Archive for October, 2009

ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “Love” (2003)

October 12, 2009

Picture temporarily removed…sorry :(Genres: J-Pop, International, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Female Vocal, Pop

Tracklist:

1. Venus in the Dark

2. Love Addict

3. Aroma

4. Yuki no Hana

5. Resistance (Album Version)

6. Find the Way

7. Marionette

8. Seppun (Original Love Cover)

9. You Send Me Love

10. Be in Silence

11. Love No Cry

12. Aishiteru (Album Version)

13. Last Waltz

Love is Mika Nakashima’s 2nd proper studio album and 3rd album overall. Released on November 4, 2003, in Japan, the album charted at #1 on the Oricon 200 Album Chart, selling 1,450,000 copies in Japan alone since its release – branding her name on the list of artists whose first follow-up to a debut album sell better than the debut album. It also became Mika’s first big album hit in Korea, Taiwan and China, and won Mika several accolades, including the Best Album Award at the Japan Record Awards, held by the Japan Composers’ Association (tantamount to the Album of the Year one at the Grammy Awards here in America). In Korea, this album allowed Mika to become the first Japanese artist to sell more than 30,000 units.

Like so many artists, Mika Nakashima has embraced love as the perfect subject to sing about, and this album is about that: love. Mika’s output of concept albums pretty much began with this album, but it’s a big step ahead from what she did on her also fabulous debut album, True. Where True blended old disco, easy listening, and adult contemporary moods, Love blends the latter two genres and old club jazz (without any disco) to create an amazing juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary. Those characteristics proved to be a successful change of pace that resulted in sales of this album surpassing those of her already popular debut album. You don’t hear about that very often…especially when it comes to an artist who doesn’t do non-AC genres such as hard pop, electro pop, dance, hip-hop, or heavy mainstream rock. Artists such as Andrea Bocelli, the Backstreet Boys, Michael Jackson, and Ayumi Hamasaki to name just four – they also tasted that kind of “sophomore success,” but BSB, MJ, and Ayumi are mainstream artists. Mika Nakashima is an adult contemporary J-music diva no matter how you look at her and her music.

The album begins with a long but exhilarating soft-jazz song called “Venus in the Dark.” The drums, guitars, and gentle vocals are heard in the background for about a minute; then finally the horns start blaring away. Mika delivers her lines calmly throughout the song. The horns seem bent on swamping her voice in the chorus, but Mika overcomes it all with radiance.

“Love Addict,” the second of the album’s five singles, begins with a top-of-the-line string ensemble playing descending chromatic chord progressions that sound like something out of Wagnerian opera. But once the other instruments come in, we get something that sounds like a Broadway/theatrical piece with the added effect of the violins and a heavily syncopated jazz orchestra that shows off the horns for a good cause. Meanwhile, the soft, sensual vocal performance Mika brings to the song supports the lyrics perfectly, and she even tries her hand at scatting! Love that fantastic trumpet solo at the very end! (If you watch the video for this song, Mika plays an 80s-style detective who sings in a ballroom. BE FOREWARNED: At the very end, she engages in sexual breathing, but it’s very sexy when you think about it.)

“Aroma” is still boring despite its pleasant arrangement. I don’t put the blame on Mika because she co-wrote the song and her performance is well-done; perhaps the song is way too lengthy to give Mika an opportunity to stand out amidst the otherwise relaxing acoustic backup. However, that would change with the next song…

“Yuki no Hana” (Flower of Snow) is one of those singles that put Mika further on the map. It sold well over 248,000 copies and it didn’t do so for nothing. Its haunting and sophisticated melody pairs the piano and the violins with other well-chosen instruments. The lyrics themselves echo a promise to be together forever amidst the fragile beauty of winter. Definitely one of Mika’s finest songs.

“Resistance” was re-recorded for this album, and this Album Version is all-around different from the original. Mika begins the song without the added background vocals, and the arrangement features extra horns, pounding acoustic drums, a funky electric guitar that almost gets in Mika’s way (but thankfully it doesn’t), and a marvelous bass line that surpasses the one on the original “Resistance.” Granted, the Original Version is still better, but the Isley Brothers sound on this Album Version (remember “That Lady?”) perfectly fits with Mika’s personality.

“Find the Way,” which concluded the anime series Mobilesuit Gundam SEED, is brilliant thanks to its soothing, almost Rosemary Clooney-type arrangement (violins, strings, etc.). Mika is in perfect harmony with everything in this song, although the melody is a sad one. Meanwhile, “Marionette” is a slow ballad that employs saxophones and a charming melody to fine effect.

