Category Archives: Albums

Perfume’s “LEVEL3″

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Perfume / LEVEL3 / October 02, 2013

It’s easy to think Yasutaka Nakata has lost his mind: his recent work with Harajuku fashionista Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is filled with the type of nightmare-tropes-made hip that give his particular brand of electropop a boost of the unwanted grotesque. It appears he’s honing his technique on subject matter (ninjas, fashion monsters, bonbons, eyelashes, onomatopoeia) set to the kind of stuff you’d hear at library story time, but remixed by a producer whose gift lies in empathizing with, rather than mocking, teenage girls. One would almost think he wishes he could be one. While the work he does for Kyary is an acquired taste, Perfume is still a standard, one of the few constants in Nakata’s career. Fans of Perfume have grown up alongside the trio, past their sweet donuts phase, through a one room disco, and now, in their most mature work to date, LEVEL3.

Visibly, Nocchi, Kashiyuka, and A~chan have surpassed their peers. They’ve developed a stage persona and personal aesthetic that is instantly recognizable and forever classic. Fans have come to rely on their sense of wonder, excitement, and gratitude alongside their trademark fashion silhouettes and immutable hairstyles. But to forget that all their hard work wouldn’t be possible without Yasutaka Nakata is to gravely mistake the power of great PR over the power of prodigy: the undeniably brilliant songs that Nakata pumps out at a rate Joyce Carol Oates would be proud of, and rarely hitting stumbling blocks that can’t be turned into stepping stones. These are Nakata’s best trademarks: synths, auto tune, whimsy, pretty females with airy vocals, and making the impossible look easy enough to create between naps.

While dance music has always been Nakata’s primary sound, it’s mostly hovered in capsule’s ouevre, the more experimental work that offers listeners a chance to see what the producer has been playing around with. But the work he’s done everywhere else, namely with Ami Suzuki, MEG, Kyary, and, especially, Perfume, has been solidly rooted in the pop tradition. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. and maybe a dance break in the middle has been the modus operandi of Supreme Show, GAME, BEAM, JPN, and Pamyu Pamyu REVOLUTION. LEVEL3 is a mix of purer dance elements: the repetition of vocal lines, free flowing structure, major key changes throughout, musical elements slowly added, stripped down, and added again.

These are the hallmarks of LEVEL3, the type of thing “edge” tried to be back in ’08. “PARTY MAKER” is one perfect example with almost four minutes of crescendo before the brilliant, satisfying drop. “Spending all my time (Album-mix)” a second. These album mixes are, no really, new mixes, as if they were lovingly tweaked to flow smoothly into an album that could easily have been made with no track gaps. “Spring of Life (Album-mix)” starts off with the song’s break down, killing suspense to focus on groove and letting the vocal elements coast, while “Magic of Love (Album-mix)” has a whole new synth line. The album also has quiet moments, like the melancholy of “1mm” and “Furikaeru to Iru yo;” more subtle, ever dazzling. A lot of this was probably the influence of the members, who offered input. “We requested like, “We’d like a track that can match the Dome concert where we can build large sets” or “Can we have a song in which we can make various directions, rather than just dancing?” and so on. All of the new songs on this album are very suited with our requests,” said A~chan in a recent interview. I can see the laser lights already.

While it’s difficult not hearing “Hurly Burly” instead of “Mirai no MUSEUM,” LEVEL3 is as close as ever to yet another Nakata classic. Woe to those who have forgotten Perfume has four members, not three.

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Ayumi Hamasaki’s “LOVE again”

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Ayumi Hamasaki / LOVE again / February 08, 2013

The consequence is one seeks love with a new person, with a new stranger. Again, the stranger is transformed into an “intimate” person, again the experience of falling in love is exhilarating and intense, and ends in the wish for a new conquest, a new love — always with the illusion that the new love will be different from the earlier ones. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)

It’s no secret that Hamasaki’s 14th full-length album is love’s victory lap, a straight-up, no-frills rebound to 2010′s Love songs, that strangely earnest chapter in Ayumi’s memoir that makes follow-up Party Queen seem twice as fragile and practically toxic. Plummeting sales aside, LOVE again makes no qualms about reconciling the past with the present: Hamasaki’s lyrics have always been extremely vulnerable to interpretation. Her cover art more so — take a look at the color palette when love is involved: both Love songs and LOVE again employ hazy back light, pastel pinks and peaches, a warm, white fuzziness, cozily disheveled hair. We’re so close to tipping into Glamour Shots’ diffused glow territory it’s almost a tragedy there’s no sign of Aquanet. It’s like the break-up album never happened.

