Sound Decision
Kumi Koda, Bennie K, Nana Katase

by Jonathan Mays,
Wow, you guys absolutely smashed this column's traffic record last week. Thank you for reading!

If you're new to Sound Decision, here's the gist of it: every week you can check out something fresh, timely, and opinionated about Japanese music. Usually I'll review the new Japanese pop CDs that you can buy in America, and sometimes, like this week, I'll see what's happening over in Japan. Every once in a while you'll find an exclusive interview with an artist who deserves your attention. This column has a low tolerance for bad music, but fairness is my top priority.

Click here to browse the weekly column archive, and try this link if you're looking for a particular artist or album. For questions or comments, head over to the forum, or shoot me an e-mail by clicking my name at the top of the page.

Now, on to the reviews:

Kumi Koda: Butterfly —Avex (June 22nd)

"My mother blessed me with good genes."

Kumi Koda's favorite go-to phrase in interviews is a good way to answer stupid questions like "Why are you so beautiful?" But when it comes to her singing, those words fit even better. Kumi's voice is deep and powerful; it also helps that she projects from the diaphragm rather than the throat like far too many J-Poppers.

As for Avex, they blessed her with a dynamite songwriter. "Butterfly" is a sequel in spirit to Kumi's jazz-pop Cutie Honey theme—not quite as catchy, but a little more interesting. I especially love the richly layered bridge. Kumi's at her best: sexy, sultry, and free.

Alas, things aren't as bright and sunny for "My Sunshine." The song has negative momentum: beat's too fast and mood too lazy for Kumi to reconcile them. It's passable, I guess, but who wants to listen to an impatient ballad? Besides, the third track does it right, and you're buying this for "Butterfly" anyway. Good fun and a must-buy.

On a sort of related note, I'd like to share Avex's new Kumi Koda T-Shirt. Just for fun.

Bennie K: Dreamland —Avex (June 8th)

Bennie K is a cut above most J-Pop groups, with a polished hip-hop sound that's easy on the ears. Probably more important than Yuki's voice training in LA or Cico's beat sense is that they blend pop and rap without stepping all over each other.

The title song is basic bubblegum pop; about the only difference between it and most American pop is that some of the lyrics are Japanese. Yuki shows off her range in "Unity," but the melody is half-finished.

And then we get to "Tabibito," a masterful mix of hip-hop with southwestern flair; think Christina Aguilara when she sings in Spanish. The acoustic guitar is a little coarse, but it fits the mood of the song. Cico's got it just right:

"Bring all the music,
from all around the world,
mix it all together,
that'll be your music."

Nana Katase: Necessary —Avex (2003-10-16)

About thirty seconds into Nana Katase's pastel-pink music video for "Necessary," I thought to myself, I'll never understand why anybody buys this stuff. Then I thought, no, that's a cop-out, and not much fun to read, either. So to pass the remaining three and a half minutes, I brainstormed reasons that might make this boring old thing...necessary to buy.

1. Nana Katase is about 5'7, so as long as the sky is blue and the ocean wide, Ayumi Hamasaki will look up to her.

2. I hear '80s junk is all the rage in Japan.

3. If you always thought "necessary" should be pronounced "nessary" since four syllables is just one too many, this single is a glimpse into such a universe.

4. She looks eerily like Moeko Matsushita, who hasn't released a new CD in over two years...bait 'n switch?

5. The bonus concert video is sort of funny; all five backup dancers have approximately twenty times more energy than her.

6. Her interview (also on the disc) has a couple of gems. "'Wings'...that song was...interesting, right? Um...yeah...interesting..."

Nana Katase isn't really that bad, but "Necessary" is so aggressively mediocre that it falls into that no man's land between CDs that you buy because the music rocks and those you try out of sheer morbid curiosity. Plastic vocals, plastic songs...please don't e-mail me about the list. I know it was... unnecessary.

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