The sophomore jinx is not just for sophomores anymore

I’ve been covering popular music from Japan since 2000, and I’m now familiar enough with it to see little to no difference from popular music in the US. Band politics work the same, and Japanese artists who I thought could do no wrong have shown their humanity.

2005 marked the year when the exoticism of Japanese popular music wore off for me. All that to say I’m far more willing to pan than I was when I first started listening to this music, and this round-up is perhaps an impressive collection of cookware.

Art-School, Paradise Lost

Maybe Paradise Lost isn’t a bad album. Maybe it’s a very servicable rock music work. It has a major strike against, though — it follows a very impressive and forceful album.

If I heard Love/Hate when it was first released in Dec. 2003 — instead of waiting months later — it would have seriously competed with Shiina Ringo’s Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana for favorite album of the year.

Kinoshita Riki is a strong songwriter and an appealing frontman. And he set expectations high with Love/Hate and Requiem for Innocence, two albums with such tight construction, they felt thoroughly-composed.

Paradise Lost shows signs that the laser focus of those first two albums is wearing out. Kinoshita attempts to impose the same kind of construction on these songs, and it doesn’t work.

The album also features a new line-up after the band’s original bassist and guitarist left shortly after the release of Love/Hate. They do a fine job, but the chemistry isn’t as explosive.

Sad to say, Paradise Lost is an apt description for this album.

Mikami Chisako, Here

Let me just say I’m glad she ditched that whole electronica thing.

Watashi wa Anata no Uchuu had far too many dead spots, and the whole rock-techno thing fell flat.

Here finds Mikami going back to the rock writing of her early work, and it’s nice to hear her in front of some real guitars again. It’s hard, however, to wonder how this album would have sounded with her bandmates in fra-foa.

fra-foa had run its course, and its disbandment was inevitable. But it’s that intangible chemistry about which I keep harping that elevated Mikami’s writing. 13 leaves, fra-foa’s second and final album, didn’t have strong writing, but the performances made up for it.

Here doesn’t match the intensity of Chuu no Fuchi, fra-foa’s debut, but it’s far and away better than the last two works on which Mikami was involved. She can get ethereal (“Kami no Ki”), dischordant (“Insane”), and even New Wave-ish (“Saidoku” and the title track).

The album is not impressive enough to wipe away the residual memory of fra-foa’s tenure, but it does shore up Mikami’s abilities as a songwriter.

Nomiya Maki, Party People

The former Pizzicato Five front woman has had something of an eclectic solo career since her band’s demise. Nomiya’s previous album, Dress Code, was framed in the form of a jazz cabaret. Her previous solo albums jumbled dance music with rock ‘n’ roll.

Party People could serve as a nice companion to Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. Put the two albums next to each other on a Winamp playlist, and you couldn’t tell when one stopped and the other began till you realize Madonna can’t sing in Japanese.

Since Pizzicato Five broke up, Nomiya has remained in the orbit of the bright, manic electronic music of her old band, but she wisely hasn’t replicated its style. “Big Bang Romance” with m-flo does a great job of apeing P5, but the rest of the album is pretty much a DJ mix with Nomiya’s smooth croon as glue.

Nomiya must also be a KISS fan — she covers the band again on “I Was Made for Loving You”.

Party People does, however, cop out at the end — a 28-minute megamix of the album’s previous half hour is needless padding.

Quruli, Nikki

Quruli has been batting 1,000 since its debut in 1999, so at some point the band was going to tumble. Nikki is the sound of the band tumbling.

2004’s Antenna was a strong, forceful album, a sharp contrast from the wild experimentalism of 2002’s The World Is Mine. (I didn’t like that album either, but I consider it one of Quruli’s important works.)

But the band’s rise in critical and fan acclaim has put it in a position to feed the beast, as it were. Personally, I would rather Quruli take some time to make an album worthy of its reputation than to produce, produce, produce.

Kishida Shigeru just sounds tired here. The songs meander — “Superstar”, in particular — and the references to rock’s classic era has been done better by others. In short, Kishida is great at being Kishida, but he’s by no means Andy Patridge of XTC.

Singer Songer was already enough work for 2005. Nikki was unnecessary.