Monday, April 16, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part VII : Teriyaki Boyz

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OK, I'm going to end this series on a quick, fun, and non-earth-shattering beat.

I was originally planning to dedicate the final entry of the series to J-Hip Hop in general. Upon further inspection, there seems to be a more complex and unknown history to parse. Either way, the subject certainly deserves more than one day in a J-Pop context, if you will. So I'm choosing one group -- Teriyaki Boyz, who are most likely an exception as a representative of the style.

In 1993, a DJ named Nigo(little R thing I can't figure out how to represent for legal stuff, oh well) started his own urban clothing company called A BATHING APE (BAPE). The company is now globally known with stores in key metro areas, and remains successful to this day. The End, almost. Rewind.

Sometime in the mid 2000s, Nigo alongside rapper friends in other hip hop groups decided to collaborate and form Teriyaki Boyz. The group image centers around this universe where the Only Album That Ever Mattered is Licensed To Ill. Given the members' showing off their BAPE gear, they are literally a corporate b(r)and as well. In the end, Teriyaki Boyz want to have some silliness and fun with the form. They are to Japanese hip hop what Me First & The Gimme Gimmes are to American pop punk.

Perhaps(???) due to BAPE connections with the Beastie Boys and Def Jam (long after the latter two made amends, I'd imagine), Teriyaki Boyz sought to create a debut album that would stun the world as far as production-note starpower in a dance/urban context. The names are too numerous. It's enough to make anyone not in on the project very suspicious -- for very good reason.

In late 2005, BEEF or CHICKEN launched. Adrock of the Beastie Boys provided the intro and outro, as well as produced the title track. Other notables that entered and exited the production chair turnstyle included Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, DJ Premier, The Neptunes, Cut Chemist, Jon Landau, Mutt Lange, Phil Spector, Todd Rundgren, Flood, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with Full Force, Dave Fridmann, Dennis Callaci, and a few I'm forgetting -- oh yeah, Biggie at the executive production helm.

Seriously though, BEEF or CHICKEN must have been purposely phoned-in through and through purely for shits 'n' giggles all the while helping to promote Nigo(Arrrr!) and his camouflaged pimp-style mogulocity. I mean, there couldn't have been more to the songs than just the sum of the name-drops, right?

BEEF or CHICKEN - (2005)

  • Teriyaki Boyz - "Heartbreaker" [4:13 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - produced by Daft Punk

  • Play this to anyone who can be approximated as a hipst-ah, and the first words to come from said hip person will be "Who are the Japanese rapper dudes who sampled Daft Punk? That's awesome!"

    AHA! But you're wrong! Daft Punk produced this! Not the other way around! You don't believe me! But I showed you all up on ya'self! The liner notes say so. It must be true! 'Pfff, like, you didn't know?' Of Mice And PWN3D!

    Nah, the hipster is probably right. Daft Punk may have very well done nothing to earn the production liner notes than simply allow *coughGOTTINPAIDBYcough* these guys to put "Daft Punk" in their album credits. Yes, the song is "Human After All."

    Whatever. The song's got a fun video anyway!
    [Teriyaki Boyz' "Heartbreaker" video]

    You know, this is better than Daft Punk's original, isn't it? I like the original, but.. well, there's actually something else going on in "Heartbreaker" other than big menacing froggy-bass synth stomps.

  • Teriyaki Boyz - "School of Rock" [4:49 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - produced by Cut Chemist

  • I've no clue if the Cut Chemist backing is as obvious as the Daft Punk lift right above. This is a fun song with lots of changes in the backing beats, and the baby sounds at the end are cute. But, let's face the facts. This song aesthetic is purely based on the following overlooked example of prime 90s entertainment when Japanese culture truly mashed with hip hop:

    Instructor Mooselini should be given an Honorary Video Game Character Nobels Or Something award for helping to introduce a generation of kids to Can's "Turtles Have Short Legs" -- one of the greatest pop singles in music history. I wonder if MC D-Suzuki ever played PaRappa. I digress.

  • Teriyaki Boyz - "Cho LARGE" featuring Pharrell [5:16 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - produced by The Neptunes

  • Pharrell, Neptunes, et al have done a lot of amazing work -- later even for the T Boyz. But this track is not an example of this amazing work, to put it mildly. However, tastes, opinions, assholes, et al.

  • Teriyaki Boyz - "Beef or Chicken" [3:19 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - produced by Adrock

  • Had Grand Royal been around today, BEEF or CHICKEN would be in used bins in U.S. record stores everywhere today -- allowing folks to pick this up, preview the Adrock produced tracks, nod approvingly enough, then maybe cough up the change to get it or not. This is a relative highlight on the album. That's not saying too much, but at least everyone involved is actually making this track sound fun, instead of merely having fun at the listener's expense.

  • Teriyaki Boyz - "You Know What Time Is It!?" [4:32 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - produced by DJ Premier

  • This is the album masterpiece. Perhaps if Teriyaki Boyz had just released this single instead of an album, it might have stopped a few less people from holding their breaths. This is probably a well-known Premier backing track, for all I know, which is very little, admittedly. That said, it's an amazing loop. Also, The Teriyaki Boyz' take on singing during the chorus, of which they provide a much greater contribution than rapping it (O teh snap. You were waiting for that, I know it) creates the master template for a future key single.


In the meantime, an album soundtrack for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift would be released, featuring Teriyaki Boyz' most known composition "Tokyo Drift". There's only 2,789,517 uploads on YouTube as I type this. But I promise you I chose THE BEST ONE.

[Teriyaki Boyz' "Tokyo Drift" video]

"Tokyo Drift" was produced by The Neptunes. (There! That's it, that's it!) It's the T Boyz's best song to date, despite the really bad female lyrics. More to the point, it's the T Boyz' smartest acquisition for a proper producer for a single of theirs -- at least for a second chance, ha.

While "Tokyo Drift" still remains a popular dancefloor jam, 2007 ushers in Teriyaki Boyz' best single yet, thanks to their smartest choice of collaborator to date.

"I Still Love H.E.R." featuring Kanye West - (2007)

No comment from Common at this time.

Hip-hop connoisseurs will likely admit to enjoying the delicious backing track to this song -- courtesy of MFSB's "Dance With Me Tonight" -- even if they run screaming from the Teriyaki Boyz' rapping over it. This complaint is a subject I've been purposely avoiding until now.

