space for misunderstanding that this was about female empowerment. Not sure quite how female clubs with male pole dancers is quite addressing gender imbalances rather than just swapping them around, but let’s just go with it. A bit more of a boombastic pop track now, even if the beats are pretty heavy-handed. I like it for what it is, but I doubt I’d ever call it a favourite off this album. Functional and listenable.
07 Wonderland – First little interlude now, and everyone loves clowns and circuses right? Right?? Well it starts innocuous enough, gentle fairground melodies that reminds me of the amazing “Castle of Illusion” on the Sega Megadrive (love that). But no, rumbles of thunder and creepy cackles intrude on this fun, and we are back in typically terrifying circus territory. Great.
07 Liar – A bell tolls in the background, but a song titled quite seriously has quite a light bouncy melody despite the crashing guitars kicking in again. Indeed, when she starts singing, a calm descends. She sounds a little hurt (my perception totally skewed by the song title of course), and the guitars pop in for a few thrashes, but all-in-all this is a pretty gentle midtempo track. Familiar and pleasant but not particularly memorable.
06 Hope or pain – Doesn’t seem like much of a choice does it? I’m not sure what I end up feeling as a result of this rather protracted mid-tempo song. The production on the ponderous choruses is a bit of a drag really, and while the verses are quite nice, the chorus just doesn’t really have much impact on me. There’s nothing I can particularly criticise, but it just doesn’t do a lot for me.
06 Happy ending – While I snigger at the title (immature I know), I sit back for another slightly syruppy midtempo. You might be forgiven for wondering why I think this is such a good album, and I admit at this point I’m a little unsure, but the positives certainly outweight the … neutrals. As with her albums, there is always filler, though I don’t know why she has to have such a long album every time. This is a bit of filler, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not making an impact on me.
08 Moments – The somewhat surprising choice of a lead single here, it’s another midtempo but has a bit more substance to it than the preceding few tracks. It has more of a beat behind it for starters, and a gentle but quite cute chorus to it. That “la la la” refrain is quite catchy in the end, and the track builds impressively by the end, in a way the other slow tracks never managed. Not a bad choice really!
06 Walking proud – Now this really IS a bloated sentimental track, with a artistically-made but saccharine video to go with the impressive selection on the accompanying DVD. It starts off nicely, I like those understanded piano-led intros. The chorus is just a bit of a non-event though, very sweet but just not doing a lot. More pleasant filler really, but that’s better than awful filler I guess.
08 Carols – A more decisive step into ballad territory now, though a bit strangely titled, I only really think of carols as a Christmas thing, but this came out in September. The occasional sleigh bell confuses me further. After that subdued intro, the chorus has a stronger melody than some on this album, and it’s a pretty strong track. I’ve heard stronger ballads from Ayumi, but this isn’t bad. Yet another confusing single choice though, particularly after Moments had already been released.
07 Kaleidoscope – Another interlude, a nice icy-sounding throwback to some moments from “Rainbow”, but doesn’t really do much. Builds to quite a nice little climax though.
10 Inspire – Now we are talking. The big pop single from this campaign, and what a single! Some sort of middle-Eastern influence in there somewhere, but some really weapons-grade pop production at work. The beat carries most of the verses, but the chorus is really where this song shines. Punchy and memorable, this was one of the first ‘new’ Ayumi singles that really got me stoked up, and it’s still pretty awesome 8 years on. If you only listen to one track from this album, make it this one.
10 Honey – And straight onto another great pop song, one of my late bloomers, though I always had love for this one. Her voice is as cute as she can make it without throwing up, but it totally works for this light fluffy bit of pop music. Production is rapid but really warm and fuzzy, and melts easily into a really gorgeous chorus. It’s just a bit of a dizzy love song I think, and has all the positivity of an anime theme tune. Love it!
08 Replace – Home strait now, but there’s still 15 minutes to go… why are Japanese songs (and albums) so long!? Anyway, a nice follow-on from Honey, that same sort of upbeat light-hearted tone to it, even if it doesn’t quite have the same giddy tempo. A strange galloping beat to it, I like that. The song doesn’t quite measure up after Honey, but there’s plenty right with it.
06 Winding road – Uh oh, back to inspirational mid-tempos now. As I’ve said several times in this review, there’s little to be negative about, it all fits nicely into the general sound of this album, partly why this album is such a nice listen. This one does build well, but the chorus isn’t much of a payoff for a 5-minute song.
07 Humming 7/4 – I guess the 7/4 is a reference to the weirdly uneven beat to this in places? A pretty standard rock-pop song to round things off. That chorus probably works better on tour, has lots of energy to it, though just sitting here listening to it, there’s not much to it! There are plenty of good bits here, but it gets a little lost among the sea of guitars that has happily been kept at bay for most of the album. Not my tastes particularly but a nice send-off for the album.
So that’s another one down, and approaching the limits of my experiences of Ayumi’s albums, with only really the next album (miss)understood that I know a lot about. “My Story” stands up well as a fun and undemanding listen, thought it has only really struck me now that while the album is consistently decent, there aren’t really the killer moments that other albums had.
Maybe it’s telling that there were an unusually small crop of three singles from this (four if you include Game’s appearance on Inspire). While a lot of songs are good, few really grabbed me in the way a single should. Still, Honey and About You were highlights for me, so maybe she just wanted to cut her losses with this album. At the time it was a much less successful album than its predecessors, and they weren’t to know that this was the start of a continuing decline in her album sales, so maybe they thought they could just put this album to bed and come back fighting with the next album.
Anyway, I still hold this album in high regard. It might not be amazing, or hit the heights of some other albums, but it’s consistently good, and that’s a tall order with most albums.
Keepers for the iPod: About you, Game, Moments, Carols, Kaleidoscope, Inspire, Honey, Replace