Archive for the ‘easy listening’ Category

ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “Best” (2005)

December 5, 2009
Picture temporarily removed…sorry 😦

Genres: J-Pop, International, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Jazz, Rock, New Age

Tracklist

1. Amazing Grace (’05)

2. Stars (New Vocal ’05)

3. Crescent Moon

4. Will (Original Version)

5. Resistance (Original Version)

6. Aishiteru (Original Version)

7. Love Addict

8. Find the Way

9. Yuki no Hana

10. Seven

11. Oborozukiyo~Inori (with Taro Hakase)

12. Legend (Main Version)

13. Sakurairo Maukoro

14. Glamorous Sky (with Hyde)

Best is Mika Nakashima’s 6th album and her very first Greatest Hits album. Released on December 7, 2005, it topped the Oricon 200 and has since sold 1,204,996 copies – thus making it Mika’s second most popular album after Love being the first.

Best most definitely proves that Mika is one of the best artists ever to step into the music industry, distinguishing herself from other J-music artists thanks to her classy, elegant brand of pop music which would eventually incorporate softer commercial J-music elements. Its 14 songs include 13 singles, which registered the highest chart positions on the Oricon Singles Chart and at the same time sold the most copies, and a re-recording of “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing Grace (’05)” is a rearrangement of the first song from Mika’s True album; this new version focuses solely on a jazzy piano arrangement. Mika’s English pronunciation doesn’t show too many signs of improvement on this version, but her performance is rather touching on this version. While still not up to par with other renditions I’ve heard of this hymn, Mika’s efforts deserve some merit nevertheless. (NOTE: This song was never commercially released as a single, but this version was made as a radio-only promo single for Suntory’s Freixnet Champagne brand. Suntory is a Japanese alcoholic beverage company, and opera singer Andrea Bocelli did one ad for Suntory Beer with his single, “Canto della Terra,” in the background.)

“Stars (New Vocal ’05)” has completely different lead and background vocals from the original 2001 version and the 2002 Album Version on True. The arrangement is exactly the same but Mika’s vocals sound so much better this time around. Possibly the best version of the song she did to date. Well done, Mika!

“Crescent Moon” is still a fantastic song. Some people may think that it might have seemed useless to place it after “Stars,” but since the whole intention of the album was to showcase Mika’s highest-charting and at the same time best-selling singles, it was a smart move on Sony Music Associated Records’ behalf to do so. After all, the single did sell all of its 100,000 copies when it came out, and as I mentioned in my review of Mika’s True album, the Latin percussion and violins show why it has a greater hint of sophistication than almost any disco tune ever made.

“Will,” Mika’s 5th single, is shown here in its original 5:23-long version, not the 5:30-long Album Version from True. The piano, strings, and other acoustic features of the song bring a whole new concept to the genre of “easy listening.” It’s everything you can expect from what we call a “power ballad,” but with a much greater arrangement and a touching aftermath that’s guaranteed to leave plenty of sentiment with listeners after it’s ended.

“Resistance” follows, but in its original Album Version from the EP of the same name. The Mary J. Blige/Brandy influence is still there, but then so is the stylish sophistication brought on by the horns. Meanwhile, Mika brings the song’s subject of angels in love to life amidst the prominent heavy electric bass and the hip-hop beat.

“Aishiteru” (I Love You) begins with a lighter piano solo than the Album Version on Love (the version here is the Original Version), and the strings come into play, showcasing the romantic, elegant mood of the song throughout. Billed as a “St. Valentine EP for the Lovers” (the single was released in January 2003), Mika’s soft, sentimental singing is the highlight of this ballad, whose bass beats sound almost exactly like that from the late Notorious B.I.G.’s “Can’t You See,” with Total! My favorite part of the song is the end chorus, which goes “Do it. Joy to love. Love me. Let it snow…”

The next three tracks appear here in their unaltered versions just as they did on the Love album. “Love Addict” goes by faster than its 7 minutes and 15 seconds may imply, largely due to its sophisticated club jazz arrangement and the overall mood of its syncopated rhythm. “Find the Way” continues to hit me deep thanks to its elegant and poignant string-and-piano arrangement; and “Yuki no Hana” does the same thing…only deeper.

“Seven,” taken from Music, is a real energy drink all in one. The way the song begins with blaring horns and a funky piano-drum sound with a George Benson appeal and stays that way until the end of the song, blows everything by Ricky Martin, J. Lo, Shakira, etc. out of the water!

“Oborozukiyo~Inori,” performed with Taro Hakase on violin, follows on from the previous song with its luxurious techno-based arrangement, drawing on traditional Japanese folk music. The koto, the guitars, and Taro’s violin solos – when paired with Mika’s simple yet delicate singing – create an atmosphere of beauty and elegance that very few other artists emerging since the mid-1990s have done.

“Legend” appears next as the Main Version, not the Original Version. Its techno sound might not be the best way to follow on from “Oborozukiyo~Inori,” but it’s a wonderfully performed enigmatic track with bittersweet vocals from Mika.