Unless you’re a new fan, reviews of LOVE again are mostly apologetic, or else a begrudging acceptance of the album’s marked difference to Party Queen. Says LoKi of podcast Gaijin Kanpai: “I feel that she’s not relevant anymore, and she’s trying really hard to be relevant.” Replies Jaylee, “You got her trying to be relevant off this album?” It’s not difficult to see Hamasaki’s work in the past few years as insignificant, unless you’re Ayumi Hamasaki herself. Most of what the reigning Empress of Pop does is akin to public scrap-booking: if you don’t know who she’s dating, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know who she’s been hanging out with, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know what designers she’s been into lately, you get the idea. Her tweeting habit alone is enough to make her seem practically furious: is there a word for relevance that only exists because you’re so legendary, no one is allowed to say “no”? Or the sadness one feels at the spectacle of it all? There’s got to be one in German.

Then there’s the music itself. “Wake me up” is sort of a perfect album opener: like (miss)understood‘s “Bold & Delicious,” it doesn’t tread lightly. Unfortunately, we’re rolling back into the deep of Hamasaki’s psyche for much of the rest of LOVE again. There are standard piano ballads, peppy rock numbers, and edgier songs like “snowy kiss,” a newbie’s “evolution” with its crazy poly-drums. These are nothing more than brief deviations. “Bye-bye darling” seems lost, kind of like “Love song” on Love songs — from whence did this come, and where can one findeth more? When the song titles aren’t limp (“petal,” “glasses,” “snowy kiss,”), we get vague references to Ayu-specific events (“untitled for her… story 2″), that we feel we’re supposed to know something about, but really know nothing about. Does someone as famous as Hamasaki get to choose what is made public and what is kept private? Have we ever figured out why there’s so much mutual violence in the “You&Me” and “snowy kiss” videos, or is this Ayumi’s new normal? Increasingly, we have to resolve that we’re all kind of trapped in Hamasaki’s dream/reality, the type of thing that happens when you’re so famous you can’t leave the house, but you have a big budget to create fantastical music videos with your future husband that may or may not be allusions to real-life events or fabricated nonsense. They’re usually both.

People fall in love many times in one lifetime: with friends, strangers, trends, music, films, themselves. It’s just as easy to fall out, maybe easier when you fall too fast and feel too much. It’s a therapeutic process to put those emotions into your work or art, as long as you don’t dramatically milk the concept more than once. And so unlike Love song‘s first-time sincerity, LOVE again is simply exhausting without any of the reward. It’s not as easy the second time: we fear the inevitable doom, the end, the fresh ink on divorce papers. It’s never easy to make poor choices in front of 866,283 followers and live your life through ViVi diary entries, but it’s difficult to applaud sheer effort after 15 years of pop stardom, or to love simply as a consolation, because it’s familiar. As Hamasaki is learning, rather than loving, the primary struggle is being loved. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to overcoming loneliness. Erich Fromm recommends discipline, concentration, and patience. Ayumi would also like to suggest a helmet.

