by Michael McCarthy
What she lacks in vocal range, Japan’s Chara has always made up for with her diverse songwriting, and she continues this tradition on Madrigal (Epic, Japan), a kaleidoscope of beautiful songs that never sound quirky just for the sake of being quirky. Where Puffy AmiYumi’s music often sounds like they’re trying too hard to include, well, everything, Chara’s equally eclectic music just is. She’s not the sort of artist whom you cite as having influences; she’s the sort of artist whom you cite as being an influence. To that end, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s influenced Puffy, since she’s been around for over a decade, despite the fact that her voice still sounds as girlishly sweet as it did when her first single was released. As for Madrigal, her latest, she begins with a pair of songs in collaboration with James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins, who co-wrote, co-produced and provides guitars, additional keyboards and backing vocals (and even bass on one). The first track (unfortunately, I’m unable to provide a translation of the Japanese titles) is a soft song that sounds like a lullaby, Chara’s dreamy vocals warm and almost whispered. (It’s a song so captivating that I’m rocking back and forth to its subtle beat as I write this.) Track two sounds more like something Iha would have done in Pumpkins, with crunching guitars and semi-aggressive drums dominating the mix, yet it’s still unmistakably Chara. Her vocals command your attention even when they’re somewhat buried in the mix during the upbeat, almost-dancable chorus. As for the rest of the album, which is Iha-free, there’s not a bad song in the bunch, and no two sound alike. Some could be called rock, while others would nicely fit under the old-already “electronica” moniker, but they’re all inspired pop at heart.
While we’re on the subject of inspired pop by a female Japanese solo artist, allow me to hype I am…, the new album by Ayumi Hamasaki (Avex Trax, Japan). The album starts off with the title track, which begins with a verse sung acapella. By the time it was over, I had a feeling I was going to love the entire disc. Although no less beautiful, Hamasaki’s voice is not the sweet, Kahimi Karie-style whispering sort that Chara’s is. On the contrary, it’s powerful, powerful, powerful, Hamasaki undoubtedly capable of hitting any notes Mariah Carey or Celine Dion can hit (and she often does). That said, that sort of mainstream fluff is not her cup of tea. A friend of mine described her as “aggressive J-pop” when telling another friend about her, and he’s absolutely right. Even when she sings ballads, Hamasaki’s delivery is intense and emotional and the music is never generic (unlike that which backs many other contemporary J-pop artists, unfortunately). She can make you cry, even if you don’t understand a word she’s singing. (The songs on this disc all have English titles, yet the lyrics are entirely Japanese.) Most of the time, however, you’ll be inclined to want to dance or pound your fist. While some songs, like “Connected,” feature a hard and fast dance beat, others (the title track and “UNITE!.” for example) sport the sort of heavy metal guitars that made George Lynch a household name all those years ago. Yet all of these songs, which Hamasaki wrote and composed herself, fit together nicely. In fact, it’s ironic that these songs work so well as an album because many of them were previously released as singles over the past year or so, some even written for TV and movies. [www.avexnet.or.jp/ayu]
France’s Lorie is being called “the Britney Spears of France” by many of her fans, but her debut album, Près de Toi (Sony, France), is more like, well, Debbie Gibson or Tiffany. Even if you detest Britney, you must admit that she has always been surrounded by talented enough writers and producers (like Max Martin or, more recently, BT, Dido, and The Neptunes). The production and songwriting on Près de Toi lacks such talent, however, and is boring and all-too-formulaic. The result is a perfect example of what happens when the machine that is the record industry churns out an unartistic, repulsive product that makes those of us who can smell that shit coming a mile away want to puke.
Once in a while, the machine churns out something decent… A guilty pleasure. Something like L5‘s self-titled debut (M6 Interactions/Mercury, France), the group created on the television series Popstars in France. Compared to Eden’s Crush, the group the show created here in the States, or Hear’say, the group the show created in England, L5’s self-titled debut is brilliant. Compared to Ayumi Hamasaki and Chara, of course, well, that’s like comparing Björk to Jennifer Lopez. (Even those of you who hate Björk can easily tell who is the artist and who is the pop star.) But as far as radio-friendly J. Lo-type pop goes, it could be worse. (It could be Lorie!) And the first half of their songs are catchier and better-produced than most of the radio-friendly Europop we’re subjected to these days, sounding more like Madonna’s recent hits. Still, it’s bubblegum, and even if it doesn’t lose its flavor as quickly as other bubblegum, I don’t recommend you buy it when you could be buying Chara or Ayumi Hamasaki. Unless, of course, you’re just looking to buy something contemporary French.