Why do I get the feeling I should introduce Mr. Children even though they’re the biggest rock band in Japan? I guess it’s because I don’t cover them much, since they aren’t television denizens who frequent variety shows. I could mention all sorts of big numbers, but perhaps the most present one is that the two top Japanese albums of the year are their two compilation albums – one covering 2001-2005 and the other 2005-2010 – each selling over a million copies. Picking one word to describe their music, I’d probably go with “universal”. There’s no attempt to cater to some niche or fad. Rather, the music is embracing, warm, and heartfelt. It’s perfectly straightforward in its approach.

While all of that remains true of this album, that’s never been all there was to Mr. Children. Sakurai Kazutoshi-san, the group’s lead singer, guitarist, and main songwriter, has an edge to his voice that can strike deep. He usually crafts lyrics to match, but I will be reviewing the album without regard to the meaning of the lyrics. The question for me, then, is whether we’ll get a good balance of warmth and edge which spices things up. In other words, I’m looking for a chai latte.

I listened to the album a number of times before writing this review, and while my opinions have definitely changed from my first listen to my most recent, I think they’ve settled down and won’t be likely to change going forward. I have to say that I was more favorable on the first listen, and steadily grew patient with the album after subsequent times, for reasons that will quickly become clear. If you have a different opinion, though, feel free to contribute in the comments below, especially if you disagree with me. I don’t consider myself the ultimate arbiter of taste, and would be interested to hear other points of view.

With that, here’s how the album went:

1 – hypnosis (5:58)

The opening to this song has an epic feel, but the song soon settles down into a gentler melody. This is a slow and steady start to the album, and a good one . . . up to the four-minute mark, where I would have ended it. While it could work as a six-minute song elsewhere in the album, it was two minutes too long for the opening song. There’s nothing about it that jumps out and attracts the listener’s attention.

On the bright side, Sakurai-san’s voice clearly displays its piercing quality and passion. By the time it comes out late in the song, though, the music underlying his voice already feels tedious.

2 – Marshmallow day (4:17)

This song is totally different. I’ve said it before, and it still reminds me forcefully of Las Vegas. I don’t know what to call it . . .  a lounge singer act? Anyway, I get the sense that they wanted to have some fun, and this is definitely a more relaxed song in sharp contrast to “hypnosis.” But it’s not well-suited to Sakurai-san’s voice, and the strain there flies against the light-hearted feel of the song, so that it doesn’t quite work out.

I’ll have to confess, though, I’ve never liked this style of music.

3 – End of the day (5:50)

The album started off on a weak foot, but this song was more of a known quantity for me, so I guess it was somewhat comforting to be on firmer ground. Sakurai-san’s vocals at the start of the song are a bit harsh, but settle in better after the first minute. The feel of the song consolidates with the excellent passage starting 2:07, which tightens the music and sets up the next verse. So, despite a bumpy start, the song gets better as we move through it, and by the three-minute mark, it’s a clear improvement over the previous two.

Unlike “hypnosis”, it makes good use of its length, moving between a number of different textures, avoiding the lead song’s repetitive feel.

4 – 常套句 (Joutoku – Cliche) (4:05)

With “Joutoku”, we’re on more familiar musical ground – a classic mood perfectly suited to be a drama theme song – in this case, the theme to Ikuta Toma-kun’s drama “Osozaki no himawari.” While the pace is slow, the song is also the shortest on the album, so it doesn’t test the listeners patience.

Instead, we get a great taste of Sakurai-san’s vocals at 2:15 – the sort of singing that strikes right at the heart. With it coming at the center of the song, the flow of this track has an even, balanced shape – starting soft, coming to a peak, and then leveling off again.

5 – pieces (6:33)

This is the longest song of the album and, if you’re like me, you’re hoping for something a bit more . . . allegro. That, or maybe a mini-symphony (heck, this song is longer than “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and that went through three distinct movements).

Of course, “pieces” starts off slow, but it breaks into a better pace by 0:57. Not good enough, though, and when it went slower again at 1:45, I was starting to get bored again. The song sounded like it was on its last legs at 3:30, with only one verse left in it, and I couldn’t figure out what it was going to do with the remaining three minutes. The answer? Nothing. I’m sure there were significant lyrics, but there was nothing going on musically.

6 – イミテーションの木 (Imitation no Ki – Imitation Tree) (5:03)

Beginning with a bright piano passage, this song offered a slightly quicker tempo than “pieces”. Sakurai-san’s singing on this one was smooth and the melody was the an improvement over the songs so far. But there was no aspect of it that I could point to and say “that was good” – no musical passage to make it memorable. Because of that, it also felt a verse too long.