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mini’s “ELECTRO HAKO BANBAN PICASSO”

mini / ELECTRO HAKO BANBAN PICASSO / May 09, 2012
Are U Ready? / CANDY GIRL 2011 / GiRLS SPiRiT

The proliferation of dubstep in pop music can be overwhelming: when it’s not making puerile appearances in bridges or breakdowns, it’s really just masquerading as its older and more experienced brother, electro house. It’s easy to mix the two up because they have a lot of the same elements; this doesn’t make it interchangeable, just harder to decide if it’s worth caring about. mini’s debut album, ELECTRO HAKO BANBAN PICASSO, which was a long time coming, also comes off as a long time process, with one half offering standard electro-pop and the other half scouting the urban landmine of rough synths and drops, with only one brief interlude that might suffer references to Skrillex. It’s also really easy to make comparisons to Mizca or Yasutaka Nakata’s work, especially since mini’s debut single was remixed by the electro titan, but it’s simply too easy to sum up staccato and cracked wordplay as a capsule song.

“HAKO Princess,” the album’s highlight, illustrates the album’s use of unconventional structures and vocals as synths. In some instances, mini’s voice is so autotuned, it’s hard to tell where she ends and the moog begins. When it feels overwhelming, the album falls back on catchy choruses and a Malibu Convertible approach to melodies (Malibu Convertible being the producer of Tommy february6′s seminal homages to the 80s, whose also long-awaited seven-years-in-the-making comeback just sounds like successfully remixed Tommy heavenly6 songs), like in “Take A Feel,” one of the albums best approaches to crafting a Yuu Hayami-original, down to the escalating drum patterns.

The album lags in the middle, less Strawberry Switchblade, more JUJU. There’s also a bit more room for other influences, like the Latin freestyle in “S,GN” or the slightly super eurobeat of “Lad Style.” The album lovingly embraces a rich palette of electronic styles from at least four decades: like the album title’s eccentric coupling of abstract words that only hint at the album’s general essence rather than any concrete summation, it’s a vibrant array of the wide world of dance styles available at a musician’s fingertips without coming off as disjointed. Almost halfway through the year, and there’s finally a Japanese full-length contender for a best-of list.

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ARIA’s “MUSIC AND THE CITY”

ARIA / MUSIC AND THE CITY / April 28, 2010
05. BE MY STAR

Typically, an aria is one of the highlights in an opera, if only because it allows a vocalist to do what he or she does best: sing. It’s only fitting, then, that Japanese singer ARIA is named after that moment, not because she herself embodies any of the characteristics that make up the beautiful and intricate melodies constructed by sheer will, but because her album does. Finding a niche in between the Ayumi Hamasakis and Namie Amuros of the world usually push Japanese female vocalists into the acoustic pop niche where they linger somewhere between spokeswomen for stereotypes or hyper-genki para para girls who transform anime rock into digestible four minute monologues on schoolgirl woes. If they’re lucky, they get to try their hand at some urban pop, where, if successful, they take advantage of their limitations to channel attitude and personality through otherwise average talent. As someone signed to the same label as Koda Kumi, did we expect anything less from ARIA?

But rhetorical questions are weak forms of arguments, so let’s back up and examine why MUSIC AND THE CITY is such a musical success, even as its release was accompanied by little promotion and even less exposure (go ahead! Try to find more than three YouTube videos related to MUSIC AND THE CITY!). ARIA shares more characteristics with AI than any of her immediate peers, even as one begins shuffling through the album’s tracks and senses way more dance music than is probably appropriate for someone (believably!) marketed as an R&B artist. “YES ROBOT,” for example, is a complete receptacle of all things pop: heavy on loops, vocals that can’t decide whether or not to rap, croon, or simply use calculated inflections to emphasize how fun words for the sake of sound can be. The following track “SPOT LIGHT,” heavily influenced by funk and disco in a way that only several links in a chain eventually lead to Lady Gaga, is one of the most fun tracks, utilizing Japan’s more recent preoccupation with rhymes, itself a redundancy with such a vowel-based language.

