Thursday, October 8, 2009

Album Review: solosolo

Calling solosolo a tale of two albums might be an obvious point if it were no more than Ami and Yumi each get seven tracks as a showcase of their individual talents as vocalists. There is, however, more to this observation than that worn cliche.

Each half of solosolo also represents different styles of recording which carry over to subsequent albums; Think Jet or Nice versus Splurge or Bring it! as examples of production style. Ami uses a number of producers and collaborators and has a more western set of influences. Yumi's half is helmed by a single producer and a smalled group of collaborators. The end result is that Ami's half is the slightly stronger effort. Some of this is because Ami at this stage in Puffy’s history is more developed as an artist, yet lackluster production Yumi's half of solosolo is also notable.

While a double album split into solo halves is an interesting idea, solosolo is also an interesting album for another reason. Ami’s half was recorded before Puffy was formed. As to when… I would hazard that Ami recorded her half sometime in 1995. It was a shelved solo effort and Ami was in something of a fugue state within Sony Music until she met Yumi. Then as they say, the rest is history.

Solosolo is a great snapshot as to where Ami and Yumi were at as singers before Puffy’s breakout album Jet. Considering Ami’s half was recorded well before Puffy’s formation, it is evident that Yumi’s vocals were not nearly as developed as Ami’s. This surprised me, I had always thought they were very close in regards to talent in their early efforts.

It feels odd to split the review of solosolo into two parts; Ami’s and Yumi. However, both halves represent distinct works that happen to share a CD cover. Let's get to the music itself.

Disc One - Ami Onuki
Produced by Tamio Okuda (1), Velvet Crush & John Lupfer (2, 4 & 5), Andy Sturmer (3) ,Frank Simes (6) and Yoshiharu Abe (7)

1. Onnanoko Otokonoko (Okuda & Sturmer)
2. Love Depth (Onuki & Velvet Crush)
3. Honey (Onuki & Sturmer)
4. That's Sweet Smile (Onuki & Duffy)
5. Be Someone Tonight (Velvet Crush)
6. Snacks (Onuki & Simes)
7. Tadaima (Abe & Bevoir)

Onnanoko Otokonoko has a 70’s sound that would not feel out of place on, say, the soundtrack for Rushmore. It is a nice enough song but it is not one that sticks. This track in particular illustrates that Ami can simply do things vocally that Yumi cannot, particularly at this early stage. I will say Yumi over time has become a good singer but as shown on this track, Ami had such a head start via her performance and penning four of the seven tracks.

Love Depth… listening to the drums this sounds like a Mathew Sweet song, but as I discovered Ric Menck is the drummer and one of the artists credited for the music. The end of the song sounds exactly like something Matthew Sweet would have done at about the same time. I am on the fence about Love Depth. Given my own musical tastes there is a lot I should like, but it feels a little dated and defined by the mid 90's power pop scene rather than rising above it.

One of those songs I am not sure about is Honey. It is synth heavy and percussions are exceptionally weak, it may very well be a drum machine. As you will see in later reviews, I am hit or miss with Sturmer. I would say when he becomes too exacting the effort feels synthetic and I think Honey falls into that category. Ami’s vocals sound slightly washed out and Honey would have benefitted from emphasizing them more.

That’s Sweet Smile is a well delivered song wrapped in a slight pop throwback package. Like the previous track, That’s Sweet Smile is a slower paced song. Between the two I think this track is miles better. Again it demonstrates where Ami is at even before Puffy was formed.
Be Someone Tonight is an English song and delivers the power pop sound better than the previous confab with Velvet Crush. Ami’s vocals are mostly spot on though I think she sounded slightly flat in a couple parts. The instruments are well balanced against Ami's vocals and I think this is the best overall song on solosolo in regards to singing, music and production.

I would swear Snacks was a Shonen Knife song. Ami’s singing is strong and steady but not remarkable. The music is well played but the engineering is not good. I dislike the bouncing of sound between speakers in Snacks, it is hard to communicate this, it just annoys me when I listen to it.

