Sayuri Ishikawa – X-Cross 2 Review

x-cross-2-359185.1Release: 2014.04.23

Genre: Enka

Contributors: Shiina Ringo, Marty Friedman, Tamio Okuda and more

Tracklist:

    1. 暗夜の心中立て (Anya no Shinjuudate/The dark night’s double suicide attempt)
    2. 永久にFOREVER (Towa ni FOREVER/Eternal forever)
    3. 雨のブルース (Ame no buruusu/Rain blues)
    4. Ra.n.se
    5. 空を見上げる時 (Sora o miageru toki/Time to look up at the sky)
    6. 千年逃亡 (Sennen Toubou/Thousand year escape)
    7. こころの色 (Kokoro no Iro/The heart’s colour)
    8. 名うての泥棒猫 (Naute no Dorobou Neko/The famous stealing cat)
    9. 最果てが見たい (Sai hate ga Mitai/I want to see a faraway place)

Sayuri Ishikawa is one of the undisputed queens of Enka. Her career, now well over 40 years long, is impressive, filled with incredible amounts of album and single releases – but she’s not done yet, as X-Cross 2 shows off a confident, genrefluid performer. Sayuri has come to kick ass – and kicking ass she does.

The album opens on the Shiina Ringo composed 暗夜の心中立て, a glamorous, classic ballad. The duality of Sayuri’s grace and somber delivery, both rooted in Japanese artistic traditions, and the vaguely Western composition based primarily around Jazz and Swing. full of weeping strings and crescendo brass, serves to establish a unique, timeless mood that is never based in any one place or culture, but heavily tinted through a Japanese lens. The song welcomes alien influences without surrendering identity(still featuring rather Japanese aesthetics and dealing with the culturally sensitive topic of double suicides), as a result being powerful and emotionally piercing.

The movement into 永久にFOREVER, a mellow, light midtempo, feels a bit odd, taking you by surprise and briefly interrupting the mood, however, it feels like that may have been the intention behind the tracklist order. It’s a very gentle track, filling the background with acoustic guitars, acoustic bass, piano and some scaled down drumming in addition to extensive harmonies. I’d like to point out the chorus as particularly powerful, rather hypnotic really, while the rest of the song did less for me.

More scaled down and reminiscent both of old folk songs and musical ballads from the golden age of cinema, 雨のブルース continues the trend of marrying genres in an atmospheric, coherent manner. It evokes images of smoky jazz clubs and soul singers with their minimalistic performances yet expressive and highly sensual vocals. The production is wonderfully dynamic here, letting instruments and sounds share the spotlight rather than creating a wall of sound.

Ra.n.se, for the biggest part, feels like any other Pop ballad. And it is indeed less interesting than most other tracks on the album, however, the dynamic progression is absolutely stunning and the melody keeps you guessing, never quite going where you expect it to. What saves the song are the shifts in mood, pace and instrumentation, both before the choruses and in the last third of the song, where it turns into a dramatic, explosive rock ballad that Sayuri holds in firm control with her voice.

A deeply contemplative song of longing, 空を見上げる時 is placed in a long, long tradition of Japanese art. The arrangement delivers occasional accents as the listener is made to focus entirely on the weeping, fragile vocal performance. This is the kind of song that makes me wish my Japanese was more advanced, as I know focus is supposed to be on the vocals, but can only understand about half of it. I feel lacking in my ability to fully appreciate the song. I can see an innate beauty in the composition, performance and arrangement, but can’t possibly see the whole picture yet.

If you aren’t absolutely convinced of the level of awesome surrounding this album yet, just bear with me for a moment here: Marty Friedmann, ex-guitarist of Megadeth and one of the people that have made Heavy Metal what it is today. That’s who had his hands all over 千年逃亡 (and Ra.n.se, but this is more impressive). The arrangement is filled with heavy guitars and double-bass drums, the melody is screeching and filled with power, Sayuri is in top shape, the production is tight. It’s a fantastic song, showing off both the immaculate instrumental work present throughout the album and Sayuri’s extreme talent, proving herself able to switch between timbres and tones, from frail, soft whispers through a full, rough Alto to haunting falsetto.

The one song on the album that failed to impress in any way, こころの色 is mellow and endearing, employing a choir of children, but lacks any sort of impact or unique expression – and could hardly feel more out of place on the album.

Essentially of the same style as the album opening, but pronouncing the clash of genres a bit more, 名うての泥棒猫 gleefully presents a rough collide between Enka, Pop, Rock, Blues and Jazz. I honestly like this song even more than all the others, the same praise can be applied, but with a melody that is even more infecting, even more appealing and a structural progression that uses dynamic instrumentation to its full effect. Absolutely one of the greatest tracks I have heard this year so far and an early candidate for song of the year.

One last collaboration with Shiina Ringo, it’s pretty clear why the other two songs were released as single while 最果てが見たい was doomed to be an album exclusive. There’s a sense of nostalgia and melancholia here that is befitting of an album closer and the melody feels extremely Shiina – the latter aspect being the problem. While 暗夜の心中立て and 名うての泥棒猫 seemed tailored to Sayuri’s style and talent, 最果てが見たい just sounds like it came from Shiina’s discard pile. A great song in its own right, but unrepresentative and lacking as part of the album.

On X-Cross 2, Sayuri Ishikawa delivers what is truly progressive Enka. Shaking up a heavily traditional and nationalistic genre from the grounds up without ever touching, changing its emotional core. The music is top-notch, delivering 9 songs of stunning quality, with every song containing at least some aspects worth admiring, even if not everything works out to full potential. I believe this album will be fondly remembered – maybe even as an influential release, given it achieves enough lasting success – in times to come.

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