American pop fans wondering where to find the next major act should look across the Pacific to Asian pop diva Utada Hikaru. Japan’s best-selling singer-songwriter is known simply as Utada on Exodus, her first American release.
Unlike previous albums, Exodus is straight English. Though she sings no Japanese, she does make several references to her heritage in the music. Her growing American success is notable, after all — there are virtually no popular Asian artists on U.S. charts.
While skeptics might be quick to dismiss Utada’s success in America as a record company looking for this week’s novelty, it doesn’t take more than hearing a spin of Exodus to grasp Utada’s genuine talent.
Her singing is full of subtle changes in dynamics and timbre. She can go low without sounding breathy, and her high notes crescendo brilliantly; to put it simply, Utada sings like a professional.
Emphasis in the instrumentation largely rests on bass grooves and percussion. Each song has solid rhythm work, and the synths and pianos often have tinges of Japanese pentatonic scales. While not extraordinary, the backing tracks do succeed in supporting Utada’s vocal work.
Unfortunately, despite the strength and versatility of her voice, Utada’s lyrics can be pretty forgettable, and some lines are just groaners. “You’re easy breezy/And I’m Japanesey,” Utada croons in “Easy Breezy,” quite possibly the most cringe-inducing chorus since “Achy Breaky Heart.” Still, there’s more lyrical substance on Exodus than the average pop album, as well as musical texture.
The tracks on Exodus feature plenty of variety, not only between separate songs, but within each composition as well. “Wonder ‘Bout” is heavily influenced by rap, with rapid vocals punctuated by a squeaky synth riff and solid backbeat rhythm.
The sparse ballad “About Me” is peppered with tense interludes that enhance the song’s sweetness and keep it from getting too gloopy. “Kremlin Dusk” is initially rich and lyrical, but fuzzy guitars and heavy drums enter about halfway through, along with whooping sirens and pizzicato strings, giving it a profound sense of propulsion and urgency under Utada’s layered vocals.
These relatively complex elements, like brief movements in three-minute pop symphonies, reflect the singer’s upbringing in a very musical family.
Utada is a native of the United States, born 1983 in New York. Her father was a music producer, who worked primarily in America, while her mother was a famous Japanese singer. Utada’s musically inclined family gave her a wealth of opportunities to explore many aspects of the industry, from playing piano to observing the inner workings of the recording studio.
She began writing lyrics at ten, and in two years would record an album under the name Cubic U. While unsuccessful, Utada garnered the experience she would need to make her next disc the stuff of legends.
Heavily influenced by rhythm and blues, Utada worked elements of the genre, along with Western pop and traditional Japanese music, into “First Love,” her debut on the Toshiba-EMI record label.
In a country so deeply rooted in tradition, the new sounds were emphatically received, as her fans scooped up over ten million copies of the album. After releasing two more records and a handful of singles under Toshiba-EMI, she signed on Island Records to produce Exodus.
Unfortunately, much of the music on pop radio stations is growing stagnant and derivative; if Utada Hikaru can meet even modest success in the United States, she will be a refreshing sound on television and radio.