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

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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