“Sakurairo Maukoro” didn’t make this album for no reason. Despite being the second most popular single from Music only to “Seven” chart-wise, it became the best-selling single from that album, and the proof is in the pudding. The piano gracefully opens the song, and Mika sings in her trademark serene manner while the piano and strings gracefully provide romance and style to the theme of the cherry blossom, one of Japan’s symbolic flowers.

Then, finally, we have “Glamorous Sky,” which was the theme for Ms. Nakashima’s second motion picture appearance, Nana, in which she played her first lead role: that of the title character. Her film debut came with Worst by Chance in 2003, but she played the co-star. Nana brought her even more fans than she already had, but it was this song that transformed her personality as an Ingénue into a versatile diva in much the same vein that Sarah Brightman is. “Glamorous Sky” was Mika’s only #1 hit to date, but it soars brilliantly with thoughtful lyrics from Hyde (of L’arc~en~Ciel – he would later sing the song in full English), a simplistic uptempo punk sound, and ambient electric guitars. All the while, Mika flows into the song immediately, and the background arrangement doesn’t seem to swamp her voice.

This album’s follow-up, The End (her soundtrack album for the Nana franchise), would include songs that sometimes sounded terrific, sometimes put too much demand on Mika’s voice, and everything in between, but except for some minor flaws, this compilation is a highly demonstrative showcase of talent coming from an artist whose taste in musical style, fashion, and attitude make her better than most of the pop stars, who instead of making catchy dance tunes that leave a lasting impression do nothing but sell out, so to speak. Mika Nakashima is one of those artists who stand on their own.

Pros: Wonderful compilation!

Cons: None, but “Amazing Grace (’05)” should have been replaced with a bonus track or a B-side or even a new song, of which none appear here. This is the factor for which No More Rules would make up four years later.

Bottom Line: Worth the buy for Mika fans and those newcomers who want a taste of what Mika has to offer. At least Sony Music didn’t do the stupid task of putting Radio Edits or remixes of Mika’s songs on here.

Final Grade: A.

YesAsia link

ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “Music” (2005)

December 5, 2009
Picture temporarily removed…sorry 😦

Tracklist:

1. Sakurairo Maukoro

2. Oborozukiyo~Inori

3. Hi no Tori

4. Kumo no Ito

5. Rocking Horse

6. Carrot & Whip

7. Shadows of You

8. Legend (Main Version)

9. Hemurokku

10. Seven

11. Fake

12. Fed Up

13. Hitori

Music is Mika Nakashima’s 5th album. It peaked at #1 on the Oricon 200 Album Chart in Japan and has sold 547,138 copies since its release on March 9, 2005.

After the commercial success of Love and the crossover acclaim of Oborozukiyo~Inori, Mika Nakashima followed on from the popularity of those two albums and its predecessors (True and Resistance) to release her third main album, Music. This time around, Mika expands her horizons and explores a much wider range of genres than any of her previous four albums, but continues to maintain her grown-up attitude.

“Sakurairo Maukoro” (When the Cherry Blossom Colors Dance), which leads off the album, is a gorgeous spring ballad about separation and reunion underneath cherry blossom trees. Mika plays the piano in the video, but not in the song. Nevertheless, her vocals are pristine and angelic, and the background music is unique, with glossy violins, ascending harp glissandos, and the piano itself setting an elegant mood.

“Oborozukiyo~Inori” (A Misty, Moonlit Night~Prayer), the same song that appeared on Mika’s previous mini-album of the same name, is one of Mika’s first attempts at a techno-influenced song (dubbed “electro” in Japan). The Japanese koto and Taro Hakase’s beautifully done violin solos pay homage to traditional Japanese folk songs, but with a modern touch (“Oborozukiyo” itself was a Japanese folk song; “Inori” is a fresh composition from Mika and Taro).

The next track, “Hi no Tori” (Phoenix), is a techno-easy listening ballad with a luxurious arrangement that has “adult contemporary” written all over it. Also the theme from the Japanese animated series of the same name, the song has one of the best melodies out of all the songs chosen for the album…it sounds heavily Latin-flavored, and the video for the song fits the theme of the song very well. Mika sings the song in such an elegant way that I don’t blame Mika fans for saying this was one of their favorite songs from her. It was terribly unsuccessful sales-wise compared to four other singles from the album, though.

“Kumo no Ito” (Spider Web), whose lyrics are based on an early-1910s poem of the same name, begins with an atmospheric pattern of descending chromatic chords that smoothly lead into the first verse. This song has great vocals from Mika and a flowing electronica arrangement that would’ve made it suitable for airplay on one of XM Satellite Radio’s “Lifestyle” channels!

“Rocking Horse” changes the tempo of the album with a sophisticated 70s-soft rock sound a la Blood, Sweat, and Tears. This song is about life struggles (“No job, no education – oh my God I’ve fed up myself”), but the jazzy mood is so cheerful that it actually forgets about its own storyline! The track that follows, “Carrot & Whip,” is an even more charming jazz song with a cute horn solo in between verses and at the end of the song.

