Album Review: BENI – “COVERS 2”

This is BENI’s second English-language cover album under Universal Music Japan. It was released November 7, 2012.

Lovely cover – a bit more lush and sumptuous in terms of color than COVERS‘ album artwork. I also appreciate how BENI is rocking the Rachel hairstyle nearly 20 years after it was popularized by Jennifer Aniston.

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The album kicks off with Lovers Again, a cover of EXILE’s 2007 hit, and right away we can tell that BENI means business. A bumping R&B track with melancholy lyrics and a plaintive vocal performance, this song had me captivated right out the gate and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better way to open the album. BENI’s voice is perfectly controlled throughout, with the perfect hint of emotion to fit the mood of this desperate love song. Though it’s almost five minutes long, this song doesn’t feel overly lengthy or boring at all. Great opening track.

With 白い恋人達 (Shiroi koibito-tachi; White Lovers), BENI lets the tempo slide ever so slightly. Originally performed by Kuwata Keisuke of Southern All-Stars fame, BENI transforms this song into a midtempo R&B affair complete with finger-snapping beat and wintry synth. BENI’s husky vocal floats above the instrumental like the snow she’s singing about, making a beautiful image. Not the most exciting song on the album, but still an undeniably pleasant listen.

歌うたいのバラッド (Utautai no baraddo; Want to Sing a Ballad), originally by Saito Kazuyoshi, is the longest and most ambitious song on the album, clocking in at just under six minutes long. Though BENI’s vocal performance is unquestionably impressive, the most interesting aspect of the song, in my opinion, is the way it builds up from verse to verse. Beginning with just BENI and some piano and strings, the song blossoms into a full-fledged romantic ballad, and BENI’s vocal performance reflects this gradual change. I think we can all agree that BENI has a thing for ballads and this song will fit in her repertoire effortlessly.

Although I’ve never been a huge fan of CHEMISTRY, not because I don’t like their music but only because I never got around to listening to them, BENI’s cover of PIECES OF A DREAM honestly makes me want to get into them. An uptempo affair with dancey beats and feathery synths, this song has an immediate catchiness about it, due in no small part to BENI’s confident vocal. The English translation is also one of the better ones I’ve heard, since it contains almost none of the awkward wordiness that plagued her first cover album. Definitely one of my favorites so far.

BENI already covered Ken Hirai once before on her previous cover album (瞳を閉じて), but here she’s decided to tackle one of his biggest hits, 楽園 (Rakuen; Paradise). BENI’s version, with its deep bass beats, has a sensuality to it that separates it from the original and brings it up to date. Also interesting is the instrumental break, which is literally just a beat. It’s kind of cool to hear the instrumental be brought down to the bare bones and then back to its original complexity. Compared to other covers of this song I’ve heard by female artists, particularly Nami Tamaki’s 2009 cover (which was really and truly not good at all), I must hand it to BENI for doing this classic justice.

BENI’s cover of Spitz’ breakthrough hit Robinson was one of my absolute favorites on COVERS, so it should come as no surprise that her second Spitz cover, チェリー (Cherry) would have a similar effect. I absolutely love the upbeat, effervescent catchiness of this song, and BENI delivers a vocal so confident and competent that I might’ve though this was an original song had I not known better. The hook in the chorus is also tremendously catchy and stays in my head forever. Definitely a jam!

The thing about クリスマス・イブ (Christmas Eve) is that even though it incorporates some rock-esque elements, it’s still R&B, and that intersection of styles makes it really interesting to me. The song also has a fun juxtaposition of bubbly, cheerful instrumental with somewhat melancholy lyrics, which is kind of typical BENI in a way. There are so many things I like about this song, like the catchy “Silent night, holy night” parts of the verse, and BENI’s awesome falsetto, but I’m just going to sum it all up by saying that this song is great and will definitely be making an appearance on some of my Christmas playlists this year (and yes, I do make them).