No, I don't think Teriyaki Boyz are the best rappers ever. Not even close. I doubt they think so. Do I think they can be good enough for a track, if the track suits them well enough? Hell yes. However, many others decipher their like or dislike of a hip-hop song differently. I allow substandard rapping to not ruin a hip-hop song for me if the backing track is strong enough. Others can't get past the crucial lyrics & flow talent prereq -- which is fine. My main point being: you may have no clue what I see in this song.

I don't consider myself a Kanye West fan, although I've been impressed with a live show I saw of his last year, as well as enjoying some very familiar key singles. However, he conducts magic with "I Still Love H.E.R." Besides the inspired choice of the MFSB lick, he and the Boyz produce their master stroke for the single -- their META-YOUTUBE video.

What better way to watch this than on YouTube itself? But for the sake of convenience...

[Teriyaki Boyz/Kanye West in "I Still Love H.E.R." as "broadcast on Teriyaki Tube"]

How many times have you searched out a video for a song on YouTube only to encounter an array of homemade karaoke-style covers of that song delaying your search, making you think "Grrr, I don't want to see your stupid webcam caterwauling. I'm looking for the original goddamn video. *CLICK*"?

I'm guilty as charged. However, here's a video that's giving the shout-out to all those people who are essentially allowing YouTube to still exist. If there were no homemade contributions uploaded to YouTube, the site would have been sued out of existence a few months after it launched. Sad but true.

My favorite part of the video is when Kanye's verse comes in. I don't think his cameo in the song itself is particularly enthralling, but I love how he manages to lip-sync to about three words of his verse in the video than pretend to be shy and grit his teeth throughout the rest of it, threatening to come back into the verse at some point, then just poo-poo-ing the idea.

It's also quite a mesmerizing video for the odd windowing effect and the shimmering aqua-corona that glimmers around the "Teriyaki Tube" video frame.

Sigh. Yeah, this song is effectively stamping '2007' all over itself. It doesn't matter. "I Still Love H.E.R." is my favorite single of the year so far. Even if it's sooo 2007, if you're a group of guys given 15 seconds in your life to be at the top of the world, you have to accept some compromises for the sake of novelty, I guess.

(Oh yeah, if you dig "I Still Love H.E.R." but can't get past the lyrics, here's an instrumental for you. Don't say I never loved you. OXOX. Off to EMP Pop Conference 2007!)

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part VI : Shéna Ringö

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[Note: this entry will be vastly improved with references and actual good writing once I can get more than 90 minutes of sleep this week.]


Let's get one thing clear. There's no such thing as a bad Shéna Ringö album. In fact, there's no such thing as a Shéna Ringö album that isn't absolutely amazing. In fact, the least amazing Shéna Ringö album is still one absolutely fucking amazing album.

While it's standard to refer to one in Japan in a last-name first-name format, I'm not in Japan. I've been referring to every artist by first-name last-name. I do this for the same reason that I would not spell color "colour", center "centre", or favorite "favourite" just because I was referring to something in Canada, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand. Nor would I expect anyone in Canada, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand to American-ize their words when referring to people or objects in the U.S.

Shéna Ringö -- Yumiko Shiina in real life, Americanized full name -- is an exception. Her stage name has become something greater than her. Sometimes, people choose to spell her family name differently -- Shéna, Shiina, Sheena, Shina -- it's all good to her. Myth is something at which Ringö is a master. For sanity's sake, I'm sticking with Shéna.

The Tale of Ringö.



Yumiko Shiina was cursed upon birth. She was born with hereditary esophageal blockage syndrome. Her esophagus would become smaller in width as it descended down into her stomach. Shortly after birth, Yumiko required a lot of surgery to correct this. She survived, but the results of her surgery were two permanent, large scars on her shoulder blades. Nonetheless, she was a miracle child as a result of getting through this.

One would guess that she might have been spoiled as a result of the trauma, as she had a vicious temper as a child whenever she wanted friends to play with, and there were no friends around. However, this was the only situation where she would be intolerable. She was otherwise very well behaved.

Conversely, while growing up, she reversed into becoming almost chronically shy. "Ringö", meaning "apple", was her nickname in school because she would become bright red in embarrassment whenever she was forced in a situation where she was in the spotlight.

She would reverse this shyness as her teen years arrived.

Ringö, a name Yumiko adopted for herself, never got over those shoulder blade scars. Apparently, she referred to those scars as if her angel wings had been literally ripped off her.

Ringö was born in a moderately musical family. While her parents were not musicians, they were avid music fans... Father was very much into classical and jazz. Mother was trained in dance and ballet. There was a piano and guitar in the house at all times. Her older brother, Junpei, picked up on the piano, so she followed suit.

In her mid teens, Ringö would perform in talent shows. Her first band was an all-girl band, Marvelous Marbles, with whom she sang.

[an excerpt of Marvelous Marbles doing "Just missed the train"]


Ringö would start to listen to more adventurous, raucous music. One of her favorite bands was Number Girl. This Japanese rock band, who started in 1995 and ended in 2002, were certainly a gateway for those who enjoyed Pixies, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, and other wall-of-guitar quasi-pop rock bands. Here are a couple of video links for Number Girl's videos "Toumei Syoujyo" and "DESTRUCTION BABY".


"Koufukuron" - (1998)
["Happiness Theory"]

  • Shéna Ringö - "Koufukuron" [3:42 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1998

  • Shéna Ringö's first single was a respectable pop take on her love of alterna-rock. One would certainly have no clue where Ringö would head just months later. However, there are already hints of Ringö's interest in iconography -- in particular, her Surf Green Duesenberg Starplayer II guitar and the angel wings she's sought.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Koufukuron" video, with Spanish subtitles]

    This is only the beginning. Shéna Ringö never double-tracks her voice, by the way, outside harmonies.


Muzai Moratoriumu - (1999)
[Innocence Moratorium]

Where's Ringö?

Two asides before continuing on:
  • Ringö has been in constant company with some of the most amazing musicians in Japan -- perhaps the planet. There are far too many to name. Thanks to the numerous worldwide fan sites, one could find out every player on every song via these sites. I'm going to leave most of them out for the sake of brevity and less clutter.

  • Except for the odd single, just assume that the songs culled for this entry from any Shéna Ringö album are just a random handful of songs. I was not kidding when I initially stated that every Shéna Ringö album is amazing. Furthermore, there are rarely dips in quality throughout a given album. Also, there is rarely one flavor that permeates a given album. This means for every group of tracks linked here, there are more on the album not linked here that are just as good if not better. I'm writing about Shéna Ringö so that perhaps at least one person who reads this will run out and buy all her material, then go tell it on the streets, triggering a chain reaction. It's a childish dream, but it can't hurt.