“Seppun,” a cover of Original Love’s 1993 hit, is performed in a much slower tempo than the original (yes, I’ve heard them both) and in a soft reggae sound that brings out more prominent violins. Mika sings with pure elegance, as usual, but I can’t decide which version of the song I like better since both Mika and Original Love did fantastic jobs on the song.

The next three songs on this album showcase a sophisticated jazz style with heartfelt, sensual, or even delightful vocals and arrangements. “You Send Me Love” is a gentle, if somewhat sentimental, midtempo song in which Mika hopes to see her butterfly lovebird again. “Be in Silence” is long but satisfying and very seductive in its instrumentation, including jazz guitars and gentle vocals from Mika herself. Finally, “Love No Cry” is a fun-filled funk song with a non-strenuous vocal range from Mika.

“Aishiteru” (I Love You), a single released in January 2003 as a St. Valentine’s Day single, was simply lovely and heartfelt as the Original Version (which sounded a lot like the Notorious BIG and Total’s 1993 hit duet “Can’t You See,” but better). This Album Version throws out the romantic violins and instead employs real drums, horns, guitars, and even – for the first time – a gospel organ. Speaking of “gospel,” the song reaches in and grabs listeners with the lines “Do it. Joy to love. Love me. Let it snow…” The song is so amazing that anyone in the mood for love will want to play something like this for their loved one any day of the week.

“Last Waltz” was the perfect way to conclude this album. Although previously featured on the Resistance album along with “Aroma” and the title track, this song has a gorgeous jazz-waltz arrangement that proves further why Mika stood apart from the common J-Pop idol and Western (US/UK/etc.) teenybopper and hip-hop musician. Well done on everything (singing, backup, production and all).

Pros: Major improvement on first two albums in everything: vocals, arrangement, composition, the whole nine yards.

Cons: “Aroma” doesn’t deliver as much as the rest of the album does.

Bottom Line: One of the essential albums to buy if you’re in the mood for love, or if you enjoy romantic music like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Rosemary Clooney, Andrea Bocelli, et al. Maybe one of her best albums to date!

Final Grade: A.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “Resistance” (2002)

October 12, 2009
Picture temporarily removed…sorry 😦

Genres: J-Pop, International, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Female Vocal, Pop

Tracklist:

1. Resistance (Original Version)

2. Heaven on Earth (EP Version)

3. Aroma

4. Last Waltz

5. Stars (Live Unplugged)

6. Resistance (Instrumental Version)

Resistance is Mika Nakashima’s first mini-album and 2nd album overall. Released on November 7, 2002, one year after the release of her debut single (“Stars”), the album went straight to #1 on the Oricon 200 Album Chart and sold nearly all of its 100,000 copies.

Riding high on the success of her first album, Mika Nakashima was already a star and guaranteed to become among the greatest musicians of her time – if not of all time given the neverending success of artists like Ayumi Hamasaki, who’s good, too. Resistance commemorated the first anniversary of Mika’s hugely successful musical debut, and it represents a slightly different take on the characteristics she made her trademarks since Day One.

It begins with the title track, a sweet and soulful midtempo song that brings the bass guitar and an acoustic hip-hop drum set into play. The song isn’t exactly Mary J. Blige, but close enough. The harp, the subdued strings, and the two horns heard in the background are more than enough of a draw for those that didn’t think Mika’s debut album was cream of the crop. Excellent melody, too.

“Heaven on Earth” (EP Version) has so many similarities to the original Album Version on True that they don’t sound that much different. Added background vocals, extra synths, and a slightly different opening arrangement are the key differences between the two versions. An Extended Version was also produced, and it’s featured on the Film Lotus II DVDs and the Bonus DVD that comes with the No More Rules album, which would be released seven years later. Mika also performed that Extended Version on her first two concert tour DVDs: The First Tour 2003 and Concert Tour 2004 “LOVE” Final. The latter concert had this version open with an amazing Latin percussion solo from the girl on the percussion!

“Aroma,” which follows, is a bit boring, but it does make good use of a mellow jazz guitar and a quiet set of keyboards. Mika sings in a sensual manner, but the song drags on for a good long while, which doesn’t allow her voice to shine through very much at all.

“Last Waltz” changes the mood to romantic, luxurious, and with a hint of 1980s soft pop blended in with a great arrangement of drums, saxophones, and violins. It sounds like one of those old 1950s jazz waltz songs but with a modern touch. Great. Just great.

