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Sound Decision
Ayumi Hamasaki, B'z, Kumi Koda

by Jonathan Mays,

Ayumi Hamasaki: Fairyland —Avex (August 3)

For the last year or so, Ayumi Hamasaki has suffered so much negative press (some of it terribly unfair) that it's tempting to view all of her new work through that prism.

The Fairyland music video shows a stunned Hamasaki staring blankly as her Hawaiian paradise burns to the ground. Must be how she feels about her career, right? I don't think so. Clearly it is a powerful statement to have a 90-second instrumental right in the middle of a five-minute song. But from the lyrics ("If there is any purpose to the universe/It's certainly been set into motion") and Hamasaki's usual topics, I think the whole burning paradise thing is more about childhood nostalgia than anything else. Besides, the song is so light and cheerful.

Alterna, on the other hand, is angry, aggressive, and extremely pointed. Hamasaki is awesome with this off-center electric guitar stuff. In the video she is literally a puppet amid giants in clown makeup who just happen to be in a music executive's office. A newspaper calls her "Almost Human!" and at the end, she lies in a trash heap while a couple of kids are entertained by duplicates of her on television.

Gosh, I wonder if she has a message in there.

B'z: Ocean —Vermilion Records (August 10)

If you've never heard B'z, you're really missing out. Kōshi Inaba sings like L'Arc~en~Ciel's hyde in his prime, and guitarist Tak Matsumoto is one of the best in the world. Luckily, the newest single from the most successful rockers in Japanese history is a good place to start.

Just don't start with the first track. Whatever you do, don't start with the first track. In truth, Ocean is a pretty good power ballad and an awesome showcase of Inaba's range, but unless you forever want to associate B'z with Queen, you should skip to track 2 and then come back.

I think the best thing about B'z is that their music is so candid—no gimmicks, just hard rock with a lot of emphasis on melody. That's why people like Aerosmith's Steven Tyler call on B'z to open their concerts. It seems fitting that Inaba and Matsumoto started their band after a few Beatles duos; that sort of relaxed jam session attitude is their trademark.

Now, back to that first song. YesAsia had this to say about it:

They're back to light some more musical sparks with their theme song to the popular J-TV series Umizaru a.k.a. Sea Monkey that revolves around the touching lives of a group of beach guards.

Nothing says B'z like the touching lives of a group of "beach guards."

Kumi Koda: Flower —Avex (August 10)

Halfway through the first track of Flower, I had the intro all planned out:

With all due respect, Ms. Koda, it's time to find a new act. Your voice is as golden as ever, but those derivative R&B beats do you a great disservice. Why don't you find an arrangement that actually moves with you?

Then I heard the second track:

Oh. There it is.

You know what would have been really bold? Switching the tracks, ditching the "acoustic version" label, and calling the other a "pop arrangement." That may have been too much for Tokyo's DJs to handle, but it would have been the right move since that is how they sound.

The so-called "acoustic version" shows another side of Kumi Koda, something jazzier and more fluid. Even when the violin joins the solo piano halfway through, you get the sense that following a beat is the last thing on anybody's mind. They hang together has Kumi goes high and low, taking her time each time.

Go ahead, try the first track. But once you hear the next, you'll never go back.

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