  • Shéna Ringö - "Tadashii Machi (Right Town)" [3:52 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Shéna Ringö - "Koufukuron (Etsuraku hen)" [2:59 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Shéna Ringö - "Tsumiki Asobi" [3:23 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Shéna Ringö - "Onaji Yoru (The Same Night)" [3:38 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Muzai Moratoriumu is a powerful debut album. It's certainly Ringö's most "standard" rock oriented album in the technical sense. While the tracks vary, you can often bet there will be lots of loud distorted guitars, no doubt homage to her favorite bands as an earlier teen. Her Surf Green Starplayer II guitar is the centerpiece of the booklet artwork, giving even most of the color of the booklet that same aqua green color. And that back cover with Ringö in the crowd is far cooler when you're holding the actual item.

    This is a spurious comparison, but the raw guitar sounds on Muzai Moriatoriumu aren't too different than that of recent Placebo material. But whereas Placebo have a very deliberate sense of restraint, Shéna Ringö has a very deliberate sense of lack of restraint, if that makes sense. There are often moments when you're wondering how in hell a guitar can sound so fucked up and sick sounding, all the while careening over amazing hooks and, if you're lucky, Ringö shrieking through a megaphone.

    The album version of "Koufukuron" couldn't be more different than the single version above. It's almost twice as fast and tens times as destructive and loud. Radical revamps of previous songs are one of many things to look forward to in Ringö's future.

    "Tsumiki Asobi" is a bouncy song with an occasional electronic-sounding bridge that is foreshadowing of another such creative direction. Alternately, "Onaji Yoru (The Same Night)" is an early glimpse at an orchestral direction that Ringö will soon be taking as well.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Tsumiki Asobi" video]


[Shéna Ringö looking slightly out of it performing the song "Identity" live at an outdoor concert before its release in studio form]


Shōso Sutorippu - (2000)
[Lawsuit Winning Strip]

Starting with this album, Shéna Ringö starts showing off one of her most known abstract fetishes -- symmetry. If you look at the back of the CD case, and turn it so that the numbers are at the top of the pile of each column of kanji characters that make up the song titles, you'll notice that the left half of the tracks is a mirror image of the right half, if you look far enough back. The first and last tracks have the same length of kanji (3), the second and penultimate tracks have the same length as well (2), etc. as you approach the middle. Taking another step back, each of these lopsided tracklistings looks like its own icon in full.

Shéna Ringö's track titles and lyrics are also known to use very archaic forms of kanji such that even her most literate Japanese fans have arguments over what the lyrics mean.

This is not unlike, say, a popular female artist in the U.S. deciding to use not only Middle English as her singing language (no, Joanna Newsom and CocoRosie don't count), but also using varying forms of Middle English for her track titles such that they line up only so the letter counts match each mirroring track index.

Now for some random B-sides and an oddity.

"Gips" - (2000)
"Tsumi to Batsu" - (2000)
Ze-chyou Syuu - (2000)


Just as the growing mysteries start accelerating into a vertigo, Shéna Ringö takes the year of 2001 off for maternity leave. She comes back in 2002 with a double album of covers.

Utaite Myōri ~Sono Ichi~ - (2002)
[Singer's Luck - Part One]




Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana - (2003)
[Lime, Semen, Chestnut Blossoms]

  • Shéna Ringö - "Meisai (Camouflage)" [3:44 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Yattsuke Shigoto (A Half-Assed Job)" [5:10 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Torikoshi Kurou" [2:36 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Ishiki (Consciousness)" [2:45 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Souretsu" [5:14 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana may very well be the most accessible album ever made that, on paper, looks like the most brutal, difficult album ever planned. All respect to Brian Wilson's Smile from 2004, which I love, but the complexity of that album has nothing on KZK -- and all but shy a year, too.

    Every best element from both Shōso Sutorippu and Utaite Myōri ~Sono Ichi~ are seemlessly combined here. This is Ringö's greatest accomplishment. It's not a good album for single songs, as the entire album just blends together so well. The style changes have the lowest attention span to date, but the changes themselves never beg for attention with neon signs that say "I IS QUIRKY!" hovering above. Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana is a surreal musical. About what, I will probably never know. Even more archaic kanji is used in the lyrics. Even the track numerals are in kanji -- a practice that I think even formal documents in Japan may not use anymore. And the tracks are once again lined up in symmetry on their sides.

    Speaking of which, the "Lime" in the translation refers to a lime-chlorine compound used a cleaning agent -- so yes, the bookending of "Semen" with other similarly olfactory sensations is also symmetrical, too.

    My favorite track is "Yattsuke Shigoto." It starts off as a light 4/4 kick, and it continues to do so, but this phalanx of Esquivel wraiths begin to prance about from one side of stereo to another upholding the song's melody with sparkling orchestral confetti. It's unmatched.

    "Meisai" is another favorite, starting with a momentary Portishead nod, before the gong is hit, and it becomes this great double-bass driven anthem climaxing in a frenzy of screeching strings.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Meisai" video, with Spanish subtitles]

    [Shéna Ringö's redone, fully punked out live version of "Yattsuke Shigoto"]


Hold the thought of that live version of "Yattsuke Shigoto."

In the meantime, Shéna Ringö announces her final ever release as a solo artist.

"Ringo No Uta" - (2003)
["Apple's Song"]

It doesn't get more cathartic than this. This single track (not included here, mainly because I don't want to audio-link an entire product -- you know, for respect) released at the very end of 2003 is about Ringö's entire career. The video is a reference to her previous videos.

[Shéna Ringö's "Ringö No Uta" video]

However, the two B-sides are more directly cathartic.

  • Shéna Ringö - "La salle de bain" [4:07 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Ringö Catalog ~Kuroko jidai saihensan~" [4:50 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • "La salle de bain" is the English orchestral version of "Yokishitsu" from Shōso Sutorippu (even though the "Bathroom" translation is French for the song title itself.) Given her growing up with her father being a classical music aficionado, there's a lot of looking back here. What this says about the following video, I have no clue.

    [Shéna Ringö's "La salle de bain" video]

    The final track, "Ringö Catalog ~Kuroko jidai saihensan~" is a literally intensified flashback of her musical career. The song is comprised of small bits of various songs from her backcatalog to date pieced together to form this macro-micro-montage. It's a headspinner to say the least.

    That black dot on the front of the jewel case for this CD-single? That's meant to be there. I never noticed it until I looked online, but apparently that mole on Ringö's left side of her cheek has been iconified as well. She removed the mole after ending her solo career. However, she didn't remove much else. She notably kept in touch with her touring band for the KZK album.


