ハジマリノウタ (Hajimari no Uta), the fourth major label release by J-pop darlings いきものがかり (ikimono-gakari) is, for all intents and purposes, the exact same album as their previous release last year. Which, incidentally, was pretty much the same as the one that came before it, which was more or less the same as… oh, you get the idea. So why bother with it at all?
True, anyone who ranks being “progressive” highly on their list of criteria for admiring a band would have written this pop-rock trio off albums ago. Since their major label debut, Sakura Saku Machi Monogatari in 2007, their output has consisted almost entirely of the same material – if you’re not a fan of fist-clenching ballads, sunny pop tunes or catchy rock songs, then this group definitely isn’t for you. I suppose the only thing that has changed between albums is the scale of the production – the soaring orchestration and sweeping piano accompaniments seem to get more and more elaborate and layered each time around, to the point where one wonders if it really is still fair to attribute all the music heard on the record to just three people who are only ever seen playing guitars, the harmonica and singing. Whether or not this is due to an ever-increasing production budget (thanks to their skyrocketing popularity) or down their own musical initiative is something I’m not sure of. It’s probably a bit of both. But again, the question remains – if it’s just more of the same, why bother with it at all?
The answer, simply, is this: they write good songs. And if you’re a fan of this kind of pop, you could even say that they write great songs. It is perhaps the curse of the band that sets the bar so highly on their debut that the prospect of topping it appears improbable at best, and that to deviate from what they have already declared themselves to be may result in a sudden reversal of their initial successes. In light of this, it can then be argued that the act of maintaining the same high level of quality, as opposed to falling short of it, may not be such a bad way to handle things if going above and beyond appears too lofty a goal. And as generations of bands in the past have proven, coming up with consistently good, albeit familiar material is not always as easy as it sounds.
YELL (3rd Single, with translations)
It should be clear by this stage that if you’re already a fan of ikimono-gakari, then Hajimari no Uta will do nothing to change that. The aforementioned fist-clenching ballads are present (YELL, Nakumonka, Futari), as are the sunny pop tunes (Yumemidai, Tenohira no Oto) and catchy rock songs (Joyful, HOTARU NO HIKARI, How to make it). And as they’ve done on a number of their previous albums, they’ve dusted off and included a re-recorded version of a song from their first indie release, the formidably-titled Makoto ni Senetsu Nagara First Album wo Koshiraemashita…, complete with all the fancy production that the modern-day ikimono-gakari listener expects. This time, it’s Akizakura that gets the makeover, and fortunately it doesn’t lose much of its original charm in the process. Hotaka’s searing harmonica remains intact and thankfully the song’s original bluesy urgency can still be felt under its shiny new coat. This, if anything, demonstrates the point made earlier about the consistent quality in their songwriting – here is a band that has been writing solid tunes since their indie days, back when they were little more than two guitars, a harmonica and a vocalist – all the expensive production that’s been added on since is merely the icing on what was already a very tasty cake.
HOTARU NO HIKARI (2nd Single)
But even the most well-formed songs with the most expert production can come off as unlistenable with a poor vocal track, and in that sense, the credit for much of ikimono-gakari’s success must lie squarely at the feet of its talented lead vocalist, Yoshioka Kiyoe. I still remember the first time I heard her sing – it was just over a year ago, a live performance on TV of their gorgeous breakthrough single Sakura. My initial impression was that of a high school girl giving it her all at a singing audition. Her voice lacked that easily-identifiable, professionally-trained warble – it was, in many regards, plain, but it was strong, very strong, and it really felt like the voice of someone, as clichéd as it may sound, singing their heart out. Her performance on this album is no less potent, though sometimes it’s potent to a fault – there are moments that would benefit from a more delicate voice, yet hers seems permanently stuck on maximum strength the whole way through even when she’s taking it slow. But I guess that kind of raw enthusiasm and unbridled feeling is part of what makes her singing so appealing… and a right pain to imitate at karaoke.
Futari (1st Single, Live)
Hajimari no Uta begins as most of its kind would end – with a lengthy, 6-minute title-track ballad that’s got enough emotion and sentimentality packed into it to make even the most hardened cynic recall some long lost memory of standing in the pouring rain, staring after an estranged lover, heartbroken, yet hopeful… or some other overly melodramatic scene like that which, in all likelihood, probably never happened, but for some reason or another, as you listen to the music, feels like it did. And that’s why, after four albums of the same stuff, the ikimono-gakari brand of pop still “works”. They’ve got a knack for weeding out emotions and images, even if it’s done with the subtlety of a blunt pitchfork. Those who don’t mind such blatant manipulation will relish in the well-crafted tales found on Hajimaru no Uta; everyone else, you have been warned.
ハジマリノウタ (Hajimari no Uta)
Epic Records (Sony Music Entertainment), 23/12/09
01. ハジマリノウタ ～遠い空澄んで～ (Hajimari no Uta ~Tōi Sora Sunde~ · The First Song ~Clearing the Faraway Sky~)
02. 夢見台 (Yumemidai · Dream Stage)
03. じょいふる (Joifuru · Joyful)
05. なくもんか (Nakumonka · I Won’t Cry)
06. 真昼の月 (Mahiru no Tsuki · Midday Moon)
07. ホタルノヒカリ (HOTARU NO HIKARI · Light of the Fireflies)
08. 秋桜 (Akizakura · Cosmos [Flower])
09. ふたり -Album Version- (Futari -Album Version- · The Two of Us -Album Version-)
10. てのひらの音 (Tenohira no Oto · Palm Sounds)
11. How to make it
12. 未来惑星 (Mirai Wakusei · Future Planet)
13. 明日へ向かう帰り道 (Ashita e Mukau Kaerimichi · The Return Path Facing Tomorrow)
水野 良樹 (Mizuno Yoshiki) – Guitar, Vocals
吉岡 聖恵 (Yoshioka Kiyoe) – Vocals
山下 穂尊 (Yamashita Hotaka) – Guitar, Harmonica