Written by: Zer0
When you hear that Scott Murphy of Allister and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer are doing a J-Pop album together, you pretty much know what you're getting into. Or so you think. The end result will either make people say, "Wow, this is really stupid and ridiculous," or "Wow, this is really not bad!" I fall into the second category.
Weezer and Allister fans will have to forgive me - I have listened to little of these bands, because I've listened almost exclusively to Japanese music since about 2000. My experience with Murphy’s solo work is limited to his cover of "Voyage" by Ayumi Hamasaki, which I wasn't crazy about. And while there are a few Weezer tracks I enjoy, the band has never caught on with me. However, I really enjoyed this album. Whatever complaints I had about Cuomo and Murphy on their own, the synergy here is a resounding success.
This album is a labor of love - these guys are doing a style of music they're very fond of, and it shows. While you can tell what they specialize in - straightforward pop/rock with guitars - they experiment and play with the types of pop that Japanese artists create so well. And they do a surprisingly good job of it!
"Owari No Nai Kono Uta" ("It's Neverending, This Song") incorporates J-Pop-style synth for an epic mid-tempo ballad. It's the kind of thing you could imagine hearing on the radio in the USA, but not with male vocals. It's quite a unique track. "Hajikeru" ("Bursting") incorporates a heavy beat and synth soundscapes alongside heavy, powerful, half-spoken vocals for an almost urban sound. All this is mixed into a set of straightforward rock-pop tracks. “Hodokete Itanda” (“Fallen Apart”) has some mixing issues in the second verse, but the blend of the drum track, the acoustic guitar, and the reverb gives the song a feeling like dappled sunshine that I adore. These songs are well-crafted overall, and barring a few exceptions, the songs on this album are quite catchy.
The melodies in the first half of the album are the sort of thing you hear from Japanese bands trying to mimic the best of Western pop-punk. They do a good job of working subtle key shifts into the songs, changing the tone from light to dark, as in "Okashiiyatsu" ("Funny Guy"). They do Japanese-style uplifting melodies in songs like "Asa Wa Chikai" ("Morning is Near"). The second half of the album is a bit more straightforward J-Pop. For example, they hit a nostalgic nerve with "Tooku Hanaretemo" ("Although We're Far Apart"). For folks accustomed to these types of melody and production choices, the album is perfectly welcome. However these choices may sound unusual or off-putting on first listen for those still unfamiliar with Japanese pop. If audiences are less than enthused by the previews available and don't give this album a fair shot, that's their loss - Murphy and Cuomo clearly know what they're doing.
The vocal style of singers like Murphy normally turns me off. It's a stylistic choice made by uncountable punk and pop-punk vocalists (including the vocalist of Japanese band NICOTINE), and one that makes me turn the music off. Murphy sounds much better here than he did in his cover of "Voyage," though he does get nasal at times, most notably during moments of "I Need Somebody." I like him better in Japanese than English, to be sure - the language lends itself to that vocal style considerably better. Although strained in places, Cuomo sounds very nice on the whole. The matte texture of his voice juxtaposed with Murphy's more electric timbre gives the record balance, like the balance between Maynard and Blaise Plant on a Monkey Majik record.
So how is their Japanese pronunciation? Unexpectedly good, but far from perfect. Granted, most Japanese pop/rock is sung in a somewhat Western style - vowels are diphthongized, the "r" sound takes on a more distinctly English "r" or "l" sound, and so on - so that even Japanese pop or rock artists don't sound Japanese 100% of the time. That said, Murphy in particular seems to have this pronunciation thing down. They sound very good.
But it's not all flowers and honeydew melons here. My one major criticism of the album is their cover of Kimura Kaela's “Butterfly.” After hearing songs like "Hajikeru" and "Hodokete Itanda," I had high hopes. I was disappointed. While this is not a terrible cover, the guitar is too heavy, the vocals too strained, and all the sweetness that made the original song so charming is missing. "Butterfly" was not a bad song selection in itself; bad arrangement choices were made. The attempt to bring something new to the track - the punk sound - was misguided. They needed to take the key down a step and ease up on the electric guitar. The song did have its good qualities. For example, the sound effects and keyboard are well placed, projecting a mental image of tweeting birds flying through the song, which is as it should be. But If their goal was to add a punk sound to a pop song,something like Kimura's "BANZAI" may have been a better choice.
The album closes with "Kimitofutaride" ("Together With You"). This is a Japanese version of "Pick U Up," a song written by Cuomo for Weezer that ended up on Adam Lambert’s debut album For Your Entertainment. The song sounds like it was meant to be in Japanese all along, which is true about a good deal of Lambert's first album. The lyrics are a straightforward translation of the English version, so if you want to know what is being said, you need only listen to Lambert’s original. "Pick U Up" was a standout track on For Your Entertainment, and "Kimitofutaride" is equally strong. Although I miss the drama of Lambert's voice on the key change two and half minutes in, everything else that made the song good is still here. "Kimitofutaride" is more of a guitar-laden live performance, less dependent on studio tricks and leaning more heavily on composition itself. This version proves the song never needed flanging or synthesized clapping.
This is a solidly four-out-of-five album. The guys don't feel like they're mocking or mimicking Japanese pop-rock; they've put together a fitting tribute to the style. Despite the few rough spots - which I can count on one hand - it's an enjoyable listen. I hope to hear more from the duo in the future, and that they don't treat this album like a one-off novelty record. This project deserves better than that.