As spellbinding as Hajime Chitose’s voice can be, the contribution of late-producer Ueda Gen cannot be overlooked. Hajime’s debut album, Hainumikaze, housed the singer’s traditionally-trained voice in a pop sound that referenced Japanese folk, dub and rock all at once.
Ueda’s presence was sorely missed on Hajime’s previous album, Hanadairo, and on her latest, Cassini, his work on the opening title track casts a long shadow over the rest of the album.
"Cassini", the song, has a rich arrangement, starting out with ethereal textures that are eventually grounded by a dub bass and reggae horns. Hajime’s voice soars at the end, and the entire performance poses a tough challenge for the rest of the album to follow.
A number of collaborators from Hanadairo make repeat appearances on Cassini, and this time, the album has a more cohesive feel than than the last one.
Previous songwriter Mamiya Kou provides the more easy-going tracks ("Kasei Kurukuru", "Rikkatan"), giving Hajime a chance to lighten the levity of her more passionate performances. Anam and Maki provide their dual guitar attack on the lilting "Akakokko", while Sukima Switch’s Tokita Shintarou offers up "Hotaruboshi", one of Hajime’s best singles since "Kono Machi".
Kanno Youko goes for the same kind of dramatic production as Ueda on "Megumi no Ame", but it comes across as a somewhat standard pop song. "Miyori no Mori" makes no bones about being a standard pop song, but it allows Hajime ample room to show off her voice.
The oddest pairing on Cassini is Hajime and Chieftains mainstay Paddy Moloney. The traditional Irish jig at the start of "Niji ga Umareru Kuni" segues uneasily into a light folk romp. Her rendition of the traditional song "Siúil a Run", a coupling track on the "Hotaruboshi" single, is a far better meeting of Celtic and Japanese (this side of Sasagawa Miwa, at least.)
The latter part of the album winds down, with sparse tracks from Mamiya, Takefumi Haketa and Sakamoto Ryuuichi bringing Cassini to a quiet conclusion.
Even without Ueda’s unifying touch, Cassini still feels like a complete work. The diverse contributions don’t stick out the way they did on Hanadairo or even Nomad Soul. When Hajime attempts to stretch, she doesn’t sound out-of-reach. (I much prefer "Niji ga Umareru Kuni" over "37.6" from Nomad Soul.)
Cassini is a satisfying album, and Hajime sounds as beautiful as ever. But her future collaborators will have very big shoes to fill.