In 2004, Shéna Ringö announces that she'll be forming a dedicated band called Tokyo Jihen (Tokyo Incidents.) Her main reason is just that. She wants to be in a band, not be the band.

For intents and purpose, this isn't upsetting news at all to Ringö fans at the time. Ironically, she wouldn't have to play guitar, so she would have more time in the spotlight. However, she could also officially put the spotlight on her bandmates as well, since her name was not equivalent to the band anymore.

There are only two changes that occur with the formation of Tokyo Jihen that aren't prevalent in her previous solo work. First, there is more of a song-to-song consistency, given that every song features mainly the same band members on the same instruments. Second, the focus on rock music makes a stronger return.

That said, no one purposely "unlearns" anything from Ringö's recent solo past. The jazz influences among many other styles are still there. They can still exist all at the same time in the same song, even. The results may just be slightly more predictable, that's all. "Blasts of rock" are a common element in Tokyo Jihen. How long any of these band traits will last is anyone's guess.


Tokyo Jihen - Kyōiku - (2004)


Tokyo Jihen - Adaruto - (2006)


Ringö + Ichiro?


Although Tokyo Jihen are still not officially broken up, Shéna Ringö meanwhile has been working with composer Neko Saito on work for a new release. Fans wondering, they find out at the turn of 2007 that Shéna Ringö seems to have resumed doing solo work -- granted, billed as Shéna Ringö x Saito Neko. Still! A new solo album?

Heisei Fūzoku - (2007)
[Japanese Manners]

  • Shéna Ringö - "Gamble (2007)" [5:53 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Hatsukoi Shoujo" [4:02 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Yokushitsu (Bathroom) (2007)" [4:23 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Yume No Ato (2007)" [5:03 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Kono Yo No Kagiri (with Shiina Junpei)" [3:30 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Heisei Fūzoku is certainly another stop-gap album for Ringö -- but what a bombastically orchestrated one! Neka Saito certainly brings out the classical and big band ammunition.

    It's Ringö's first album since Utaite Myōri ~Sono Ichi~ that doesn't enforce symmetry on the track listing. Also, half the album is comprised of orchestral reworks of earlier material of hers, whether solo or with Tokyo Jihen. In fact, "Yokishitsu" is re-re-done, since it was once redone in English in 2003 as "La salle de bain."

    I can understand why Ringö fans would be asking "why?" However, this is currently my favorite Shéna Ringö release to date. Mind you, Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana will be the one I'd keep if I had to give them all up but was allowed to keep one! However, there's something extra-cathartic about Heisei Fūzoku that's somehow allowing Ringö to be seemingly at her happiest ever. Perhaps it's the instrumentation here that harkens back to Ringö's growing up. There's nothing abrasive about this album at all, or even "edgy." Then again, maybe that's the point?

    [Shéna Ringö's "Gamble" live in concert]

    [Shéna Ringö's "Hatsukoi Shoujo" video]

    And the single "Kono Yo No Kagiri" is incredible. There's nothing new about the song. It's a classic Broadway-style show tune. However, even with the top hat and cane, I can't help fall in love with the track. The secret is Ringö's brother, Junpei, singing along. He does great backing vocals, and the fading in of the orchestra in between the verses is the perfect glue. I'd imagine it's an odd choice for a pop hit even in Japan, so perhaps Ringö has earned her wings by being given the path to do whatever she wants in Japan's pop world. She's certainly earned it.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Kono Yo No Kagiri" live on TV]

Assume the worst case. Shéna Ringö announces her retirement from music today. Very unlikely, but think about it:

* Playing music with family
* Two rock albums
* One critically acclaimed solo album
* Two rock albums
* Playing music with family

Symmetry achieved. Must be amazing to be a mythmaker that can change the rules at any time.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part V : Noriyuki Makihara / Famicom (Nintendo)

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NOTE: This is a two-part entry. The first half discusses songwriter/performer Noriyuki Makihara. The second half discusses the music from video game manufacturer Famicom, otherwise known as Nintendo to the world outside Japan.


Noriyuki Makihara studied English literature while attending Aoyama Gakuin University in central Tokyo. Soon after in 1990, he'd start his musical career. Noriyuki has been steadily songwriting for himself and other artists ever since.

What sets him apart from artists discusses previously in this blogging series is that he's a man strictly behind the helm, and very comfortable there. Also, his style has been smooth from start to finish. There's nothing that Noriyuki would produce that one couldn't play in the presence of his or her parents, no matter the age. While he's certainly kept up with music-making technology throughout the years, the critical goal of music making has been the same... make something smooth & lush that can be sung beautifully over it. It doesn't matter if it sounds ahead or behind the times. If it's a great song at base, the goal has been met. He's a songwriter before he's a performer. Assume that famous U.S. songwriter Diane Warren were a performer as well. Here's her Japanese male parallel.

Noriyuki himself has a great voice -- somewhere between the later years of Carl Wilson (R.I.P.), of The Beach Boys fame, and Michael McDonald, of Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan fame. It's a voice that is undisputedly masculine and romantic.

His backing music is a more complex issue. While it's no surprise that much of the J-Pop domain takes a maximalist "bells, whistles, and the kitchen sink" approach to layering the instrumentation, Noriyuki has a unique approach, whether deliberate or not. He will load the music with sounds that are usually associated with cutting edge technology multiplied with varying musical styles, lower the entire mix volume, then sing over that mix. It's not unlike SMAP's music -- however, as a listener in the Western world, part of me wishes the songs were LOUDER. I know this is the wrong impulse, but the sounds Noriyuki assimilates are closely associated with those used in much louder music in Western music, be it rock and/or dance music -- hence this odd sense of frustration I have with it, as much as I end up loving his output.

Let's start with his long-spanning singles collection.


Completely Recorded - (1990-2004)

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Secret Heaven" [4:25 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • (It took me a small moment to realize he was saying "Secret" at the beginning too, instead of "Sea Crab" or "Say Crap")

    Here's a great example of the frustration I was talking about above, in regards to the multi-dimensional backing. We have a dancey synth-reggae backbone alongside strange percussive noises, record scratches, guitar, and a great jazzy piano bridge. The singing on top is great! I love this song. Still, part of me is saying "TURN. THIS. UP!" Call it the cognitive Dionysian impulse that comes with being an American.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Doushiyou mo nai Boku ni Tenshi ga Oritekita" [4:04 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1996

  • Perhaps less cutting edge, but this song is an even better example exhibiting my frustration. There's more going on in the music, now adding several bridges, and great arpeggiating/descending guitar chords one would associated with later Rush or Def Leppard. Another great vocal track is layed on top -- this time, a far more Beach Boys influenced one. Still though, grrrr, TURN IT UP! Here's the video:

    [Noriyuki Makihara's "Doushiyou mo nai Boku ni Tenshi ga Oritekita" video]

    My first thought upon hearing the song was how "80s" it sounded, despite it being a mid-to-late 90s track. After seeing several comments online about this song, I smacked my head. This is professional karaoke concentrate! Of course this song sounds 80s. Karaoke backing tracks make heavy use of MIDI, as does the dawn of professional 80s production. Noriyuki has no reason to not target the karaoke market. For one who wants to flex his singing muscles on a given karaoke night in Japan, Macky (Noriyuki Makihara's fan nickname) is the perfect subject!

