ARIA / MUSIC AND THE CITY / April 28, 2010

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.

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