Archive for the ‘music’ Category

REMEMBERING: Dave Brubeck (1902-2012)

December 8, 2012

This week, the jazz music world lost one of its modern-era legends: Pianist and composer Dave Brubeck passed away in Connecticut one day shy of what would’ve been his 92nd birthday. Born in Concord, CA, in 1902, Brubeck often drew on his ability to improvise when creating tunes that ranged from sweet to intense.

Brubeck also wrote classical and spiritual music compositions and works for film and television, but perhaps his best-known work is the 1959-released tune, ‘Take Five,’ from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 Time Out album. The first jazz single ever to hit platinum status in the United States (sell 1 million copies or more), and like most of Brubeck’s other jazz works, ‘Take Five’ made use of an irregular meter (5/4) alongside a well-recognized melody. It has since become a modern jazz standard, being covered at times in 4/4 meter by artists like the late Tito Puente. Perhaps the 5/4 meter in ‘Take Five’ could’ve been an inspiration for Lalo Schifrin to compose his Mission: Impossible theme.

Immediately after Brubeck’s death on December 5, 2012, Grammy-nominated jazz artists like Earl Klugh and even Grammy-winning legendary producers like Quincy Jones celebrated his legacy via Twitter, the popular social networking site. Brubeck was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1996 and dozens of other arts awards and doctorate honors.

He’ll be surely missed.

IN MEMORIAM: Whitney Houston 1963-2012

February 13, 2012

On February 11, 2012, legendary R&B singer Whitney Houston passed away in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 48. A six-time Grammy winner, Whitney has been acclaimed by millions as having one of the most beautiful voices ever to have entered the musical spotlight.

As a little girl, I was always impressed and also deeply moved by Whitney’s vocal performances, and was as saddened at the news of her passing as were my family, friends, colleagues, and many famous musicians. One of her most stirring performances ever was her cover of George Benson’s “Greatest Love of All,” which was originally from Muhammad Ali’s biography, The Greatest.

The most well-known recording Ms. Houston ever made was that of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the movie, The Bodyguard.

R.I.P.

QUICKIE: On Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy Win and the Reaction of Justin Bieber’s Fans

February 14, 2011

In 2009, I posted a blog topic titled ‘My Thoughts on the Grammys,’ in which I felt that the Grammys often nominated – and in some cases, awarded – artists and albums based on commercial success more than artistic success. However, there have often been times when awards shows like the Grammys do honor talent instead of just popularity, and sometimes give prizes to people that aren’t as well-known as those who are, and last night wasn’t an exception.

One Grammy winner has stood out to some people who aren’t Justin Bieber fans, and that is the jazz performer and instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding – a native of Portland, Oregon. She unexpectedly won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist over more well-known artists like Justin Bieber and Drake. But Bieber’s fans didn’t take his loss seriously. Instead, they flooded Spalding’s Wikipedia entry – to say nothing of flooding Twitter – with obscene death threats to her. One has said on Wikipedia: “Justin Bieber deserved it. Go die in a hole. Who the heck are you, anyway?” (NOTE:  Spalding’s Wikipedia entry has none of those “death threats” now, but if you’d found such entries anywhere on the Internet within the first few hours after her Grammy win, your mouth would’ve dropped open in shock like mine did.)

Spalding was the first jazz artist ever to be awarded a Grammy for Best New Artist, which is an historic achievement in my opinion. She played for President Barack Obama (who cites her as one of his favorite artists) and has drawn on a whole variety of musical styles in her work. Bieber plays guitar and piano, but he’s a teen R&B singer with a much bigger following than Spalding.

However, I, non-Bieber fans, and true music fans know that telling an award-winning artist to go drop dead, or calling them names, just because they’re not Justin Bieber or Jennifer Lopez or any teenybopper-like music-maker is tantamount to calling the cast and the crew of a movie that wins an Oscar, instead of a movie you prefer, idiots or [expletives]. It’s insane.

The Grammys, for all their focus on X, Y, and Z popular artists, felt that someone like Spalding deserved the award for the simple fact that she was a better new artist than Bieber.

I’m not a fan of artists like J. Lo, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, the Backstreet Boys, N Sync, Lady Gaga, past Grammy winners like Christina Aguilera (whose Bionic album was snubbed, although she performed) and Shakira, or artists in their vein (no offense to their fans, though), but I wouldn’t go around wishing death threats on those musicians just because they won a Grammy – or, in J. Lo, BSB, and Bieber’s cases, at least received a nomination for one – over other artists.