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Sunao" [3:42 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1997

  • A stripped down piano-and-vocals-only sad ballad. There's plenty of this in Japanese pop music. Macky is a master at it.

    But check out the video for this song. Talk about twisted. Naturally, I love this video because of it.

    [Noriyuki Makihara's "Sunao" video]

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Ame ni mo Makezu" [5:07 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2002

  • Combine 303 acid bass synth, a dash of Black Crowes style boogie rock, add unamplified guitars, cowbell, Steely Dan vocal harmonies, and guitar solos. Add ice. Frappé in pulses. Serve chilled.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Good Morning!" [4:54 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Combine Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis worship, vocoder, 1/8 teaspoon of glitch, a tablespoon of guitar solo, and one jazz bass solo. Mix ingredients in small saucepot. Heat on medium low. Allow to simmer. Serve and let stand for five minutes.


If Macky has another passion, it's being a pop-ologist. However, instead of exploring the effects of the performing layer that most pop-ologists do, he studies pop music in a strictly tablature context. As a side effect, Noriyuki Makihara loves to do cover versions. He covers songs as veneration and nothing less. My first Macky purchase was the following cover album.

Listen To The Music 2 - (2005)

Listen To The Music 2 is a sequel to a similar concept done several years prior. It's an album of a dozen or so covers of songs that have been big influences on Noriyuki. He writes a lot about the music he's covering in the liner notes (only in Japanese, natch.) The songs range from old standards to rare American crossovers to mostly Japanese pop songs of past and present.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "traveling" [5:07 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Hikaru Utada in 2001

  • "Traveling" is a milder, more cutting-edge cover of the trailblazing 2001/2002 single by female J-Pop superstar Hikaru Utada. (This was my introduction to Noriyuki Makihara, which I previewed at a bookstore music preview station.)

    Both the original and cover version have an early 90s Madonna sound -- which is probably not a coincidence. The Macky version of the "traveling" video is a nice video graphic simulation of a train going through various other-worlds. I was searching for that video, and fell short.. however I found the original "Traveling" by Hikaru, and -- wow, what a trip. Jan Švankmajer anyone?

    [NOT NORIYUKI MAKIHARA, but here's the original "Traveling" video by Hikaru Utada]

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Smile" [2:51 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Nat King Cole in 1954

  • "Smile" is the Charlie Chaplin song originally composed for his critically acclaimed movie Modern Times from 1936. It was popularized later by the Nat King Cole recording in 1954.

    Macky's version is a modern (ugh, dare I say) "IDM-ish" pop take on the song, only later adding a full blown big band orchestra to the final verse. It's the greatest track on this release.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "TIME AFTER TIME" [4:48 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Cyndi Lauper in 1983

  • This was Cyndi Lauper's major breakthrough hit of the early 80s. Although the first image that comes to anyone's head upon hearing "Cyndi Lauper" is the goofy dance pose on her debut She's So Unusual, many overlook how great her voice is -- albeit with a unique timbre. No doubt this was the major reason for Macky's cover of her song. Cyndi Lauper also has remained very popular in Japan until today, whereas the rest of the world hasn't been as receptive. Since the 90s, many of her albums have been released in Japan first. She's covered frequently by J-Pop artists to this day.

    Noriyuki's cover is another IDM-ish take, although it's more quirky and fun.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Miagete goran yoru no hoshi wo (Orchestra Live Version)" [4:11 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Kyu Sakamoto in 1963

  • I wanted to end the Macky tracks with his best niche - the orchestra. I've still yet to purchase his orchestral albums, and I can't wait. His voice over an orchestra, while certainly a modern simulation of a time & place in music long past, fiercely tugs at the heart, even if I can't understand the lyrics. If it weren't for the high cost, I'd wonder why Noriyuki Makihara isn't a full-time orchestral composer and writer. Granted, that's a difficult task being a pop-ologist. And he gets paid to produce and write for other pop artists to this day. Ah, work!

    Anyway, the song "Miagete goran yoru no hoshi wo" may not be well known to many Americans. However, the original performer of this song, classic Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, is well known amongst older Americans for "Ue o muite arukō" -- otherwise known as the 1963 hit "Sukiyaki." It was the only song to top the American Billboard charts that was sung entirely in Japanese.

    Kyu Sakamoto met a tragic fate in 1985, when he was one of over 500 victims in the most deadly single-airplane accident in human history, Japan Airlines Flight 123. Until his final days, Kyu Sakamoto was a humanitarian. He'll be highly venerated in Japan's music history forever. Macky's cover is another worthy footnate of that continuing veneration.


Now, switching gears from a songwriter/performer to a group of songwriters that weren't ever connected to the music industry, however one of which produced possibly the most known song in the Western world to this day.


Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Sound Tracks - (1981-1987)

Famicom/Nintendo released a three-volume series of original songs and sounds from their classic coin-op era of video games between 1981 and 1987. I'm featuring just three songs from the first volume: Super Mario Bros., The Legend Of Zelda, and Metroid. Koji Kondo is the composer of the former two, whereas Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka is the composer of the latter. Two other composers for Famicom/Nintendo during this period were Yukio Kaneoka, writer of the music for Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros., and Akihito Nakatsuka, who wrote the music for Ice Climber and Devil World.

Seattle electronic musician and writer Matt Corwine has given a presentation on the Super Mario Bros. Overworld scene tune, known popularly as "The Super Mario Bros. theme", at EMP's Pop Music Conference 2006. He previously wrote a mix-tape article for the Seattle Weekly where he gave a synopsis of the importance and influence of the song.

  • Famicom - "Super Mario Bros. - Overworld BGM / Warning / Overworld BGM (Hurry Up!)" [5:06 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1983 - composed by Koji Kondo

  • If you've never heard this before, I have to respectfully ask how comfortable the cave you've been hiding in has been these past two to three decades.

