by Jonathan Mays,
Stress makes people do funny things. Some folks sweat. Others cry. I write music reviews. But not just any music reviews. Sweet music reviews. Like pink sugary life is wonderful (JUST NOT RIGHT NOW) sweet music reviews. Figuring I'm not the only student and J-Pop fan who would rather be in a happier place at the moment, I present three of my favorite pick-me-up albums. If you need more, give Nami Tamaki another try, too.
Cotton candy princess Ai Otsuka finally cracked the top with her second album, "LOVE JAM," securing the #1 spot in Japan's sales charts last November. It's easy to see why: Otsuka has weaved a sound and image that can be both cute and cool, the envy of many a J-Popper.
Otsuka's album is startlingly diverse. After a couple of years of sugary rock and soft ballads, she tries out punk in "PONPON," an insanely hyperactive and repetitive song that will either win you over for life or compel you to throw something at your stereo. Her other songs are much less polarizing, like the jazzy "Strawberry Jam," whose lazy guitars and distant vocals will make the winter thaw feel a little closer.
If you're tired of predictable music—and, really, who isn't?—"LOVE JAM" is the place to be. Otsuka's tone is wonderfully irreverent, particularly in "Kingyou Hanabi," which interrupts a piano ballad with some heavy bass just because it can. Sometimes she tries too hard to affect cuteness when she should get out of her own way and just sing, but these moments are rare. More often than not, "LOVE JAM" is pure joy.
Seraphita no Komoriuta
21-year-old actress and model Rio Matsumoto has decided to give singing a try with her debut single, "Seraphita no Komoriuta." The title track has a beautifully composed melody, and I'm glad they included a piano arrangement because it's much more emotive without the vocal version's soft rock backbeat. Matsumoto's "Seraphita no Komoriuta" is still entrancing, but the bass is more distracting than it should be.
"Sweet Season" plays like a slighter faster variation of the first track. The two complement each other well, but neither are too interested in taking risks. I like Matsumoto's smooth, dreamy voice; I only wish she would stretch a bit more. "Make Me Smile" is generally more of the same, just with a syncopated rhythm that contrasts with Matsumoto's deliberate pacing. The string plucking in the middle of the chorus is just perfect—why can't we get some orchestral parts in the other songs?
The verdict is still out on Rio Matsumoto. Can she mix it up once in a while? Can Avex pair her up with a piano or cello? Her debut leaves a lot of questions, but it's good enough to make me eager for the answers.
Wish (Kamisama Mo Sukoshidake)
I need only one word to relate Kamisama's music: entrancing. From its pulsating piano notes to its interweaving melodies, every second of this 37-minute soundtrack is an absolute delight. There are only two main melodies, but both are explored far further than I ever imagined they could be, crossing so many moods and styles that the cliché of music as a journey is totally appropriate here. Kamisama's music tells the story of a girl who lives every day with the menace of AIDS beckoning just over the horizon. You can hear it, and you can feel it.
One of the keys is that every track is performed exceptionally well; the cellist knows how to stretch and still keep the rhythm, and the pianist knows how to draw out powerful notes without pounding the keys. The reason two melodies can last for twelve pieces is that every piece has its own boundaries, and S.E.N.S., the longtime #1 instrumental group in Japan, knows how to work within those boundaries.
I apologize if that sounds vague, but it's just not enough for me to say that one piece uses a piano, another uses a string quartet, and another uses a full orchestra. Picking the right instruments and establishing a mood is a good start, but what really matters is what you do once the perimeters are set. I'd never cried over an orchestral J-Drama piece before, but this one had me fighting back a few tears by the end. Please give this soundtrack a try.
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