Onitsuka Chihiro: DOROTHY

Onitsuka Chihiro set a pretty high bar with her 2000 debut, Insomnia. Subsequent albums haven’t quite achieved the same level of focus and consistency. (This Armor didn’t even come close.)

So it was easy to assume Insomnia would be the unmovable obstacle, the peak by which everything will be compared and none surpassed.

Well, she just might have done it.

Midway through the decade, Onitsuka sought to free herself from the balladeer confines in which her management — and perhaps her audience (myself included) — wanted to keep her. The first effort of this make-over, 2007’s LAS VEGAS, was more admirable for its effort than for its execution.

DOROTHY, however, finally brings Onitsuka to the point she’s been fighting to reach for the last few years — as an artist of breadth.

Signs of her arrival were already evident with the double A-side single "X/Last Melody". Onitsuka pushed the vulnerability of her voice into more aggressive territory, actually sounding comfortable among an arsenal of guitars.

There’s no doubt DOROTHY is the most energetic of her albums. In the past, an up-tempo number would be a token gesture among a sea of ballads. This time, three bona-fide rockers — "X", "STEAL THIS HEART" and "I Pass By" — occupy significant real estate.

Onitsuka in the past sounded awkward trying to unleash her inner rocker chic, but she’s a lot more convincing now. "STEAL THIS HEART", like "amphibious" from LAS VEGAS, takes more than a few pointers from classic rock, while "I Pass By" is the more rocking successor to the country-ish "We can go".

Even the mid-tempo tracks give DOROTHY enough push to keep Onitsuka’s maudlin tendencies at bay. "Storyteller", "Last Melody" and "Kagerou" have just enough of the reliable Onitsuka earnestness to satisfy fans.

Of course, the ballad is where Onitsuka excels, and she’s done some of her best work here. Somehow, "Hotaru" has become the most played songs on my media player, according to my Last.fm stats, although "Karerimichi wo Nakushite" is the more affecting song.

None of this range would mean much if the songs themselves weren’t good, and they are. Not since perhaps Sugar High has an Onitsuka album felt so complete. Between the more extroverted performances and the breadth of material, DOROTHY just might actually be better than Insomnia. Yeah, I can’t believe I’m typing that sentence either.

Onitsuka Chihiro has worked hard to demonstrate she’s much more than her early success indicated. It finally pays off.