Onitsuka Chihiro: LAS VEGAS

In the run-up to what would have been Onitsuka Chihiro’s fourth album for EMI Japan, there was a sense that the singer-songwriter was running out of steam. Onitsuka achieved fame by rehashing Carole King, and it was a formula her handlers would have liked to milk for years to come.

But as abruptly as she reached stardom, Onitsuka took drastic steps. She left both her management and EMI Japan in 2002. A short time with Sony’s management resulted in a move to a larger label, Universal, and a 2004 single, "Sodatsu Zassou". But a comeback wasn’t in the cards. She put the skids on her career again and withdrew from the pop machinery for another three years.

When she debuted, Onitsuka’s press bragged how she wrote 60 songs after moving to Tokyo to pursue a music career. The press before the release of LAS VEGAS, her first album for Universal, notes how she wrote only 10 during her hiatus.

The message is clear: Onitsuka Chihiro is taking her time. She is not to be rushed.

It’s an encouraging development, and one that seems far more in keeping with a performer as inwardly focused as Onitsuka. There’s just a catch: she still isn’t much of an adventurous writer.

Onitsuka is not the musical chameleon on the level of Shiina Ringo, ACO or UA. She’s more like Bonnie Pink and Cocco — artists who experiment with their writing to mixed results.

LAS VEGAS does not have the focus of Insomnia, nor the roughness of Sugar High. (It is better than, This Armour, but pretty much everything can be.) It’s an album that goes in many directions, with performances ranging from nakedly rough to uncharacteristically aggressive.

It’s the most unpolished work Onitsuka has done so far. It’s also her most interesting.

Onitsuka sought more creative freedom from her split with her original management, and she’s exercising it on LAS VEGAS. She hasn’t mastered that freedom, but seeing her try is far more fascinating than listening to her conform.

"amphibious" is the hardest track she’s yet recorded, imbued with classic rock guitars and organs straight out of a Doors track. Onitsuka’s voice strains to keep up with the energy of the song. It’s an environment distant from the safe confines of "Ryuuseigun" or "infection".

In the past, one or two fast songs would interrupt the usual collection of ballads, but this time, the songs show more range. "Rou no Tsubasa", "A Horse and a Queen" and "Rainman" give LAS VEGAS a boost not usually found on previous albums.

There’s still enough of the established Onitsuka to go around. "Angelina" and "BRIGHTEN US" could have sounded like they were recorded before her break, while "bad trip" reaches a new level of darkness.

The singles from the album, "Bokura Bara no Hibi" and "everyhome", aren’t as immediately catchy as "Gekkou" or "Memai", further demonstrating Onitsuka’s shift in priorities. Oddly enough, "Rainman", which was the coupling track on "Sodatsu Zassou", makes it on the album instead of the single itself.

LAS VEGAS is not a triumphant comeback in terms of commercial appeal, and it probably wasn’t designed to be. If anything, the album marks a reboot, an opportunity for Onitsuka to reshape what’s expected of her. The results may be rough, but the effort is incredibly honest.