When focusing on these strengths that make ARIA’s sound such a successful conduit of enjoyable pop, the album pushes her into developing a very interesting blend of pop far removed from her electronic contemporaries, with a focus on how vocals can be more than just accompaniment to really awesome music-making machines. Indeed, much of the music is structured around highlighting the vocals, as in “COUNTDOWN” when melodic emphasis is raised only at pivotal moments of vocal pitch that exit during verses to make room for ARIA’s rare moment of auto-tune that attaches like velcro to an already very computer-driven song. As in “Moonlight Journey,” these moments of robotic vocals actually distract from the overall course of the album, taking away what makes ARIA’s album otherwise so unique, even as stripping down the melodies would rob it of much of what makes it so interesting: the inherent safety net of very loud, very pervasive electronic production. In fact, where MUSIC AND THE CITY begins to stray is when it wallows in its own human-ness: the last three tracks end up being the album’s weakest moment as it tries to develop something of a sedate atmosphere on an album far too deep in its own modernity to survive.

Still, as one of the most surprising albums to come out this year, MUSIC AND THE CITY is a nod to how great pop music can be when it admits its weaknesses: sometimes our vulnerabilities are the most interesting things about us.

Official Site
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Marina and the Diamonds’s “The Family Jewels”

Marina & the Diamonds / The Family Jewels / Feb 22
06. Obsessions / 07. Hollywood

In a world where the success of female Brits masquerading under corporate names rests on something as timeless as the ability to portray struggling relationships, it’s still hard not to draw similar debuts into comparisons to the two best examples: the Mercury Award nominees Florence and the Machine and Bat for Lashes. But at least you know this much: as of right now, Pitchfork has yet to mention Marina and the Diamonds at all, so you’re either one step ahead or hopelessly unhip. This is not to say Marina and the Diamonds isn’t relevant – quite the opposite (do people even still regard Pitchfork as a gold standard?). The Singles Jukebox has both lovingly cradled and shamelessly hacked her lead-in singles, while one memorable review quips, “It’s hard to shake the feeling that Marina would be a more sympathetic vocalist, protagonist, storyteller – anything – if she didn’t sing as if she had large weights attached to her bottom lip.” Wait, that’s a bad thing?

But where Welch and Khan defy the overwhelming irony of hipster credo to offer very sincere, very open thoughts on the human experience, Diamandis reaches for the Haus of Gaga absurdism stars, taking the abundance of thrashing piano chords and vocal gymnastics to Cirque du Soleil proportions that channel sometimes ABBA (“Shampain”), sometimes Betty Hutton (“Girls”). Like the former, Diamandis takes the spirit of Broadway to craft mostly overdone polemics on sexism and old-fashioned Americana with an equal attention to the themes of obsession and vulnerability that spring up as often as one-note chorus lines accompanied by their rhythmic piano equivalents. These verbal tantrums are tempered by the album’s devotion to somewhat inconsistent ballads that investigate the core of emotionless jerks (in which “I Am Not a Robot” becomes an affront to her presumed indifference) to the lows of self-isolation (in which “Numb” becomes a confession of her complete apathy). Still, the opening track sets the listener up for the upcoming hypocrisies: “It’s my problem if I feel the need to hide / and it’s my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die,” eventually morphs into what is seemingly the heart of the album’s road to self-actualization: “I know exactly what I want and who I want to be / I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine.” The fact that everything in between doesn’t exactly add up is irrelevant, particularly when the revelations are made with the caveat of a “self-fulfilled prophecy.”

Those looking for more than just a trip through some wacky hyperbole and gigantic metaphors will still be satisfied by the abundance of zinging choruses and piano chords (have I mentioned the piano yet? I don’t think I did – piano, piano, piano). Girls may not be meant to fight dirty, but Diamandis can’t help that her bark is just as bad as her bite; we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Official Site
Buy The Family Jewels

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Meisa Kuroki’s “ATTITUDE”

Meisa Kuroki / ATTITUDE / January 01, 2010
01. Are ya Ready?

I don’t count interludes anymore; if a song isn’t good enough to be expanded into a full-length track, forever bound to be the humless drone of a filler, bulking up another otherwise mini-album (and why isn’t “SHOCK -Unmei-” and/or its B-side on this album? I’ll give you the intro but I’ll swap the two interludes), then quantity over quality stops being an overused adage and starts becoming a lifestyle (Ayumi Hamasaki what?). Meisa Kuroki may live in fear of the full-length album but she’s not afraid to take initiative: ATTITUDE sums up the lyrical content, from “Are Ya ready?” to “Stand Up!” where Kuroki’s career as front door actress, back door singer continues to affirm her pan-talented abilities.

