Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Yoko Kanno Reviews: 23 Ji no Ongaku

Yoko Kanno and Maaya Sakamoto have worked together on numerous occasions. Kanno has produced songs on Sakamoto's albums. Sakamoto has contributed vocals on several of Kanno's anime soundtracks including those for Arjuna, Wolf's Rain, and Escaflowne. These frequent collaborators work together again on 23 Ji no Ongaku (a.k.a. Music For The 23rd Hour), the soundtrack to the Japanese live-action drama series NHK Mayonaka wa Betsu no Kao (a.k.a. NHK The Other Side Of Midnight). It's another strong entry in Yoko Kanno's discography and is more mainstream-sounding than much of her other stuff.

Maaya Sakamoto appears on six of 23 Ji no Ongaku's 14 tracks. Similar to Cowboy Bebop, most of the vocal songs on 23 Ji no Ongaku are sung in English. Her vocals are great, although she sometimes sounds a little awkward singing the lyrics. “Here” is a soft, acoustic guitar-driven ballad that suffers a little bit from that awkwardness. However, there are little traces of that awkwardness on the midtempo pop song “Danielle.” When Maaya gets to the chorus of the song, she sounds very comfortable with her vocals. Her refrain of “Who can I turn to/When love's not enough?” is immensely appealing. This song is one of the album's highlights.

Sakamoto also stands out on “Trust Me,” a song with a smooth, smoky mood to it. Kanno's production is in top form on this song with its modern, smooth jazz sound and the echoey feel to Sakamoto's vocals. This is a song that's so good that it feels a lot shorter than its running time. Sakamoto sings in a language other than English (likely Portuguese) on the excellent “Fate.” The combination of strings and acoustic guitar lend the song a great sense of urgency. “Toto” is another nice piece of midtempo pop that sounds great.

While Maaya's vocal songs are great, the rest of the album is no slouch either. “Two Things,” the album's opening song, is a nice, jazzy number that a little reminiscent of latin jazz. “Pepper Stretch” is a light jazz number augmented with electronic elements and nice (but deliberately unintelligible) vocals by Kanno's alter ego Gabriela Robin. This song is pretty catchy (I had it in my head for days) and one of my favorites on the album. There are two songs that show off Kanno's more unusual musical side. “Talcum” is essentially some chants over electronic beats. “Penguin Repairman” can be best described as a combination of The Addams Family's Cousin It combined with electronica...and I don't mean that as an insult. “Unconditional Spectre” is reminiscent of Kanno's stuff for Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex in the way that beats and strings are combined. The album's final two songs, “Death By Fruit Knife” and “Noelle's Piano” are both showcases for Kanno's piano skills.

After listening to so many albums by Yoko Kanno, I'm amazed that her music continues to be pretty good. Whether I listen to something well-loved (such as Cowboy Bebop) or not as well-known (NHK China Special), the end result is usually the same...a solid album. If I had to rank 23 Ji no Ongaku among the rest of her stuff, I would put it towards the top. It's not exactly the most groundbreaking of Yoko Kanno's work. It's not an album that will blow your mind and bring you sounds you've never heard before. However, it is a very good album that really holds up on repeated listens and doesn't wear out its welcome. There is nary a song to skip over and the vocals by Maaya Sakamoto are well-done. If you can find a copy online, it's well worth getting.

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