This Week in J-Pop: Maron Hamada, Chihiro Onitsuka, Yuu Takahashi, MUCC, Arashi

I’m 4 days late on a weekly series, there’s no excuse for that, so let’s just pretend it never happened! Since I’m not at home over the weekend next week’s post will also be at least one day late – sorry! But let’s get to this week’s singles!

Maron Hamada’s マヤカシのブルース(Mayakashi no buruusu/Betrayal Blues), Chihiro Onitsuka’s 祈りが言葉に変わる頃(Inori ga kotoba ni kawaru koro/Prayers are words shaped by time), Yuu Takahashi’s 太陽と花(Taiyou to hana/Sun and flower), MUCC’s ENDER ENDER and Arashi’s 誰も知らない(Daremo shiranai/Nobody knows)!

Maron Hamada – マヤカシのブルース

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A shining light between Japanese newcomers, Maron Hamada just recently released her first full-length effort of gloriously smoky, sensual jazz tracks. With this 4 track single, she is back for more!

The title track opens on a full Big Band sound before retracting into a downstated Jazz club atmosphere emphasized by the interplay of prominent bass, piano and brass. Continuously evolving through multiple speed and tone changes, from somber to sensual, playful scat to confident raspiness, Hamada paints herself as a capable, diverse performer – rightfully so, the song is delightful and almost entirely carried by her strong presence.

Track number two on this glorious little single, パラシュートに願いを込めて (Parashyuuto ni Negai o Gomete / Filled with wishes of parachutes) is less progressive in its instrumentation or structure, but almost equally powerful. An undercurrent, a driving force, keeps the song alive and the production is delightful, to say the least, always delivering on the beat, using sparing emphasis where appropriate.

I took some time to warm up to 始発前のダンスホール (Shihatsu mae no Dansuhaaru/The Dancehall before the first train), it feels almost alienating to hear a song that plays a “groovy” nature(a word that is fully appropriate, she even drops it in the chorus) so straight nowadays, however, it just works! Transforming an artefact style from the past into a timeless piece of unadulterated Pop magic, a talent Maron Hamada has proven to possess.

A reimagining of the title track, the 哀嬢編 (Aijyuuhen/Grieving girl volume) version of the song extends the duration to a full 7 minutes and strips it off all unnecessary decorations, leaving a melancholic skeleton that emphasises the innate duality of the song. It’s heartwrenching, especially when you contrast it with the bombast of the normal version of the song.

Maron Hamada has delivered a single that is excellent all around, about 20 minutes of flawless, timeless music, performed with all the grace, energy and emotion it deserves. The cover and the music video(an obviously DSLR-shot and heavily colourgraded homage to Film Noir) further emphasize the classic nature of the music, yet I feel neither really adds anything except for maybe some ever so slight absurdism in the otherwise forgettable music video.

Chihiro Onitsuka – 祈りが言葉に変わる頃

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Oh, Chihiro. Some people think she lost it, others see the birth of a true, raw artist. I just see some form of artistic and personal mess that results in things both good and bad. Her last single featured an impressive A-side and an embarrassing B-Side. This one only has one song, so which extreme has she fallen into this time?

祈りが言葉に変わる頃, used as the opening theme for the new and seventh Ju-on movie, is, surprisingly, neither extreme! It’s not exciting, it doesn’t develop any great ideas, but it’s a pleasant song, if accompanied by questionable vocal work. It’s a decent composition with a nice, atmospheric arrangement, but it’s just a bit…boring. Yes, that’s the word: boring. Plain and simple.

Yuu Takahashi – 太陽と花

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Common sense urges me to stay far, far away from “boy/girl with a guitar singer-songwriter” types. The resulting music is usually bland to the point of being insufferable. I made an exception for Yuu Takahashi and…I didn’t regret it!