    So, switching out of my Snarky Ninja Of The Obvious costume, why not really listen to this little anthem? What musical influences inspired this song? It's impossible to dissect accurately without asking the composer himself. I'd gather that were was some sort of Latin or Caribbean influence -- which makes sense given that this song appears in the initial part of each "world" while playing the game, which is the blue-sky-ed tropical Mario-world. But there's more to this song than its influences.

    Koji Kondo composed this song no later than at the age of 22. He was hired at Famicom as a teen to be an in-house musician, having come from a childhood of classical music training. Upon hire, he had a major technical roadblock to overcome. He was only allowed a limited amount of channels with which to produce music for Famicom/Nintendo games. The gritty quality of Nintendo music that has stood the test of time and remains "cool sounding" in cutting-edge electronic music for the past two decades is due to its limitation to, most notably, the triangle-wave bass channel and, most importantly, the sound-effects and noise channels for percussive sounds -- which has given many Nintendo themes their quirky, fun aesthetic.

    However, as Matt Corwine notes, the hard part must have been the songwriting. How would one write a song that users could stand to listen to upon hours and hours of play? One could philosophize or psychoanalyze the dilemma for hours. Either way, Koji Kondo certainly proved himself. He's still employed at Famicom/Nintendo to this day doing what he's done since he hopped on board in 1983. And people of almost any age range today know his most famous composition -- arguably the most known song in the Western world.

  • Famicom - "The Legend Of Zelda - Title" [3:00 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1986 - composed by Koji Kondo

  • The title song to The Legend Of Zelda isn't nearly as known as the Super Mario Bros. theme song. However, it's just as supremely crafted.

    It's a more sweeping, regal theme than the "Let's limbo!" vibe of the Super Mario Bros. theme. One wonders why the Zelda theme song has barely been covered, though. There's a Brian Wilson quality (an anterior quality, surely) to this theme song that's surely begging for an audience to hear a live version, no matter how good or bad.

  • Famicom - "Metroid - Title" [1:48 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1986 - composed by Hirokazu Tanaka

  • Not only swooning, but sad, this is one of the most underrated theme songs to a Famicom/Nintendo game. Having been covered semi-officially by electronic musician Alex Graham a.k.a. Lexaunculpt and perhaps by others, Hirokazu Tanaka's somber, chilling little tune still has an indescribable innocence to it -- a touch of Beatles perhaps? Well, for a small while, yes. But the song starts to cascade and snowball into a driving resonant song until it loops back to the initial somber bass notes.


Mario & Zelda Big Band Live CD - (2003)

There have been hundreds of cover versions of Super Mario Bros., but there hasn't been many officially sanctioned releases featuring these covers, much less that of the series of tunes produced by the array of The Legend Of Zelda sequels.

On September 14th, 2003, a big band live concert that commemorated the two major classic bodies of works by Koji Kondo took place at Nihon Seinenkan Hall in Tokyo. I can only guess this was planned as a 20th anniversary celebration. The performing groups alternated between The Big Band Of Rogues and Yoshihiro Arita With His Band.

Band Of Rogues may not have been the tightest big band assembled, but they certainly accomplished the goal of fleshing out the themes to something recognizeable and enjoyable. Yoshihiro Arita's more stripped down pieces are more reminiscent of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. He's a classically trained guitar and banjo player, and plays bluegrass and jazz improv these days.

Do you have two hours to spare? If so, here's the video link to the entire performance! Otherwise...

  • The Big Band Of Rogues - "Medley Of Super Mario Bros." [4:24 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • It's possible this is the closest we'll get to imagining what was brimming inside Koji Kondo's head as he was writing the themes to Super Mario Bros. Personally, I wouldn't elect to listen to most tunes with this specific arrangement. However, this is the Super Mario Bros. theme... a song that clearly overpowers its arrangements and covers through the test of composition and time.

    Later in the concert, the theme is revisited with a female vocalist(!) Aside from the words "Go" and "Mario", I have no clue what she's singing! And who the hell is that fat Italian guy causing a ruckus in the audience? Yeah, she's not a great singer at all, but it's all for fun.

    [The Big Band Of Rogues' "Go Go Mario" live footage]

  • Yoshihiro Arita with his band - "The Legend Of Zelda - Takt Of Wind theme" [7:18 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • Yoshihiro Arita with his band - "The song of EPONA" [4:06 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • "Takt Of Wind" and "The song of EPONA" are from 10th and 9th installments of The Legend Of Zelda series, respectively. I've never played this series aside from the very first one, but Yoshihiro Arita's performances are really gripping. He quietly improvises on his instrument while his band provides a gorgeous swooning, occasionally droning background. If there's any true benefit from owning this CD, it's his live work here.

    I'm guessing the singer for "the song of EPONA" is the same singer who horribly sang "Go Go Mario" in the above video clip. However, she sounds much better suited for this type of song. Also, there's incredible backing music this time around.

  • The Big Band Of Rogues - "Medley of The Legend Of Zelda" [4:32 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • Not unlike the Super Mario Bros. theme, The Legend Of Zelda theme songs trump any arrangements, good or bad, with its powerful compositions. The Band Of Rogues are thankfully at their best on this medley.

    [The Big Band Of Rogues' "Medley Of The Legend Of Zelda" live footage]


I can't tell you how ridiculous I feel admitting that I get really teary-eyed upon listening to these large orchestrated versions of these Nintendo songs. You have to understand my childhood.

When planning this J-Pop series, I've been reading bio after bio about how each of these artists has had an active and studious childhood. While I had a studious childhood, I threw away the "active", "adventurous" part dropping quarters every weekend at the video game arcades. This went on for years and years. If you ever were at the helm and dispensed change at Captain Video's in West Los Angeles or at Westworld in Marina Del Rey during the 80s, chances are you had to deal with me at some point because I lost a quarter in a machine and you had to come out and give me credits.

Listening to the original video game songs just brings back the direct memories of hitting buttons and wiggling joysticks on a big plastic frame.

Listening to modern orchestrations of these same songs made me realize what I had involuntarily burned into my brain upon my most formidable, growing years. I was listening to these live tracks a few days ago to prepare this entry, and I got emotionally overwhelmed on my way home while my headphones were beaming into my ears what seemed like exploded dreams detailing my musical childhood, except I couldn't just spaz out and wake up from that feeling.

While I was certainly into pop music as a kid, I had no idea what music was making the ultimate lasting impression. It's incredibly silly that I only realized this just days ago. These songs pretty much sum up the ages of 8 to 16 for me.

I'm glad that my extended stay at video game arcades was my childhood, given that it could have been a far worse existence -- don't get me wrong. However, one can never predict when he or she is going to accidentally listen to that definitive, extended self-realization soundtrack.