Tadaima starts off sounding like the Gin Blossoms… I intensely dislike the Gin Blossoms, but then the song combines with an early 80’s ELO sound that makes me forget the part I disliked. Ami’s voice is so very clear and I think displays good range and energy. It is a good enough song that it would make a better Puffy song.

solosolo: Ami Grades
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Music: B+
Production: B
Performance: A-


Disc Two - Yumi Yoshimura
Produced by Tetsutaro Sakurai

1. Tennon no Bi (Sakei & Sakurai)
2. Tsuyoki no Hutari (Sakei & Sakurai)
3. Hanabi (Sakei & Sakurai)
4. V•A•C•A•T•I•O•N (Konishi)
5. Sorenarie (Suzuki)
6. Ai no Aura (Kuramochi)
7. Watashi no Nozomi (Suzuki)

Tennen no Beauty is a song that seems well timed musically, it has a grunge sound that compliments Yumi’s vocal delivery. There is nothing noteworthy about the instruments, which could have been a bit stronger, yet the slightly muted delivery does make room for Yumi, who especially in Puffy’s early days was overshadowed by Ami’s more developed sense of presence.
Tsuyoki na Furari the intro sounds like Yes merged with DEVO, but once Yumi starts in with her vocals another layer is added. It is a great song but the instruments again seem slightly muted and very, very recursive. Not that a looped sound is necessarily bad, but one of the things I have always admired in Puffy’s material is that the musicians have been given room to do their thing. In Tsuyoki na Furari it feels like a slightly phoned in effort.

Hanabi is poppy sort of song. The drums are nice, but it the synthesizers are a little think. Yumi’s vocal delivery is smooth right until she needs to go a little too high which really do not showcase Yumi very well. Hanabi is not really a song I care for, it is a style I am not inclined towards and Yumi’s range is tested and the result is mixed.

Next up
V•A•C•A•T•I•O•N which is a fun song… and very much a beach blanket bingo throwback. I also like it because in the Fever*Fever concert footage it is perfectly used as a comic foil. Pizzicato five’s main man Yasuharu Konishi wrote the lyrics and music on the track, which gives it a wildly different sound than the other thirteen tracks on solosolo. I like V•A•C•A•T•I•O•N quite a bit, but I also have to be in the right mood for to fully appreciate it.

I think Yumi’s vocals are strong on
V•A•C•A•T•I•O•N , but again when she needs to go high there are some issues but less so than Tsuyoki na Furari. I only note this because I am guessing Yumi received vocal training before Jet went into production, because from that point on she has no problem hitting notes and becomes the powerful vocalist between the duo.

Another fun but unremarkable song, Sorenarini . I thing the synthesizer part of the song does it no favors and is overbearing. Yumi is not displaying much range but her delivery is fine.

Ai no Auro has a 70’s sound at the start and drifts into a more pop sound. Yumi sounds like she is singing in a padded cave. The instruments are muted and the singing is a touch flat. Not a song a particularly care for in regards to styling or sound.

Watashi no Nozomi has a 70’s pop sound and unlike Ai no Auro I like this one by Yumi. Her vocals have more range and a softer touch to them. Some of this may be because she is harmonizing with herself, but it works.

solosolo: Yumi Grades
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Music: B
Production: C
Performance: B

3 comments:

  1. Since I still don't know SoloSolo as well as the 'real' Puffy albums, I was hoping to be able to listen to both CDs again before commenting on them. That hasn't happened, what with one thing and another, so I'm going to try and wing it...