“Stars (Live Unplugged)” is a largely acoustic version of the aforementioned debut single, but it’s very depressing and might actually make listeners cry harder than the Original Version might. Some minor off-key notes are evident (particularly during the end of the second chorus) but thankfully Mika doesn’t sing that way the rest of the song. Everything else seems to be in good form.

The last track is simply an Instrumental Version of the title song, “Resistance.” Listening to only the background music without the vocals is interesting, because some minor details that went unnoticed over the vocals are showcased. Nevertheless, the Instrumental Version wasn’t necessary and should’ve been replaced with an unreleased B-side called “Sweet Memories.”

Pros: Some state-of-the-art experimentation with jazzy styles are demonstrated on some of the cuts.

Cons: Few, but this album could’ve used another song.

Bottom Line: Not as good as the first album or what came after it, but does have its moments.

Final Grade: B.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “True” (2002)

October 12, 2009

Picture temporarily removed…sorry :(Genres: J-Pop, International, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Female Vocal, Pop

Tracklist

1. Amazing Grace (Album Version)

2. Will (Album Version)

3. One Survive (Album Version)

4. Heaven on Earth

5. Destiny’s Lotus

6. Helpless Rain

7. I

8. Tears (Kona yuki ga mau youni…) (The Powdered Snow Whirls…)

9. True Eyes

10. Crescent Moon

11. Just Trust in Our Love (Album Version)

12. Stars (Album Version)

13. A Miracle for You

True is Mika Nakashima’s very first album. Released under the Sony Music Associated Records label on August 28, 2002, it topped the Oricon 200 Album Chart in Japan for about two weeks and has sold 1,173,534 copies (bordering on 1,174,000 now).

In 2001, Japanese actress and singer Mika Nakashima’s debut came in two forms: as a supporting character on the Japanese soap opera Kizudarake no Love Song (Tainted Love Song); and as an Ingénue with the release of her first single, “Stars,” which also became the theme song for the drama series. Mika also happens to be my favorite female singer; I caught her on TV one night in 2001 when her video for “Stars” was on the air, and I cried so hard that I became her fan then and there.

The opening track is a cover of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” The original recording on the single “Crescent Moon” ran almost 5 minutes. This album version is cut down by a minute. Granted, Mika’s English pronunciation isn’t 100% perfect, but the atmospheric arrangement makes for a relaxing, if less than spectacular, tribute to one of the most beloved hymns ever written.

“Will,” the last of five singles made for this album and Mika’s 5th single, was the theme for the Japanese drama series Tentai Kansoku (Searchin’ for My Polestar), which appeared on Japanese TV in 2002. If you listened to the original version on its single and on the Best album, you’d notice that the extra 8 seconds of music found on this Album Version isn’t present. Frankly, the two versions are the same except for the 8 extra seconds added, but the song is just fabulous. Its easy listening arrangement was one of the characteristics for which Mika has always stood apart from almost every musical artist that has come out since 1996. Be forewarned: The melody is guaranteed to break your heart, but everything about the song is a total winner – from the instruments to Mika’s touching performance.

“One Survive,” Mika’s 3rd single, is a real blow-away disco number packed with the energy of a Ricky Martin dance song and the sensuality of David Benoit’s “Freedom at Midnight” (which explains the Latin percussion track in the background). This is the Album Version, with more strings and blaring horns thrown in to the mix, and with a saxophone solo replacing the piano part in the bridge. It’s like one of Love to Infinity’s dance mixes, but with a more sophisticated and at the same time thunderous arrangement with inspirational lyrics that again equate the song with Ricky’s “The Cup of Life.”

“Heaven on Earth” is more of a light pop song with a hint of classy piano sounds. I like the way it begins with a descending piano line, which is heard a number of times through the song. The lyrics are also inspirational, with romance and spiritual harmony being the subject of this song (“Fall in love together to the sky…”).

“Destiny’s Lotus” is by far the only time in which Mika employs a rapper in the background, other than a remix of the track that follows, “Helpless Rain.” The song itself is a delightful uptempo funk song with driving electric guitars being prominent. The lyrics show a great sense of personality, especially in the English lines “Respect the place where I came from…”

“Helpless Rain” slows down the tempo with its 80s-style R&B sound and a group of men in the background chanting “We can bring it down like this and like that…” or something like that. This was Mika’s 4th single, and its 85,000 sales count show why it deserved the success it had. The violins set the romantic mood and Mika’s vocals are quite impressive here. Only the high notes sound a bit strained, especially given that there are so many of them in the chorus. The very end of the song, which has only the strings, seems bent on making this song part of the Frank Sinatra-ish repertoire. This song also appeared on the single as a duet with the Heartsdales, who remixed the song as “Helpless Game” and featured Mika singing a completely different chorus…just not on this album.

