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This Week in J-Pop: The Mirraz, Perfume, Seiko Matsuda, Ayumi Hamasaki, Kana Nishino

Continuing right where I left off yesterday with the 5 singles that are left!

The Mirraz
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Yes…this does seem to be a city.

Another relatively young band, The Mirraz exploded onto the Japanese Rock scene circa 2011 when their consistent quality and direct, rough nature left strong impressions at music festivals around Japan. Their new single continues that trend, featuring 3 rather different songs.

この惑星のすべて itself features a distinct Punk influence as the singer places precise, rapid vocals over an equally swift, complex instrumental. Everything comes together perfectly, with every band member pulling his weight and delivering excellent work. The melody had to grow on me for a bit, but I quite love it now.

The highlight of the single is placed right in the middle. らぶりー (Raburii / Lovely) is frantic, dynamic and playful, gently easing its way into your permanent memory with a chorus that just seems all kinds of genius in the way it plays off the guitars. Simple, but incredibly effective.

The only song that I just can’t seem to get into, ステーキを食べに行こう (Suteeki o tabe ni ikou / Let’s go eat Steak) seems rooted in rather classic Rockabilly – which is probably the reason it’s not doing much for me as I never found my way into the genre. There is a unique twist to it, mainly in the rough vocal work, but that’s not enough to convince me.

The common visual theme of this single seems to be an outside look at city life, as the cover features a high contrast black and white photograph of a bustling metropolis and the music video…well…it quite literally features the band members as aliens walking through a city intercut with images of the sky – and, of course, an alien love story. It isn’t what I expected from listening to the song, but I can see the connection. I do not, however, like the way the music video was shot. Shaky, unfocused camera movement is my mortal enemy and I’m not one for the recent “pale” trend in the indie/hipster movement.

この惑星のすべて is a strong rock single with at least two memorable, top tier tracks and a striking, universal visual identity. Is it the strongest single of the week though? We will see.

Perfume
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Cover art is expensive!

Look. I don’t hate Perfume. I really don’t. They’re backed by one of the most consistent producers in Electropop and their voices are interchangeable enough for me to not mind that they lack any resemblance of personality. But this single? This single is too much for me. Too sugar-coated, too cute, too annoying. I have no more words. But judge for yourself.

Seiko Matsuda
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Not sure if 12 or 60.

Seiko Matsuda is the type of artist that refuses to ever leave – and Japan will obviously still have her, shown by her continuing success. Her new single continues the trend of looking younger than most people look at age 20 while being in your 50s. Oh, it also includes two songs.

I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ is a brass-heavy, classic J-Pop idol song. Bright, happy, living in a fantasy Disney world. Seiko does have a more powerful voice than most other Pop idols, capable of controlling herself quite well, and adds a layer of quality to her music that way. It’s a trivial, but fun song. Enjoyable for what it is and less obtrusive than most other Idol Pop – but just a bit embarrassing coming from someone with a 30 year career.

The B-side Free is the ballad equivalent of a fast food Hamburger. It’s not the real thing, doesn’t carry the momentum of the real experience, but recreates enough of it to be appealing for a small bite in between. Well-performed and competently composed, it’s just caught in the endless white space between good and bad.

The covers just leave me surprised – as do most of her covers. It’s always awkward to see an obviously older woman try hard to act young rather than embrace a change of life. Essentially, the same is true of the music video, in which Seiko seems to be getting married, resulting in a choreographed dance performance with her bridesmaids. Now, I do think it’s well-shot from a photography/cinematography standpoint, it’s all well-lighted, the sets are absolutely stunning and the image composition is what you’d expect it to be. It’s al la bit dull and awkward, but that’s just what this single – and Seiko’s career nowadays – is like.

As much as I expected to dislike it, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ isn’t a bad single. Every element, from the covers over the songs to the video, is just consistently average – but an average Pop song is a good Idol song, so I’d take Seiko over most others any day.

Ayumi Hamasaki
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How many times has this photoshoot been re-used now?

I really wasn’t ready for another Ayumi single. Not so soon, not without any kind of prior announcement. But there it was: NOW & 4EVA from her upcoming, as of yet untitled, album.

Once you get past the cringe-inducing title, it’s actually a remarkable little song! The structure of the song and the instrumental mix reminds of classic Ayumi, yet at the same time the song features such an uplifting, optimistic melody – it feels completely new in her discography. I believe this is the first time an Ayumi song felt genuinely bright to me, the first time I came out of an Ayumi song with a huge smile on my face. I realize that the lyrics don’t deal with a particularly happy subject, but the song, musically feels extremely powerful in its happiness to me. I adore it – nothing could get me more excited for her upcoming album.

Kana Nishino
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You know she’s fierce when her facial expression screams “are you starting to take photos yet?”.

I’ve been ignoring Kana Nishino for the biggest part, she never seemed to add anything of value to the Pop business. But she seems here to stay (for a while) and has a new 3-track single out, so why not give it a chance?

The lead track, We Don’t Stop, is a summery Electropop anthem with some modern EDM elements. I like the composition, it’s a cute, intuitive melody, however, there’s two issues I have with the song. Firstly, the production is horribly compressed, robbing the song of any impact it could have had by keeping it on a rather mushy level throughout. Secondly, Kana Nishino is a capable pop vocalist, but she doesn’t seem to carry her weight in We Don’t Stop, sounding thin and emotionless, never connected to the mood of the song. The issues this track faces remind me of Namie Amuro’s latest album, where the songs themselves were good, but the vocal performance and production issues kept them from becoming bangers.

Happy Birthday is completely unbearable.

The most organic, acoustic song of the single, 25 is a mellow Pop midtempo of the type that is plastered all over the J-Pop business. It’s not particularly good, but I also don’t have any major complaints about it. I couldn’t care about the song’s existence either way.

Both the covers and the music video express similar sentiments to the lead track, yet I can’t help but feel like Kana is trying to play catch-up with K-Pop groups, particularly in the video. She tries to become part of the fierce Dancepop trend, but never seems quite on top of it – she looks lost, like neither the song nor the video are in her comfort zone. Constant expressionless glances both at the camera and away from it make her look utterly confused – Kana is going through the motions.

Essentially, that is how this single is best summed up: It’s a pop singer just going through the motions, making whatever sells right now with no regard to personality or expression. It doesn’t fail entirely – the lead track is catchy – but if you’re going to blatantly follow trends, you should at least put more effort into it.

Conclusion

This has been one hell of a week! 10 singles just barely were enough to deal with all the notable releases, but somehow, I did it! Most of the new material I heard this week was actually pretty good, with only Perfume and Kana Nishino really disappointing.

Have I forgotten any singles? Do you agree or disagree with my views? Leave a comment and take part in the poll at the end of the post! However, please only vote if you’ve heard at least the majority of the singles – I linked at least one song from each in this post – for fairness’ sake.

Ranking

1. KANA-BOON – Full Drive

2. Aimer – StarRingChild

3. Ayumi Hamasaki – NOW & 4EVA

4. The Mirraz – この惑星のすべて

5. flumpool – Believer’s High

6. FLOWER FLOWER – 神様

7. Seiko Matsuda – I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~

8. AKB48 – Labrador Retriever (Version 4)

9. Kana Nishino – We Don’t Stop

10. Perfume – Hold Your Hand

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