    First, though, I have to say that the whole idea of SoloSolo bothered me when I first encountered the album. It seemed an odd move for an act that was just barely established (although Ami and Yumi did have four hit singles and a mini-album to their credit by this time). Did Sony have so little confidence in the viability of Puffy that it wanted to promote one or both singers as potential solo artists? Was it just trying to recoup the costs of some previously unreleased sessions? Or was SoloSolo some kind of vanity project? I didn't know enough about the group's history at the time to know whether any of these interpretations made much sense, but none of them were very complimentary to Ami and Yumi. This may have colored my initial reaction to the album. However, SoloSolo continues to grow on me, especially as I've become better at recognizing Ami's and Yumi's individual strengths and contributions to the 'standard' albums. There is definitely much to enjoy here... although, to be honest, I probably wouldn't be listening to either half if this weren't Ami and Yumi we were talking about.

    And what's with the unimaginative album cover, anyway? Was the near-duplication of Puffy's debut intended to make sure buyers knew who the artists were?

    Ami's disc is generally enjoyable, I agree, with good vocal performances. I'm surprised that the Okuda & Sturmer song, "Onnanoko Otokonoko", isn’t more memorable, though. I mean, if you don't hear pre-echoes of Puffy on this track, where can you expect to find them? "Be Someone Tonight" is fun, but this song didn't really click for me until I saw Ami (in greasepaint goatee disguise) perform it live with the BowBows. (During the song she completes her physical transformation into Jimi Hendrix, which is maybe why I'm hearing "Purple Haze" in her song "Snacks" rather than Shonen Knife. But I see what you mean.) "Taidama" may be my favorite song here, though... the band finally gives Ami some great backing. As you note, it would sound very good as a Puffy song.

    As for "Honey" and Yumi's "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N", I enjoy both songs very much. It seems strange that these two were chosen to be the singles, though, as they're probably the farthest removed from Puffy's own sound at the time. But I suppose that helps them stand out (while much of the rest of SoloSolo tends to fade into the background as nice, but not particularly memorable). Both have well-done promo vids, which also helps, and it's hard to resist the live performances of these songs (especially "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N").

    "Tsuyoki na Futari" isn’t a great song but it has a memorable groove, and (like Ami's "Taidama") it provides an effective B-side for Yumi's single. The intro to "Ai no Aura" draws me into the song. If this does have a Seventies sound, it's a fairly good Seventies sound. That was a real mixed decade... a lot of my favorite music comes from the Seventies, as does much of my very least favorite. I can get into "Ai no Aura" just fine.

    Overall, I think Ami's half of SoloSolo sounds more like an album. Yumi's disc seems a little like a conscious effort was made to showcase her voice in a variety of settings... possibly to boost her chances at a solo career should Puffy's initial success fade (still my best guess at Sony's thinking when it decided to release SoloSolo). But I wouldn't dream of being without either half of this album.

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  2. Sorry been on vacation, totally not blowing you off! Will do a real comment back to you in a day or three!

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  3. Okay, I am caught up with other stuff and writing commitments. As bonsaipark is the only commenter and gave such a great reply... so many bases to cover.

    The cover of solosolo I think is not great and very cookie cutter of girl groups in Japan... but looking at it, there is something off about it that amuses me. They are close together, but their expressions do not convey that physicality.

    My hunch is Sony had no idea what they got when they put Ami and Yumi together. Combined with they had an album/EP sitting on the shelf... Then add in that Yumi really needed to be trained up vocally. I am convinced that she needed time to get to a more even footing with Ami and hone her strengths.

    Much of what they can do together is seen here, but this is a point in time where they were a work in progress too. The payoff is one album later and has largely kept going.

    70's were indeed a mixed lot so far as sound goes, people bag on the decade but there were a lot of great songs there and likewise sound engineering was really coming of age.

    I agree with you about Yumi's half. Some of it is I think is rushing songs out to balance Ami's half. But like we have seen with a number of releases this might have been just as much about getting Ami's EP off the shelf too, Sony spent money on that.

    solosolo is better than I remember listening to it when it was in my play rotation, but it is an album that took me a lot longer to appreciate and that is an ongoing process...

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