“Shadows of You” is a midtempo ballad with some potential, but the melody doesn’t stand out among the more hit-potential numbers here, so forget this song. “Legend” is fantastic. Its electro-based arrangement (complete with a harp) is stylish, even though I think the Latin-flavored Original Version of the song is much better.

“Hemurokku (Hemlock)” continues the upbeat trend of the album with an arrangement comprised of strings, guitars, and glamorous harmonic vocals from Mika and her background singers. The song is so very much like the Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” but the feel of the music is much funkier. “Seven,” the first single released for the album, makes listeners want to get up off their feet and dance in two seconds. Its jazzy influence brings to mind “Love Addict,” from Mika’s Love album, but with a heavier Latin flavor and gorgeous trumpet stabs at the very end. “I shout for you…”

“Fake” slows down the tempo with a simple, yet sensual, late-night jazz arrangement. The piano is one of the most prominent instruments here, along with the sax solo. Mika delivers her lines like a true torch singer, and the lyrics also kept me interested. Billie Holiday would be proud.

“Fed Up” is the first time Mika ever attempted a rock sound in her music before all the “NANA” stuff. The piano and violins are heard throughout the song, and some radical electric guitar bursts allow Mika to tell her audience: “I’m fed up with being trapped in my cocoon, so I’m gonna spread my wings like a butterfly!” I hear ya, girl! And your singing brought serious depth into this long, but endearing, symphonic rock ballad!

“Hitori” (Alone) closes the album in the same manner in which it began: exquisite. It places plenty of emphasis on the piano and the string ensemble, and the melody is probably the most poignant melody I ever heard by any artist anywhere. Not to say there are no other contenders, but the song’s lyrics are extremely painful (“Even now, I can’t forget you”), and Mika brings out the extreme sadness of the song in the most intense way. This song gets my two thumbs up (like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would).

Music might drag on sometimes, but its arrangements are amazing, and the choice of genres sure beats the monotony of teenybopper music. With all the teen trash I continue to have to deal with (a neighbor was playing very hard pop music as I wrote this review), albums like this give me the assurance that artists like Mika are a breath of fresh air.

Pros: Smooth production; great vocal performances; solid arrangements; and great range of genres make this album a winner.

Cons: Only “Shadows of You” weighs things down.

Bottom Line: If you love easy listening, you’ll very much enjoy this album. It and its follow-up, Best, were in my opinion the best albums released in 2005.

Final Grade: A.

YesAsia link

ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – ‘Oborozukiyo ~ Inori’ (2004)

November 11, 2009
Picture temporarily removed…sorry 😦

Oborozukiyo~Inori (A Hazy Moonlight Evening ~ Prayer) is Mika Nakashima’s 2nd mini-album and 4th album overall. Released in September 2004, it peaked at #3 on the Oricon 200 Album Chart and sold 110,000 copies (10,000 more than its limited press of 100,000 copies).

The success of Mika’s first two proper albums (True and Love) was a highly unusual achievement anywhere in the music industry in that the debut (True) sold over a million, and its proper sequel (Love) sold better than it. Oborozukiyo~Inori plays as more of the follow-up to Love than to Resistance, but it more properly belongs in the “mini-album” category. The mini-album is a 7-track limited release that leans toward traditional Asian and Middle Eastern styles, and focuses on a moon theme.

The title track leads off the album with a gorgeous koto solo, and glides into a techno-laced waltz with a lavish violin solo by Taro Hakase, who produced the album. The whole song takes on a New Age mood while Mika gives a pristine vocal performance, taking care not to strain her notes. Meanwhile, Taro’s violin solos are shown with greatest prominence during the instrumental section, just as it did when he recorded the mega-hit “To Love You More” with Canadian ultra-star Céline Dion in 1995.

The next two songs, “Sara” and “Tsuki no Sabaku” (Desert Moon), further reach into Middle Eastern/Asian influences. “Sara” is more of a Middle Eastern dance track with the string section and the drums capturing the style and sensuality of Middle Eastern music. “Tsuki no Sabaku” is very long, but places great emphasis on the arrangement and the vocals.

True to its title, “Yuki no Hana (Silent Version)” is a rehash of one of Mika’s career-defining singles, using only the piano and Taro’s violin solos as backup. The original version is the best, but Taro and Mika prove that they should have collaborated on the original version to begin with. Meanwhile, “Oborozukiyo~Inori (Acoustic Mix)” blends a wonderful guitar solo with Taro’s violin solos to create an atmospheric tribute to the original song, but doesn’t top the original.

“Sara (Jazztronik Remix)” is somewhat uncalled for; it has a great jazz-dance groove but doesn’t quite cut it as a remix. The original version is fine enough. Finally, “Oborozukiyo~Inori” (Instrumental Version) is just that: an Instrumental Version of Track 1. It works well as background music, but who wouldn’t love to have the vocals?

Pros: Great arrangement and style selection; wonderful vocals; gorgeous violin solos.

Cons: This album would’ve been better off without Track 6.

Bottom Line: Superb work on this album. Check eBay for it because all versions are out of print!

Final Grade: A-.

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.

YesAsia link

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.

YesAsia link

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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