Oh, and congratulations to all the winners.

From MSNBC: Bieber Fans Go on Grammy-Fueled Wikipedia Rampage

ALBUM REVIEW: Charice (2008) by Charice Pempengco

February 5, 2011

 

ARTIST: Charice Pempengco

TITLE: Charice (EP)

RELEASED: May 2008 in Philippines

CERTIFICATION(S): Earned Platinum certification in Philippines (sold over 30,000 copies)

TRACKLIST:

1. And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going)

2. It Can Only Get Better)

3. I Will Always Love You

4. Born to Love You Forever

5. I Have Nothing

6. Mama

7. And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going) (Minus One)

8. It Can Only Get Better) (Minus One)

9. I Will Always Love You (Minus One)

10. Born to Love You Forever (Minus One)

11. I Have Nothing (Minus One)

12. Mama (Minus One)

NOTE: Sorry for the long delay. This is my first time reviewing an album or EP in over a year, because I’ve been fairly busy with finishing up college and playing in two college bands.

Born in 1992, Charice Pempengco (her full name is Charmaine Clarice Relucio Pempengco) has gained serious global fame since her discovery on YouTube. Her self-titled debut EP, which appeared in May 2008, features interpretations of hits by Jennifer Holliday, Whitney Houston, and others.

“And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going),” which opens the disc, is a well-executed rendition of Jennifer Holliday’s smash hit from the musical Dreamgirls. Jennifer Hudson also did a great rendition of it when she appeared in the movie version of Dreamgirls, for which she won an Academy Award. Anyway, Charice maintains superb control of the high register throughout on this cut, just like on her other songs. “It Can Only Get Better,” originally covered by Amy Diamond, is another example of how Charice can take virtually any song and make it good, just like people like Bette Midler, Sarah Brightman, and Frank Sinatra did. (NOTE: I’m not comparing Charice to those three artists; just saying.)

“I Will Always Love You,” originally performed by Dolly Parton and best known as performed by Whitney Houston in her movie The Bodyguard, has Charice paying tribute to both artists at once with her rendition. However, this version leans closer to Whitney’s version, even though there’s no denying that Ms. Pempengco still belts her heart out. WARNING: The high notes toward the end are guaranteed to either send shivers down your spine or just move you to tears.

“Born to Love You Forever” is a bittersweet cover of the Preluders song, while “I Have Nothing” (by Whitney) shows Charice at her finest on this CD. She even employs background vocals to fine effect on “I Have Nothing.” Finally, “Mama,” originally by Smokey Mountain,” closes the first half of the disc in a fashionable manner with attention-grabbing vocals and a pretty arrangement.

The second half of the disc is comprised solely of instrumental versions of the first six tracks. I personally felt that these instrumental versions (listed as “Minus Ones”) could’ve been left for a second disc on this EP, but they’re fine enough if you want to hold a karaoke competition or just practice. And at least they’re not bland, like the karaoke CD I heard on Ultimate Disney Princess.

Pros: Wonderful interpretations of old cuts and recent ballads.

Cons: Padding the rest of the disc with instrumentals might sound weird to some people, but to be fair to Charice, it’s not like they’re MIDI-remade instrumental versions.

Bottom Line: Good start to Ms. Pempengco’s singing career.

Final Grade: B+

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

My Thoughts on the Grammys

December 4, 2009

This year, Beyoncé Knowles (formerly of the now disbanded Destiny’s Child), Lady GaGa, the Black Eyed Peas, the Kings of Leon, and Taylor Swift dominate the 52nd Annual Grammy Nominations List. Fan favorite Beyoncé leads the pack with 10 nominations, among them Album of the Year (I Am…Sasha Fierce), Song of the Year (“Single Ladies”), and Record of the Year (“Halo”). Ms. Swift has 8 nods; her album Fearless is also nominated for Album of the Year. How do you think I feel about these nominations?

To be honest, my feelings are fairly in-between.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t have anything against people getting nominated for and winning Grammys. However, I truly feel that the Grammys do everything in their power to reward numerical or commercial achievements and not as much, with some exceptions, to bring artistic achievements to the public’s attention. Awards ceremonies like the American Music Awards and even the World Music Awards act the same way, but at least the World Music Awards honor some artists that are better than a lot of mainstream America’s artists (at least since the teen pop resurgence of 1996-97). There’s nothing wrong with having a #1 album or single, but I’ve read about several musical artists that made wonderfully experimental and popular albums that didn’t even earn one Grammy nomination for the respective band or artist, let alone win one. (I won’t bring up categories like jazz, Latin jazz, classical, etc., as they have nothing to do with this.)

