Sound Decision
Ayaka and the Olympics

by Jonathan Mays, Feb 9th 2006
Giving stock market advice is clearly risky business, but who knew it could be physically dangerous? I'm watching Jim Cramer's Mad Money on CNBC right now, and Cramer just cut his thumb by trying to tear the head off a bobblehead made in his image. That he is sucking on his thumb and wrapping it in a cloth to keep from bleeding all over the place as a caller shouts stock names at him is actually not that surprising. After all, he has already hit a cameraman with a toy bull, bitten the head off a toy bear, and thrown a flag, three books, a pillow, a blanket, and a chair all in the first thirty minutes. The man may be insane, but he gives insanely good advice, and he's a heck of an entertainer.



Ayaka Hirahara: Chikai —Dreamusic

Artists like Ayaka Hirahara are energizing forces. The keep people like me from retreating permanently into Napster's library and forgetting about all the great music that comes from the other side of the world. To people who obsess less about musical aptitude, artists like Hirahara are inspirations, as when her Jupiter became a source of comfort following a rough tsunami season in Japan:

None of us are ever alone
We've always been loved for who we are
Live as you wish, and I'll sing of
The shining future for you


While Hirahara's debut single found itself in the right place at the right time, her latest CD is more purposefully planned. Chikai is Japan's theme song for the Winter Olympics. I think it is unfair to take the comparison any further, so I'll just say Chikai is rich and powerful and leave it there.

Chikai's best qualities are the same that make any Hirahara song stand out from the crowd. The value of her echoing alto voice cannot be overstated, nor her habit of holding notes as long as possible. Hirahara comes ever so close to disrupting the tempo, but she knows where the line is, which makes all the difference between a sluggish song and a patient one.

Compared to Hirahara's other music, Chikai has a lot more rock to it, but that may be misleading. It's more like a rock ballad, and only in the chorus.

There is another song, too, which is pretty cool for a disc under $9. Startline is like Hirahara's other choral classics, Yume no Tane and Hello Again Jojo, and although several minutes longer, it gets to the point more quickly. This one is a good way to pull in a few of your friends.

I hear hyperbole knocking at the door, but really, Ayaka Hirahara is one of Japan's best artists in a while, and you owe it to yourself to give Chikai a try.




Fafner: -Now Here- Geneon

Tsuneyoshi Saito's musical talent is remarkable but, judging from his Fafner work, uneven. As a classical composer who stays grounded in the 18th century, he's pretty good. As a modern, experimental writer, he still has some work to do.

Examples of his classical savvy are plentiful. The first is Hymn, a patient theme that wraps into itself like a square knot. The payoff doesn't come until the last half, which makes all the difference. Choice, a whirlwind of a piano etude, comes only just short of inducing vertigo. The Pain Of Existence is a fine fugue, and Solitude shows that the right interval can go a long way.

When the music gets less conventional, it gets less good. Being & Nothingness dooms itself from the start; if you lead off by banging piano chords, you're setting a bar too high for most composers to maintain. In this case, Saito gets carried away and sounds desperate by the end. Assimilation has the same problem, leaving you to wonder what could have been if the piece hadn't fallen apart after thirty seconds. On the brighter side, Divergence hits its stride halfway through with a stirring bass and viola melody, which nearly makes up for the clumsy intro and recap.

I like Fafner because it's technically sound and still takes risks. It would be silly to compare him with Dvorák or Chopin or Shostakovich, but Saito's inspirations are well chosen and come through clearly. Now, he needs to take the next step. Now Here is almost there.




Final Fantasy Unlimited Geneon

Wouldn't it suck if somebody told you a certain soundtrack featured new work from the composer of the most successful video game franchise ever, and it didn't? Of course, this is all hypothetical. There couldn't possibly be a press release with a name like Nobo Uematsu and words like "new and familiar instrumental flavors" out there, right?

It's not quite as bad as if someone plastered Yoko Kanno's name all over a CD with music "inspired" by Cowboy Bebop, but it's darn close. To eschew any possible confusion, here is a complete list of Nobo Uematsu's contributions to the Final Fantasy Unlimited soundtrack:

1. Title song. 0:15, from Final Fantasy 7 intro, arranged by Shiro Hamaguchi, new orchestral flourish at the end.

2. Silent Wind. 1:20, from FF7, arr: Shiro Hamaguchi, took two background notes and added new melody.

3. Departing Wind. 1:20, from FF7, arr: Shiro Hamaguchi, loose blend of Aeris and Red XIII themes, new melody.

4. Preview. 0:35, arr: Shiro Hamaguchi, sounds like something from FF9 but I've only played FF7 so benefit of the doubt.

5. Chocobo will walk, no matter how far. 1:13, from FF7, arr: Kazuhiko Sawaguchi, remixed theme of... guess.

6. Get out of here ~. 1:11, from FF7, arr: Kazuhiko Sawaguchi, more Chocobo stuff.

7. The hearts that touch. 1:34, arr: Shiro Hamaguchi.

8. Recollections of Lisa, 1:48, arr: Shiro Hamaguchi. Both sound familiar, but I can't place so benefit of the doubt again.

Now, before we even talk quality, ask yourself how that jives with your image of a Nobo Uematsu soundtrack. To be fair, Geneon is technically right when they say Uematsu and Shiro Hamaguchi "bring together their diverse musical know-how," but I'm still disappointed, as will be anyone who buys this disc.

Praising any of Hamaguchi and co-composer Akifumi Tada's original work in spite of the Uematsu mess is sort of like pulling out an umbrella in the middle of a monsoon, but I guess it can't hurt. Ai's Theme Song is a promising start, especially with the string plucks at the end, and The Endless Road gets points for opening with an oboe and building very little into more than a little. If you're really hunting, Enter Kaze has some spark with the drums, too.

The rest of the new pieces basically stink, unless you're a fan of trite themes and unambitious filler. Add that nearly all of Uematsu's arranged stuff is poor and unimaginative, and the result is a real clunker.

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