And it's especially emotional when that chunk of life is childhood. In many ways, we each had no control over it, really. On the other hand, so many factors could have created a vastly different fork as well. I chose a one-dimensional activity looking at two-dimensional entities. If your experience is similar, I hope you turned out O.K. I'm trying to figure out if I'm still paying for it.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part IV : Kumi Koda

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Kumi Koda is currently one of the most active chartbusters in Japan today. Since 2003, she's been breaking various records for female pop stars on Oricon -- the Japanese version of Billboard Magazine. Her success continues to accelerate as you read this. And as the familiar story goes, it was a long way to the top. She debuted in 2000, releasing almost a dozen singles and an album since -- all having flopped, relatively speaking.

Her first breakthrough was through an early 2003 single featured in a popular video game - Final Fantasy X-2 - a sequel to the tenth sequel of the highly popular video role-playing game franchise. Kumi Koda was nowhere to be seen as gamers first listened to both tracks from the single in the game itself, fell in love with the characters singing in the finale, fell in love with the songs, and logically sought to purchase the songs thereafter. The single's cover even shows to the two figures central to that scene in the game.

Despite succeeding on the merits of only the music and her voice, she quickly became as much a poster pin-up as much as a pop star. Unsurprisingly, her albums and singles following "real Emotion" sold much better, even if they weren't that much different than the material that preceded her breakthrough. Her second album, grow into one, was scheduled for release just days after "real Emotion"'s release:

OK, rant.

No Kumi Koda bio fails to mention that her looks became far more important after her Final Fantasy success. Parse that. Success based on a song featured in a fictional setting with a fictional female character singing it pressures the actual singer to worry about looking better for her oncoming fans.

Now, I could care less about a pop star's appearance, personally. However, I do realize that a pop star's looks are an integral part of his or her success. It's superficial, but it's how the business works. And that's the way many fans are. Ah well.

But "real Emotion" succeeded in a video game, not in a well-produced video showing Kumi's slinky moves or anything like that. You figure one would give fans in that context a little more credit. Also, when one looks back at Kumi Koda's appearances on her pre-"real Emotion" singles, well goddamn, she's hot there, too! See here, here, and here as a few of many examples.

So what happened? Well, there's a small difference between her single and album covers before and after success. Before, she was hot on her own merits as a personality on the given cover, each based on some concept, whether she was trying to be 'cyber' or 'noir', etc. But since her success and the grow into one album, she's struggling for prettiness, instead of just getting out there on the cover art. Every inch of her face on subsequent release art asks you "I'm pretty.. right?" Eventually, the question morphs into a proclamation: "Look, I am hot now."

Rant over. Again, I don't and will never judge Kumi Koda's musical work on any of the above. In fact, if she's fine with her looks being used as a marketing hook, not only would I not complain, I would admire that, if the strategy was interesting enough. I just needed to vent about something I despise about what segments of the pop music industry inflict, artist's choice or not.

Back to the fun part.

Kumi tried to breakthough in 2000/2001 globally, so the Westernization of her music is really strong, and hence atomic. Each song has one basic approach and follows it through from start to finish. There's no multi-layering or odd style changes per track ever. She's definitely prone to going from one style to another on a per-song basis. Instrumental versions of her songs wouldn't immediately give away the fact that the material came from Japan, though. Again, there's no wrong in that.

Her first five years of music can be summed up in one double greatest hits package released in 2005.

BEST ~first things~ - (2000-2005)

This is her singles collection from 2000 to mid-2005. Kumi Koda is very much a singles artist. Kumi albums were just a 'trad' way to sell units by culling singles and adding additional material that wasn't as strong as the singles material -- your standard pop album, essentially. BEST ~first things~ pretty much makes her first four albums obsolete, for intents and purpose.

So, this breakthrough single then...

I don't feel these songs myself. "real Emotion" is diluted electronic pop. "1000 no Kotoba" is a less diluted soft ballad. But, I can understand why this pair of songs made such an impact: Kumi's voice.

She's a perfect voice for the music -- perhaps "too perfect." She doesn't hold back, neither does she boast it. There are no mistakes, at least to these non-golden ears. She's 100% of the reason why anyone should pay attention to these songs. Kumi has always sung this well. However, her voice must have been an especially good fit for the character in the video game in question. (I've never played any Final Fantasy game.) Because, I can't imagine how any other singer could have been able to launch a successful career from these two weak backing tracks.

[Kumi Koda's "real emotion" video]

Her singles get consistently better since 2003. "Butterfly" is her most successful single shortly after its release in mid-2005. It's her most interesting single to that date as well. What's notable about "Butterfly" is that it's one of her least atomic singles, melding many styles together -- with jazz being the most predominant style. Granted, it's more like a jazz spread over a driving pop backbone. It gives pause only because I can't remember the last time a single in the U.S. had any "jazz" in it, aside from hip hop. If there was one, it couldn't have been more than a fluke. However, jazz influences are very common in many forms of J-Pop.


At this point, you may be wondering why I haven't included any of the other early singles, much less a slew of other material from her first five years.

Whereas one can describe another artist's career as a segue of "phases", Kumi Koda's career is a perpetual maintenance plan with continuous retrofitting and adornment. Songs don't really change throughout her career, nor does her singing style change radically. Her voice and her songs just... improve. Once a new single is released, it renders at least one or two previous songs obselete. Forget the past. Kumi Koda's essence is a Draconion one, and its one word motto is "NOW."

I'm not sure if Kumi changes management circa 2005, but her release strategy does change. Kumi Koda, likely following an industry strategy, begins to unravel the concept of what "CDs" or "albums" are. Given that she's strictly singles material, there's no risk of loss. It's almost cruel to watch what follows.

In December of 2005, instead of releasing another album, Kumi starts the ~12 singles~ Collection. A new single is released every week for 12 weeks straight. Four singles produce videos that sequentially tell a story: "you", "feel", "Lies", and "Someday." But Trapped In The Closet this is not. Each single is very much its own song. There's no reuse of a backing track. Every single, except the last one, is a limited edition single. Each single cover features Kumi dressed in a traditional form based on a single country.


Oh, why don't you play that, um, geography game? :D

Because I'd be busy with another project. See, upon buying every single, a full size image of Kumi Koda could be created by lining up all 12 obi strips and/or back case covers from the purchases. For the sake of Kumi's health, I imagine this is a 3 x 4 image, or even a 6 x 2 image. If it's a 12 x 1, I'd really begin to wonder.

Oops! I almost forgot...