Another foray into BENI’s signature R&B balladry, はじまりはいつも雨
(Hajimari wa itsumo ame; It Always Rains in the Beginning) is a lovely track featuring acoustic guitars and light synths. I have to admit I don’t find this song super exciting, but I still think it fits in nicely with the trajectory of the album and I wouldn’t dare skip it. It’s pleasant, and that’s really all that matters.

BENI’s rendition of I LOVE YOU, a ballad by the late Ozaki Yutaka, is a true show-stopper. This song has been covered in the past by a plethora of Japanese artists legendary in their own right, from Hikki to Kazumasa Oda, so BENI had some pretty big shoes to fill. I am pleased, however, to report that she did a fantastic job. This ballad is replete with all the bells and whistles of J-pop balladry, but never sounds overwrought or over the top. BENI also delivers one of her most nuanced vocal performances her, with just the right amount of vibrato to complement the lyrics and mood of the song. There’s also a bit of that gradual buildup thing we had in 歌うたいのバラッド, which makes it all the more palatable to the ear. A beautiful cover and certainly a standout track.

As well as BENI does with ballads, her upbeat songs are just as great, in my opinion. 小さな恋の歌 (Chiisana koi no uta; Little Love Song), a song originally by MONGOL800, is a really great example of a good English translation. Not only is BENI’s vocal effortless as usual, but the lyrics fit together so perfectly that you probably wouldn’t even be able to tell it was a cover if you didn’t know. Much appreciated, also, is how they managed to fit the title of the song into the lyrics, which was really cute.

And now it’s Sexy BENI Time. Original Love’s 接吻 (Seppun; Kiss) had already been covered by Mika Nakashima on her 2003 album Love, so it’s safe to say that some expectations had already been established for BENI. It all worked out, though, because BENI decided to take it in a funky R&B direction whereas Mika’s rendition was a bit on the jazzier side. A very sexual and sensual song, BENI turns it up a few notches on her seduction scale and makes this song a fun listen.

On the list of things I wasn’t expecting to hear on this album, a cover of a song originally by an a cappella group was definitely there. 永遠に (Towa ni; Eternally), of Gospellers fame, is a crunching electronic R&B affair, and features one of BENI’s bravest vocal performances on the album so far. Impressive not only for its musicality but also for the effort that must have gone into making an instrumental arrangement for this a cappella number, this is a really nice song and definitely different from the rest of the album due to its electronic influence. I’m glad they decided to take it in a slightly different direction because it serves the song well, and doesn’t inhibit BENI’s vocal performance in the least.

As the album winds down, we have SQUALL, a cover of a song by Fukuyama Masaharu, a legendary artist in J-pop. This truly touching ballad brings the album to a graceful close, with lyrics of love and nostalgia. In a way, this song kind of sums up the whole album, but in a quieter, more understated way, which is really nice. BENI’s vocal is at its most beautiful here, in my opinion, with feather-light falsetto that doesn’t lose its strength or evocativeness. Definitely a perfect way to cap off the experience.

Summary: I have to admit that I was a bit worried that COVERS 2 wouldn’t live up to the expectations set by its predecessor, which was released not even a year ago. Considering that it was the biggest commercial and financial success of BENI’s career, I knew she had some big shoes to fill. My concerns, I’m happy to report, were unfounded. Assembling a perfect combination of covers, all translated masterfully and delivered with power and finesse by the up-and-coming star herself, with COVERS 2, BENI has created the closest thing to a masterpiece she has ever made, and possibly ever will. BENI has many things working for her but one of them is definitely consistent quality – she doesn’t disappoint. From beginning to end, this album is damn near perfect and I sincerely hope you all take the time to give it a listen. You won’t be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.

Album Grade: A+
Recommended Tracks:
Lovers Again | PIECES OF A DREAM | 歌うたいのバラッド 楽園 チェリー | I LOVE YOU | 小さな恋の歌 | basically the whole thing who am I kidding

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