But the record is constantly hampered by meandering, improvised piano interludes, sometimes accompanied by indiscernible mumbling or tuneless cooing. It’s easy to conclude that Kuroki’s brief dabbles in song may leave the listener wanting more, but hellcat left little to the imagination and ATTITUDE simply carries the narrative further, without elevating it beyond its already limited pop scope. There’s actually little to discuss beyond the album’s potential – and I really do hesitate when I say potential, as debut albums can have potential, but sophomore albums begin confirming or disproving predictions – since “Are ya ready?” aside, this album might as well have been composed parallel to her first album, though with far more weak tracks. To be fair, the promotional video for “Are ya Ready?” is all kinds of diva-in-the-making (wait, doesn’t that denote potential again?) and visually illustrates how well one hundred mirrored Kurokis fit the mold. But smart art direction alone does not a superstar make.

Official Site
Buy ATTITUDE

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Kent’s “Röd”

Kent / Röd / November 06, 2009
10. Töntarna

“So hang them high, so hang them slowly”: such has become the advice of Kent, a band increasingly consumed by producer Jon Schumann’s electronic influence and a penchant for flipping the bird to jerks, bullies, and catty bitches. Transformed from the raw, soul-searching sincerity of Hagnesta Hill and Isola to defenders of the underdog in two albums, Kent’s musical trajectory can either be considered the greatest transformation of the decade or the worst; it’ll become obvious which side I fall on.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Röd without mentioning its predecessor, Tillbaka till samtiden, Kent’s 2007 showpiece that no longer foreshadowed a change in direction, but chiseled it in stone; Schumann took the underlying Swedish gloom and doom of albums like Du & jag döden and The hjärta & smärta EP and transformed them into tactile representations of death, the heart, and pain that have paved the way for Röd‘s abject nihilism. Where Joakim Berg’s vocals used to be lilting and nostalgic, they’re now bitter and acute, tearing into adolescent grief without talking down to its audience. Ostentatious though the production has always been, a sound that used to rely heavily on instantly aching guitar loops and bleeding bass lines that gave away both the plot and the joy of finding that not-so-happy-ending within the first verse has become ravaged by bitter synths and a maddeningly patient denouement. Amateurs could easily dismiss at least two minutes of every track without taking into account the pay off of Kent’s new virtues (hint: temperance is not one of them).

Where some of the tracks may come off as too formulaic – loops are still a thorny issue – others round out the machine-heavy production with violins (“Hjärta”), acoustic guitars (“Ensamheten”), and plinking pianos (“Svarta linjer”); Schumman has become the resident spelunker, transcending the band’s more organic, alternative foundation without altering the magic that made past work so inherently dramatic and moving. Drawing influence from 90′s industrial music, the record is almost mired in too much revenge and fury for its own good; if Tillbaken till samtiden bit back, Röd attacks from behind. No longer providing pathetic excuses for its cowering fear by positing anxiety as a kind of courage, “Töntarna” lashes out: no other song has Berg singing with such precision, such scorn, such accusation. Even Röd‘s love songs hide in songs translated as “Waltz for Satan (Your Friend the Pessimist)” and “There Are No Words,” an ironic admission of the difficulty in navigating eros within the confines of language: “There are no words for it in this damn language / I have no words for that we breathe, think, feel the same thing.”

However, as carefully as each song treads in its intricate tapestry of the morbid and self-loathing (“I failed myself / So see me as a warning”), the album still crouches in the shadow of Tillbaka till samtiden, an album a hair’s breadth more sophisticated and restrained, letting the synths accent pieces of music rather than frame or even form the base of entire songs. But though Röd seems content to tackle smaller chunks of easily consumed issues like high school social structures and loneliness instead of drug use and abandonment, both know where to inflict the most emotional damage. Subtlety has been thrown out to make room for a full choir and two fast-paced, demi-club tunes no one would dance to; it’s a sweeping album, full of epic build-ups and nuanced sounds hidden behind its blatant discontent.