"Get It On" is an especially limited single in that it could only be purchased by cell phone.

No worries! You can be a cheapskate and just get the single purchase that colleges all these A-sides...

BEST ~second session~ - (2005-2006)

And she keeps improving. Her best singles to date make it to this collection with the slightly misleading name. Sure, technically, it is a "best of." However, it really is just an album. In fact, one B-side is not included. In its place, there's a track exclusive to just this collection -- previously unreleased. Yup. A "Best of" collection, indeed.

And this is the exclusive track to BEST ~second session~. It's notable for being one of her earliest adapations of U.S. R&B -- that being a beat-heavy song with a classical arpeggiating bass-synth line. It's also one of her weakest songs to date. There are a couple of other singles in the ~12 singles Collection~ series, "Candy" and "KAMEN", that are R&B, but they're even worse. Basically, she's very unconvincing as a roof raiser at this point.

BUT... KumiBot learns quickly!

[Kumi Koda's "Love goes like***" video]

These are her 1st and 11th singles in the ~12 singles~ Collection series, respectively. "you" is a wonderful ballad. However, "WIND" is her best single of the series. It's a more upbeat, lush, and airy (no pun intended) song. Why doesn't Kumi have more of these? In any case, her voice stands out and shows growing confidence, slowly but surely.

[Kumi Koda's "WIND" video]


2006 turns out to be a very prolific year for Kumi Koda. She scores with another excellent single, "koi no tsubomi", along the lines of "WIND".

[Kumi Koda's "Koi no Tsubomi" video]

Then she releases her best selling single product ever, 4 hot wave.

This "single" has an introduction and mid-interludes. (Can you imagine a future MP3 release accompanied by an introductory MP3? "Welcome to another MP3 exclusive by Kumi Koda...") Each song in this quadruple A-side release gets used in a different advertisement. Also, once again, all of these songs are improvements yet again -- each song a radically different style than the other. The singing has never been better.

All of this and more gets collected on the following late December "album" release.

Black Cherry - (2006)

Despite this being called an album, it's more like a "best of" collection than the "best of" collection that preceded it. It collects almost all her post ~12 singles~ singles -- including the key 4-A-side single, 4 hot wave -- with a second half of album material that's nearly as strong as her singles material. Black Cherry is clearly her best full-length release to date. It's still selling very well, according to latest Oricon ratings.

"JUICY", "ningyo hime", "I'll be there", and "With your smile" make up the 4 hot wave single. "koi no tsubomi" is the single that preceded it. The rest is album material. It's hard to tell which is album material and which isn't. It it weren't for the constant that is Kumi, one would think this was a greatest pop hits of 2006 release. Every song adopts a different form of U.S. pop, and imitates it well. Call me emo, but my favorite is the emotive piano & voice song "Candle light."

[Kumi Koda's "JUICY" video]

[Kumi Koda's "Ningyo Hime" video]

[Kumi Koda's "I'll be there" video]

This isn't exclusive to Kumi Koda releases, but at this point, there are three forms of pop star releases one can buy:
  • The Plebeian Audio-Only Single Compact Disc: This is the no-adventure no-fun single audio CD purchase format. Buy this format only if, like, you want to seem sooo ancient. Lol.

  • The Standard CD+DVD combo: You get the audio CD, but also a DVD containing many of the videos from the CD. With someone like Kumi Koda, why would you want to just hear her? Like you only care about her voice? She hot, duh.

  • The Cool Bro CD+2-DVD deluxe plan: You get everything with the Standard format plus a second DVD that features an extra bonus, like live footage, or perhaps a movie, which is the case with Black Cherry. Black Cherry - The Movie starring Kumi Koda. I'm not kidding. Get watching. You know you wanna.

Since I didn't want to feel so low on the social ladder, I opted for the Standard version. The videos are unsurprisingly well produced, but it's essentially MTV Japan. Each song's style has a respective video style that matches it. The nu-metal Garbage sounding "ningyo hime" has a video with a Hot Topick-ed Kumi trapped in a mad scientist's chair about to meet her fate. The bouncy "koi no tsubomi" has a more colorful "Doh, aren't I just cute?" feel. "JUICY" has a Western backdrop with choreography heavily influenced by many Missy Elliott videos at once, or something like that.

I appreciate the stylistic changes song to song on the CD, but the feeling is not the same going from video to video. Even though the videos are alright, there's nothing left to the imagination. This isn't a cool bonus DVD that you, the fan, now own where you're seeing material that you'll never see on TV. This is the DVD you now must have -- with the CD being that soon-to-be-obsolete-disc-that-looks-like-the-DVD-but-just-has-audio-stuff-on-it thing.

I understand why companies want to move beyond the CD, because many people feel the CD is too limited, too expensive, or too inconvenient. I'm not hip to this above strategy of selling a pop artist, though. Perhaps I'm still in love with the compact disc.

So you may now be wondering, WHY CAN'T THE YOUTUBE LINKS LAST? There are plenty of links, but dare I suggest that Kumi's DVD output is off limits by request of her label? Either that or the actual static videos are buried after 20 pages of fans karaoking to the "real Emotion" single using the Final Fantasy X-2 footage, or people making their own videos using Kumi songs. Actually, many people just put in the key words "Kumi Koda" in their videos, unrelated otherwise, just to get hits! I'm not kidding. I'll leave the search up to you guys. This time, potentially no YouTube fun. Sorry.


To end this on a good note for all, I mentioned waaay above that Kumi Koda is still hitting the pedal to the metal. Just weeks ago saw the release of the "BUT / Aishou" single, which is her best single yet.

"BUT / Aishou" - (2007)

"BUT" is Kumi's bestest of the best song to date, and makes up for "Aishou", which is a moderately good ballad, but not transcendent. In "BUT", there's definitely a strong Gwen Stefani/P!nk groove going on, as well as a Gwen/P!nk vocal style, but sync'ed to a far more robotic 4/4 dark-trancey beat with Front 242 sounding drums. Actually, Kumi assimilate's both Gwen and P!nk's timbre, improves it, chews it, and spits it out so gracefully -- bones blanched and polished. Kumi's voice is the best ever here. I want to marry this song.

And there's more!

Also just released is another "best of"! This time, it actually is a "Best of". Best ~Bounce & Lovers~ is a collection of Kumi Koda's ballads -- the best ones, of course! That doesn't stop the Standard CD+DVD version from adding videos that are definitely not ballads! So, yet again, "Best" is a highly abused word in the Koda camp.

However, if every new thing you put out was going to be better than the previous, wouldn't you mock the concept of "Best" too?

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