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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Koda Kumi - Black Cherry

I have my problems with Koda Kumi. Apart from her lacking a certain...how to put this tactfully, star quality (i.e. if she wasn't famous already...) and relying on an obvious gimmick (feigned sluttiness), I've come around to much of her music, even if it struck me as undistinguished at first. The production is often good, befitting an Avex artist; and KK is talented, even if the hooks sometimes take a while to sink in. She tried out for Morning Musume and was rejected, yet that actually reflects well on her: no one in H!P can really sing like her; their voices need to be massed together to achieve any real resonance or tone. But KK is more than capable of carrying a track, and her voice is distinctive.

But, sitting down to this album, I had yet to listen to a KK album in full: all I'd heard were best-of collections, the double-disc first session and the later Best ~Second Session - which, admittedly, is more or less an album, comprised as it is of singles released consecutively over twelve weeks. Those best-ofs weren't necessarily the tour-de-forces the marketing would have you believe, as KK has her fair share of forgettable singles. But the 'best of the best', as it were, is indeed worth a listen: it manages to be genuinely good R&B, something of a rarity in the J-pop sphere.

All the same, I came to Black Cherry expecting it to be good - and at this stage in her career, I think this is a reasonable expectation. J-pop often follows a different career arc from, say, Western rock bands: instead of the first album being the definitive statement and everything that follows either rote repetition or various forms of reaction against it through 'broadening the sound', J-pop, viewed strictly on an album basis, often improves incrementally as artist and producer learn each other's strengths and public expectation pushes them to real growth: the first MoMusu and Ayumi albums, for example, are still pleasant listens, but sound wholly quaint and outdated, innocent relics with no connection to the world-bestriding monster albums they'd put out at the height of their powers.

All of this is to say that by now, as she's pretty well the biggest artist in Japan, and given the intense competition and fear of being forgotten on a dime that that entails, KK should have no excuses for letting anything lackluster slip through. Black Cherry should, on first listen, come through the speakers and take the initiative, putting its charms up front, without demanding repeated listens or in-depth attention. In short, I wanted Black Cherry to come up and ask me on the date (as befits our 'ero-kawaii' heroine) rather than sitting there waiting, coyly, as a 'grower' album. That, and I'd been so over-awed by Secret, Ayumi Hamasaki's genuinely masterful and air-tight comeback album (okay, she was never really 'away', but (miss)understood was bad.) that I wanted KK to 'step up' as it were - that is, hopefully achieve a new level of artistry and dispel all fears.

So, immediate first impression: not so wowed. It sounded like...well, it sounded pretty much like Koda Kumi. As in, no noticeable step-up in songwriting or production. But then, I remembered that my first impression of her other stuff had been the same; that the grooves had taken a while to sink in. Again, this wasn't what I wanted, but I determined to listen to Black Cherry until I liked it.

Uh, no, just kidding. It's not bad. There are maybe two songs I really like. Out of like seventeen. I can't be bothered to pay undue attention to something I found only moderately engaging, so here's a very brief, condensed review on a song-by-song basis:

The 'Introduction' has some generic sentiments about 'One nation. One unity.' that could just as easily have worked as the tagline for a conservative political party. 'Get Up and Move!' sounds like a sequel to 'No Tricks' or 'D.D.D.'. The guitar-based 'Ningyouhime' is um...guitar-based. Just imagine Koda Kumi + guitars and it's exactly what you'd expect. 'Yume No Uta' (where have I heard that title before?) shifts to ballad territory. Predictable ballad territory. 'Tsuki to Taiyou' continues the downbeat-ness. 'Puppy' is a little more experimental (and thus interesting) with some jaunty beat-work, drumming, and electronic squiggles. 'Won't Be Long' disquieted me deeply when I heard someone scream 'YO WHERE MY SHORTIES AT?' right before vocals began in nihongo. Skipping ahead a few songs, 'Cherry Girl' opens with some fantastic drums. 'I'll Be There'...downbeat verses, 'soaring' chorus. Skip a few more...'With Your Smile' is the one song I really, really liked on this, mostly because it recycles the thumping disco beat from 'Sweet Kiss'. I just kept skipping everything else and listening to this one. Both 'Milk Tea' and 'Twinkle' are pretty good, except that the latter is entirely in English, and I don't ever, ever want to hear Koda Kumi singing in English at any length longer than a few interjections or chorus-parts.

Okay...maybe a Koda Kumi album isn't even something I should be worrying about at this point. I'm sick of hearing that the album is dead as an artform, but maybe Koda Kumi is best appreciated in videos, in singles, on the radio. But if I completely affirm that claim, then there are tons of counter-examples like the contemporaneous and aforementioned Secret - the J-pop album, in other words, is far from dead. The worst thing is that listening to so much Judy and Mary recently (read: best. band. ever.) really brought out the flaws in this album: as much as I'd like to believe otherwise, Black Cherry is a fairly average, generic J-pop album. They say that every genre of music elicits a "All the songs sound the same" response from the newcomer, but I'm hardly a newcomer to J-pop, and from where it stands with Black Cherry, KK is starting to get a little samey.

The Verdict:
I'm more confused about Koda Kumi than ever. I keep wanting to tip over the edge into fully embracing her*, but small things keep holding me back. I get the sense that the songs I like best from her were really just accidents, and that her gimmick is constantly threatening to overshadow the music itself. I read somewhere that she becomes a whole different artist if you solely watch her videos, and I'm more than willing to believe that on the basis of the ones I've seen as well as other similar PV-centric artists*, but I'm reviewing the audio component only here, and something definitely feels missing. That, and I keep wanting to listen to these songs in the club rather than the car - they usually have ass-banging grooves but not much intrinsic melody or that many hooks. I think the song 'Get Up & Move!' is a pretty accurate injunction here, regarding what you're supposed to do with this music. Let's just leave it at that: if you're aboard the Koda Kumi (groove) train at this point, Black Cherry will be another enjoyable refueling stop; if not, well, it'll sound like just so much more generic J-pop with some risible 'urban' twists. Here we should consider 'generic' in its most literal interpretation: i.e. of a genre. If you've listened to J-pop at any length, you've already heard these songs. Do you want to hear Koda Kumi sing them again? Or do you want to just listen to her earlier albums? The choice is yours.

Oh yeah. And, can someone please get me some Crystal Kay? That 'Together' song is awesome. Serious.

*perhaps physically, if she'd be up for it - ha

* 'Traveling' by Hikki changed my life, for real. And 'The Peace'.

Ningyouhime video