One of the most obvious examples of an album and artist that won critical and public success and yet didn’t win a Grammy is the British rock group Pink Floyd, with their 1973 masterwork, Dark Side of the Moon. Ranked as the second best album of all time on the Definitive 200 Albums List after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the incomparable Beatles (which deserved the four wins out of the seven Grammy nominations it had in 1968), Dark Side of the Moon has a string of complex rhythms and mystical ambient sounds that might have not sit well with most listeners, but amazed me after the first listen (and that coming from a woman who listens to genres like Latin jazz, easy listening, regular jazz, some popular music, a good deal of New Age and world music, and Motown R&B, but not teenybopper music)! It topped the Billboard 200 Album Chart and has since sold 15 million copies in the United States alone, but Pink Floyd didn’t win a Grammy until 1995, for the song ‘Marooned’ from the Division Bell album.

Bob Marley had a great range of reggae songs with political and inspirational messages, and yet his music didn’t win him a Grammy in his lifetime. He posthumously earned a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 and was inducted into the 2007 Grammy Hall of Fame. (This doesn’t mean that Billy Joel and the Carpenters neccessarily sucked, which they don’t.) Marvin Gaye didn’t earn a Grammy for songs like “Let’s Get It On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and my personal favorite: “What’s Going On.” However, he won two Grammys for “Sexual Healing” in 1982 and a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award years later. Elvis Presley? I love his rock and roll music to death, and yet he won four Grammys: three for his later religious-themed material, and the Lifetime Achievement Award.Santana won only one Grammy before he signed to Arista Records from Sony/Columbia in the late 1990s. That was a Grammy Hall of Fame entry for the Abraxas album. After signing with Arista, Santana won 8 out of a then record-breaking total of Grammys for the album Supernatural, the same amount that Michael Jackson’s Thriller won in 1984. (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2 tied Santana’s Grammy record several years later.) And Supernatural was the most popular album released in 1999. There’s nothing wrong with changing styles, and this does not mean that Supernatural was necessarily a bad album per se, but Santana’s funkier 1960s-70s music, which explored Afro-Cuban and other global cultures, didn’t win him even one Grammy!

Tupac and the Who also never earned any Grammys (though the Who actually did earn only the Lifetime Achievement Award, just like Led Zeppelin did). Nor have Queen or Grateful Dead (and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably the best rock song I’ve ever heard). And there are plenty more artists who either don’t win Grammys until late in their career, if at all, or whose music and talent often went and continue to go overlooked and underrated by the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences (NARAS). (Don’t get me started on people like 50 Cent, NSYNC, Jennifer “J. Lo” Lopez, Miley Cyrus, the Backstreet Boys, or ESPECIALLY Justin Bieber, because they’re among the exceptions to the rule.) If lucky, some or even most of those artists that won either one or no Grammys will get the aforementioned Lifetime Achievement Award…a much higher honor than all the other nominated categories put together.

Some unique artists like Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, and Simon & Garfunkel won Grammys for their work, but music like those artists put out exemplify the kind of artistry that far surpasses the commercial appeal that past Grammy winners such as Britney Spears, Shania Twain, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Milli Vanilli and the like have provided (no disrespect to them and their fans). Especially Stevie Wonder’s lyrics continue to inspire generations of music fans. Milli Vanilli were bereft of their Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1991 after their then producer, Frank Farian, revealed that they only appeared as posers for their Girl You Know It’s True album and didn’t actually sing the songs on it. Well, at least the Grammys did the right thing in taking back an award they gave to the wrong band.

At any rate, all the best to Beyoncé and the Black Eyed Peas and all the other Grammy nominees. Maybe someday the Grammys will devote some attention to artistic achievements and not just how many copies an artist has sold, or how long so-and-so spent on X, Y, and Z music charts in fill-in-the-blank territory, or anything like that. In short: If the Grammys were to reward artistic achievements in music instead of just commercial success, I bet few people would listen. Finally, in the words of the legendary 11x-Grammy winner Frank Sinatra:

“Remember, ladies and gentlemen: It’s about excellence, not popularity.”

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.

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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.

YesAsia link