“I” is my least favorite song on the album. It doesn’t allow Mika to show much vocal personality here. However, I do like the gentle background arrangements. Nevertheless, it tries too hard to grab anyone’s attention. This changes, though, with the rest of the album.

“Tears,” which was the B-side for “Stars,” is a well-rounded improvement over the previous track. With its subtle New Age arrangement, delicate vocals from Mika, and bittersweet lyrics, you might want to take out some Kleenex for this song. While the voiceover reading the poem at the end interferes with Mika’s random repetition of the last line in the chorus, this doesn’t ruin the whole song.

“True Eyes” brings back the charm and the elegance of the first three songs on this album with a luxurious and appealing disco sound that resembles portions of the theme from the game show The Price is Right. You remember that theme? I sure do. Only “True Eyes” doesn’t rip off that song; instead, Mika brings happiness into the song, which boasts a funky flute solo, soaring violins, and other subtle instrumentation that belie the fact that she was only 19 years old at the time of this album’s release.

Next comes an “Awesome 80s” tribute in the form of Mika’s second single, “Crescent Moon,” which blends 80s-style house grooves with 70s disco sounds, complete with a strong Latin percussion and string-based track in the background. Mika’s vocals handle the song very well. The single itself sold nearly all of its 100,000 copies in one day…on the very day of its release, but it didn’t chart higher than #4.

If you heard the song “Just Trust in Our Love” (which is actually a cover song) from the “Will” maxi CD, that version sounded like a K-Ci and JoJo song. This Album Version begins with an uplifting piano and harp set before the electro dance beat really starts kicking in. Mika delivers the lyrics with optimism and actually keeps me listening to the very end. The last few seconds of this version are the same last few seconds that concluded the Original Version on the “Will” single, which serves as the album’s cue to bring things back to the sad side (this song ended that way!).

And speaking of “sad,” what follows is the Album Version of Mika’s aforementioned debut single, “Stars.” It was the song that drove me into buying her albums to begin with, and the fact that its #3 status on the Oricon charts led to higher sales than for any of Mika’s singles – then, now, or possibly ever – is evident in the sensational background arrangements, boasting strings, keyboards, piano, drums – all that in a fabulous and touching 6-minute love song. It’s like Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone,” but with a more syncopated electric bass line and a tear-jerking melody. This song didn’t become part of the aforementioned Kizudarake no Love Song series for nothing. Mika herself sang it at the end of the series. Her vocals are at their finest when it comes to the slow songs, and “Stars” set the standard for what would follow. Brilliant!

The concluding track is a superb finale to this debut album. “A Miracle for You” begins with a lovely piano/strings arrangement, but then the other instruments and some gorgeous background vocals come in. Mika, all the while, delivers prominent vocals and not only grabs listeners’ attention; she and the background music just hit you deep. Only the crashing waves at the end (which take up an extra minute of the album’s time) might serve as a distraction, but other than that, this is a solid debut, with a musical taste that would be shown more prominently in almost every album Mika would release in the years to come.

Pros: Excellent vocals, arrangement, and composition.

Cons: Some all-too-quiet moments weigh things down a bit.

Bottom Line: Well done overall. Mika was awarded the 2002 Japan Record Award for Best New Artist, and this album explains it all.

Final Grade: A-.

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11-Year-Old Killed in Car Crash

October 12, 2009

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2009 – Seven young girls were supposed to enjoy a weekend slumber party in the Bronx. Instead, Carmen ‘Vicky’ Huertas drove under the influence with the seven young girls on Saturday on the Henry Hudson Parkway, and she lost control of the vehicle there. Two girls were injured; one of the girls – 11-year-old Leandra Rosado – was killed in the incident. She was a music and art fan; her father, Lenny Rosado, raised her as a single parent. Mr. Rosado broke down after arriving at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital to find that Leandra was dead. Huertas is currently charged with vehicular manslaughter; her 5-year-old daughter, Britney, was one of the victims in the accident.

My family personally knows Ms. Huertas and her whole family. My mother went to school with Mr. Rosado. My father tried to defend Vicky but nobody else in my immediate family wanted to do so. I sure as hell didn’t want to.

If you ask me, driving under the influence is an absolute no-no and yet there are tons of drinking-and-driving incidents that happen today. Whether or not the death of Leandra was purposeful is not the point. You can fuck around with some things, but one of the things you can’t fuck around with is a person’s life.

My condolences go out to Mr. Rosado and his family and friends. God rest little Leandra’s soul!

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