Magnum opus though it may not be, it’s still a masterpiece, a record that will follow you long after the fading robots and tubular bells have ululated through the speakers. “Even one hundred thousand voices can be wrong”; these just happen to be right.

Official Site
Buy Röd

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Lights’s “The Listening”

Lights / The Listening / October 06, 2009
01. Saviour / 02. Drive My Soul

The distant chime of an ice cream truck. Glittery eye shadow. Childhood naivete. Welcome to the world of Lights, a planet where unicorns lap at silver rivers, first crushes are eight feet tall heroic giants with all the answers, and death is something that only happens to grown-ups. The Listening, cloaked in a mythical world of synths and dreamy keyboards that play hide-and-seek with the vocals, feels as invincible as its ethos. The entire record is an homage to forts and capes made out of blankets, a sort of fragile toy capable of shattering at the slightest mention of adulthood. Lost and not a little precocious, the entire record rests on the presumption that you will put on your thinking cap and use your imagination for the earnest show-and-tell and story time of the songs; at snack time, I’d eat the cookies but probably stay away from the Kool-Aid. Nap time to follow.

Though there are a few missing pieces akin to the blank features on Valerie Poxleitner’s face, these very grand, Swiss-cheese statements aren’t meant to find their missing counterparts within, but instead, adhere to the listener’s inner child, a sort of “Hey, what kid didn’t get made fun of?” approach that succeeds only because the lyrics are just vague enough to fit myriad experiences. Poxleitner’s vocals, hardly polemical, almost strain with the endurance to sound more like a twelve year old; unpolished, scratchy, and heavy on the nasals, it’s as if that desire to become a “little girl / without the weight of the world” isn’t just a heartfelt wish, but the driving credo behind The Listening’s kiddy manifesto. From whimsy to the scorn spurned by an unresponsive crush (“Why’d you have to go and turn to ice?”), to the muddled rebounds of second chances (“Second Go”) and the Saturday night video game marathon of “Quiet,” where she’s content to resign the disc to “no tragedy, no poetry / just staring at the sky.” She’s young, she’s super in love, guys, and that’s where she’s supposed to be.

But the transience is broken by “Pretend,” the album’s central conceit shattered by the reprise, the disc’s only mature track, a bare, piano solo where the lyrics sound downright depressing and voice less nostalgic desire than festering regret. “It would be nice to start over again / before we were men,” she remarks. In that case, just head back to track one. Ice cream trucks, glitter, unicorns, streamers on the handlebars of a pink bicycle; The Listening is a woman in a perpetual girl’s world. No boys allowed.

Official Site
Buy The Listening

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Maki Goto’s “SWEET BLACK”

Maki Goto / SWEET BLACK / September 16, 2009
01. Queen Bee / 02. Lady-Rise / 06. Fly away

If there’s been one distinguishing shift in my listening modus operandi since music became a Thing, it’s been the subtraction of anticipation over forthcoming albums. Ever on the decline since the beginning of the 00′s, it’s become increasingly rare to listen to pop records without a) acknowledging that the pivotal single released prior to the album will be/is the best song on the record, and b) mentally fighting the urge to defend albums on behalf of my rockist soul. It’s not that I don’t care about new albums; I do, still, listen to new releases in their entirety, and I do, still, find a few here and there that have something to say that generally takes longer than four minutes, and then makes that experience enjoyable. But the majority of pop releases have tricked me into pre-hype long enough and I can no longer bother caring until I’ve actually heard something, a practice which has made Maki Goto’s new mini-album so much less disappointing.