A mix of poprock with elements of folk and blues, 太陽と花 is all it wants to be and more than it needs to be. Formulaic, even employing the ever-loathed Truck Driver’s Gear Change(a shift upwards in the final chorus as a cheap way of upping the tension, unless my ears are playing a trick on me), it still holds on to a thread of implied sincerity and is plain captivating. Little more than competent in its technical execution, but made so in a loving fashion, I don’t mind seeing this man achieve success.

The music video and the cover art aren’t dull, but never exceed expectation. Simple with minor symbolism, the video for the biggest part just shows some flowers and audio equipment burning backwards as Takahashi performs the song.

MUCC – ENDER ENDER

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An established, influential Rock/Metal band from the Visual Kei scene, I went through my life largely unaffected by MUCC until a friend recommended their latest album to me. It blew me away, to put it simply. I haven’t found the time to go through their impressive discography since, however, their new single was something I grabbed the moment it leaked.

The title track, ENDER ENDER, marries heavy electronic elements and metal aesthetics, featuring growled, rapped and sung vocals. It feels almost like a typical “Trancecore” track, but is elevated above the genre standards by the sheer talent of the band, never happy just mashing two genres together unless they also work in perfect symbiosis. The instrumental work is pristine, the vocals are on point, the melody is fun – it’s all the song is out to do.

モノポリー (Monoporii/Monopoly) discards the Electronica and presents straight-up Post-Hardcore instead. I felt the melody was a bit weaker here and presented in a muddy fashion, but the instrumental background – particularly the guitar lines – make up for it. It remains a weaker track, but a weak MUCC track is still a strong track.

I’m not sure what to make of 前へ -In its true light-(Mae e/forward). It’s not all that weird a song, the melody is even rather poppy and infecting,  but I just can’t seem to make up my mind on loving it or just…tolerating it. I seem to jump from going crazy for the song to just not caring either way or the other. It’s weird. Maybe repeat listens over time will clear my mind.

I like the psychedelic, abstract nature of the covers, however, the music video – a basic performance video set against the backdrop of a vaguely industrial scene – is lacking, to say the least. and I’m sick of Rock and Metal bands releasing what is essentially the same music video over and over. Where is the creativity?

Still, ENDER ENDER is a strong single. Not an unique one and not a particularly complex one, but a collection of great Rock tracks performed by a capable band.

Arashi – 誰も知らない

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I don’t typically listen to boygroups or girlgroups of any kind – I’ve made too many bad experiences. This weekly series is changing that, essentially making me listen to new idol songs at least once a week. It isn’t always bad though!

I’ve never liked Arashi – I’ve seen them perform in TV shows a billion times, but nothing ever stuck with me. They felt like caricatures of pop performers. 誰も知らない, however? It’s not a bad song. Essentially providing the middle ground between Anison and Idol Pop, it’s catchy, mindless fun with a full arrangement and decent production, mainly taken aback by weak vocal performances throughout. I could see Nana Mizuki perform this song and make it work – Arashi never quite make it work, but they are far from failing.

The limited version, which I am reviewing here, contains only one B-Side, おかえり(Okaeri/Homecoming). A midtempo RnB-tinted ballad of the type the J-Pop business is overflowing with, it’s entirely forgettable fluff. None of the members can carry the weight of a ballad solo, however short their lines may be, providing their vocals void of emotion and power.

A single cover showing a generic photo of the members against a white backdrop doesn’t add anything to the single, but at least the music video can be considered fun in the widest sense of the word. It’s not particularly well-shot and just shows the members perform a weak dance routine (and sing in uninspired settings) but it’s ok for the song.

Arashi positively surprised me with the A-side, but then crashed and burned once the B-Side rolled around. Now, I have heard worse singles, definitely, but there is absolutely no desire in me to check out more of their material based on this single.

Ranking

All in all, this was a good week!

1. Maron Hamada – マヤカシのブルース

2. MUCC – ENDER ENDER

3. Yuu Takahashi – 太陽と花

4. Chihiro Onitsuka – 祈りが言葉に変わる頃

5. Arashi – 誰も知らない

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