UA: Golden green

For the last five years, UA has set her muse loose to do pretty much anything it wanted. Children’s music? Check. Covers with a jazz trio? Check. Avant-garde big band? Check.

These explorations yielded adventurous results, and it was easy to admire the gumption behind the drive. It wasn’t necessarily music you could like, but YMMV, of course.

Golden green shows the pendulum swinging back, with UA delivering some of her best pop music in years, at the same time not surrendering the eclecticism she’s forged on the last few albums.

On the opening track, "Ougon no Midori", trombones play a hook reminiscent of "Lean on Me" before the rest of the band enter with a nice groove. That mood continues with "Melody La la la" and "Paradise alley / Ginga café". Both songs hearken back to such singles as "Milk Tea" and "Rhythm".

UA detours to her more esoteric styles with the Indian-influenced "Turi", and the children’s tune, "Noren Noren/Haiiro Shita Saru no Yume". That departure makes the shift back to pop with "Love scene" even more pronounced.

UA’s early albums attempted to encompass a world of styles on one disc, but her more recent works concentrate on specific sounds. Golden green is no different. Although driven by melody, the house band is a tasteful mix of guitar, piano, drums, strings and horns. And the performances are very much live.

UA even makes a fairly faithful cover of Natalie Merchant’s "San Andreas Fault", although she injects a bit more sunshine compared to Merchant’s dour original.

Appealing as these tracks are, UA still reminds people she’s not afraid to put some bite into her songs. The solo section of "Elm" builds to a crush of feedback before acoustic guitars regain control, and an eerie vocal sample doubles UA near the conclusion of "Moor".

Although the album’s tracks are lengthy — ranging from 4 1/2 to 7 minutes — Golden green feels like it ends too soon. Perhaps it’s because this music has the most hooks UA has offered in a long time. She sounds great in just about any context, but she’s especially wonderful when singing a tune.

"Panacea" sums up the tone of the album nicely. With its duetting drum tracks and floating string arrangement, the track builds in an unconventional fashion, but UA grounds it with a long, beautiful melody.

Golden green is a welcome return to pop music for UA, especially since she doesn’t compromise the assertiveness of her muse.