Quick Reviews: May
Another month, another batch of quick reviews. This time featuring several contenders for my “albums of the year” list, as well as some thoughts on a couple of older releases.
Kaela Kimura — Sync (2012)
Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a die-hard fan of hers, I have always liked whatever Kaela Kimura material I come across, especially because of the way most of her music is produced with the intention of highlighting her sweet, dynamic vocals. Sync kicks off with the explosive Mamireru, a great synth-driven track that sets the bar for what will be a pleasant, if a bit simple listen. Effectively alternating between more upbeat pop numbers, sweet ballads like Sun Shower, and slightly experimental moments (like the jazz-infused Cherry Blossom or her quirky cover of Hello Goodbye), the record remains lively enough to still offer a good listen seven years after its release. Even if it often falls into what can be considered “not special” territory, Sync still works a neat sample of the different things Kaela can do music-wise.
Mugi (Neko) — Kimi ni Ai ni (2019)
Featuring mostly upbeat, folk-inspired tracks (often backed by instruments like xylophones, which greatly contribute to the album’s playful atmosphere), Mugi’s (a singer-songwriter who performs inside a cat costume) first full-length effort also introduces some ideas that feel fresh in the album’s context, like the electric guitars in Yume Kara Sameta Yume, or the almost dramatic synths in Mushi Dekinai Mushi. A short and sweet record that is also unafraid of playing with slightly experimental ideas here and there, Kimi ni Ai ni gives the impression of aiming to be a children’s book turned into an album, and the result is honestly quite charming.
Grace Ives — 2nd (2019)
Barely going over 20 minutes in length, Grace Ives’ second album presents a collection of short, quirky lo-fi pop songs that bring together glossy synth melodies with a clear and dynamic vocal performance. Adding to this, Ives’ lyrics — which seem to go from surreal to melancholic within literal seconds — turn this collection of songs into a series of concise yet fun offerings. Standing in a weird middle point between catchy and frenetic-yet-not-really-danceable, 2nd‘s most noteworthy feature is how it manages to use its short length to its favor.
Hideki Kaji — Tea (1998)
Shibuya-kei as a genre often goes in two directions: it either builds upon cutesy electro beats that sound like they’d perfectly work as a SNES videogame soundtrack, or it goes for a more retro-lounge sound. On his second album, Kaji goes for the latter approach, to which he adds what would become his personal flavor of 80s/90s-inspired twee pop. By incorporating mellow instrumentation and vocals to a series of simple yet melodic tracks, the singer manages to create a lighthearted and breezy listen that retains its pleasant atmosphere from start to finish. Though this album isn’t either new or some sort of discovery for me, I still consider it a great starting point for anyone interested in Hideki Kaji’s music (whose entire catalog also happens to be in the process of becoming available on streaming services!).
Shiina Ringo — Sandokushi (2019)
Sandokushi is the product of years of planning and tying together different concepts (both visual and musical), and it showcases a Shiina Ringo who’s openly embracing more global sounds and influences, all while meticulously revisiting some of the key aspects of her career. Sound-wise, the record presents the artist’s trademark rich, melodic compositions, which are now complemented by something new: be it the presence of an unlikely duet partner (all of who were picked by virtue of sharing Chinese zodiacs with Ringo), or the incorporation of elements that feel fresh in the singer’s musical landscape (like the visual-kei instrumentation in Kakeochimono, or the breathtaking use of chanting and choruses in the album’s first and final tracks, respectively) the record has many moments that feel like familiar formulas have been injected with a refreshing factor. Collaborations, however, are only one side of this record, with it also working as a demonstration of the ways Ringo is still able to let go of the grandiloquence now characteristic of her work in order to produce either more minimalistic or experimental numbers, like the mechanical-sounding Isogaba Maware. In her efforts to bring together a more cohesive concept, Shiina Ringo also shows the ways her musical vision has matured over the years, and the result is an album that — while clearly refined — still manages to often step out of its own comfort zone.