The feel of the song is sort of aimless – it’s almost like a stroll through the park on a mild day. You could picture a young couple doing just that for most of the song, and then right around 1:40, we see a bird take flight and soar for about twenty seconds until we lose sight of it and turn back to the couple.

7 – かぞえうた (Kazoe Uta – Counting Song) (5:18)

Melodically, this was the strongest song up to this point, and despite the fact that I was still looking for an up-tempo tune, I can forgive a lot if you offer me a vocal part this firm. This was the first song on the album I outright liked after multiple hearings. There are some hooks in the vocals that make it distinct – the triplet at 0:21, for instance – keeping my ear interested.

There’s a bold sense of struggle in the song. The feeling I would compare it to is coming home from a hard day at work, still thinking about all the troubles of the day.

8 – インマイタウン (In My Town) (5:18)

We’re back to a casual pace with this song, which very much picks up where “Imitation no Ki” left off. It might be later in the day – possibly a night-time stroll amidst the city lights this time, but same basic effect.

The most surprising thing about the song is the way it begins, which is more musically inventive – jazzier – than the rest of the song. It maintains somewhat of a jazz feel, but the high style of the first minute fades into more standard forms. The brief instrumental starting at 2:20 was especially lackluster – the piano could have easily done something more interesting.

9 – 過去と未来と交信する男 (Kako to Mirai to Koushin Suru Otoko – The Past, the Future, and the Corresponding Man) (5:22)

With the rest of the album going as it had, this song came out of nowhere, completely out of the blue. I imagine it was their intention to catch listeners off-guard. There has been little to no sign of electronic effects or synthesizers so far, but this song is replete with them, putting them to excellent use right from the opening.

While many of the previous songs on the album lacked anything to make the memorable, this one had no such problem. For most of the song, it was amazing how deftly they go from an electronic-heavy sound to the normal Mr. Children organic song and back again. The exception was the transition at 3:24, which comes off as sloppy no matter how often I hear it.

This was the second song that I would put under “keepers”.

10 – Happy Song (6:05)

This was my favorite song from the album. It’s got much more spirit than any other track – seriously great energy. The violin line first appearing at 0:21 and Sakurai-san’s vocals at 0:39 gave me Beatles flashbacks – always a good thing. The light high note at 0:54 was only one of many nice touches in his singing. The forceful strains at 1:06 were inspired and, again, very Sixties.

The song is a long one, but it undergoes many changes in texture, including a dramatic one at 3:24 that is pulled off wonderfully, and keeps things moving at a good clip. The composition of this song was much more intricate than anything heard on the album so far, except perhaps “Kako to Mirai to Koushin Suru Otoko”.

It’s almost like – where were you guys for the rest of the album? I could have used a breath of fresh air earlier, too. I understand the idea of ending on a strong note, but there’s also starting on the right foot.

11 – 祈り~涙の軌道 (Inori ~Namida no Kidou – Prayer~Path of Tears) (5:43)

“Inori” is a sweet song, and musically unimpeachable. It works well after “Happy Song”, even though it can’t match that track’s musical complexity. It can boast some notable hooks – the twinkles at 0:45, the three “sayonara”s at 1:13, and the countermelody at 3:30. So, it’s not without beautiful musical touches.

As a concluding song, it works very well. It could almost be the closing song to a Christmas movie, or something like that.

The verdict is a bit complicated. There were no musical missteps – all the music, with the possible exception of the transition at 3:24 in “Kako to Mirai to Koushin Suru Otoko”, was perfectly polished and nothing was jarring to the listener. I can easily put on the album while I’m working, and it is fine accompaniment to the daily grind.

The trouble comes when you want to enjoy it by listening to it directly (and often). It’s too gentle and cautious. For much of the album, it reminds me more of a pillow than that chai latte I was looking for. In descending order starting with the best, the songs that most impressed me were “Happy Song”, “Kako to Mirai to Koushin Suru Otoko”, “Inori ~Namida no Kidou”, “Kazoe Uta”, “Joutoku”, and “End of the day”. The rest? Little more than musical fluff – songs that I’m already bored with (keeping in mind that I’m not taking the lyrics into consideration). “Marshmallow day” was borderline because it at least stood out, but I really don’t like the style, and it didn’t do justice to Sakurai-san’s voice.

But my sole requirement for an album is that I can work while it’s on, and in that respect this is a good album. It’s not fair to expect every song to be a potential single. However, I really think they could have done better than this. There wasn’t enough energy built into this album, and what there was ended up at the back-end.

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