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

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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