I absolutely adored “Fly away” when it was released back in January, but I never expected anything else to come of it. I took it for what it was: one great song by one undistinguished artist. Though clearly a morale booster, there’s something melancholy about the whole thing, like Goto sang it without any context but a sole drum to keep the beat. If she was auditioning to become America’s Next Top J-pop Queen, she at least got to wear the crown for four minutes and thirty-nine seconds, after which it was less than gracefully revoked after “borrowing” music video concepts and hosting a DIY coronation ceremony, dubbing herself Queen Bee, like hey, I may not be the new J-pop Queen or even the Queen of Hip-Pop, but I do have the power to scare the shit out of most people and cause some minor swelling. And then die. But even the annoying rasps of BIGGA RAIJI can’t ruin how fun “Queen Bee” is at its best moments: the catchy “boom boom boom boom”s, the reggaeton beat which is only slightly dated. Really, those are the best moments.

But the rest of the album is only half-heartedly interesting. “Candy” is a fun track that has some great electric guitars for a harder pop sound, but then “Mine” hovers in the safe zone, while “Plastic Lover” completely takes shelter in the sort of soft frivolity Goto has always been cushioned in. The ballads are nameless, placeless tracks bereft of moxie. The album ends up being an unresolved issue, a dead metaphor that fails to meet all the interesting allusions to flight: the bees, the lyrics (“fly high,” “fly away,” “lady rise!”), the cover of the album that features butterflies and Goto draped in feathers. It’s like she was trying so hard to make this the album that would take off, that it ended up bogged down by performance fear and inefficient collaborating crutches; you really can’t fly if you’ve got a faulty SWEET BLACK cast on your wing anyway. Time to do some trimming.

Official Site
Buy SWEET BLACK

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Big Bang’s “BIGBANG”

Big Bang / BIGBANG / August 19, 2009
01. GARA GARA GO!! / 04. MY HEAVEN

The boy band is more than an East Asian staple, it’s a perennial tradition. Where the Western mass of dancing, lip-synching, and be-costumed man-children have long since grown up, discovered sex, and reaped the benefits of young teenage girls’ expendable incomes only to devolve to made-for-TV C-list movies and the hope of a lucrative reunion, East Asia has clung to its boy bands like the last lifeboat on a sinking ship; V6 is turning fifteen years old, but instead of politely handing the torch of chart dominance to its more youthful offspring, they have donned the mod-suits, angled haircuts, and dour temperaments of the serious, refined (but still hip!) gentleman in their latest promotional video for “GUILTY,” their neutered, mostly-in-synch dance steps the only traitors in their quest for relevance as they shimmy to their graves.

Though the turnover rate for boy bands isn’t as large in the East, there is the occasional competition.  With a flood of overseas Asian pop finally invading the shores and record stores of Japan, a large number of these contenders are Koreans, keen on sharing a piece of the second largest music market in the world’s pie, and eating it, too. Big Bang, formed in 2006 by YG Entertainment, may have everything you need for a successful boy band (edgy, occasionally bizarre fashion choices, requisite staple “personalities,” attractive mug shots), but they also have the least important component on their side: quality music. Quality being a relevant term, that in this case, denotes a straddling of the line between surprisingly good and not completely horrible.

Their second full-length Japanese-language album, BIGBANG, teems with all the correct formulas: there’s the fashionable auto-tune, shouts and catcalls that mark the backbone of the genre, usually by G-Dragon (the loudest and most popular disposition who has finally been given a solo outlet to perhaps quiet his roaring ego), occasional harmonies, raps, and a distant smattering of quasi-italo disco vibe (“Bringing You Love” in particular) that renders the hip hop safe, fun, and accessible, curving the average “danger” level of tracks like “Emotion” and “Top Of The World” that try to be hard and somewhat threatening, from mild to lukewarm. That’s not to say the tracks aren’t good – when you throw everything at the wall of music crazes, things will eventually stick. As a result, the arrangements hit the pulse of tail-end 00′s pop without leaving any tricks hidden up their sleeves.

To say the album isn’t “classic,” that in fifteen years it will simply be a product of its time, a sort of early 21st musical fossil, is tired and useless; whether classic or kitsch, every album inevitably bears the mark of its production year. In fifteen years, the most important thing won’t be if this album has aged well, but that we remember Big Bang at all, before they were dressing in smart suits and crooning stuffy ballads.

Official Site
Buy BIGBANG

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