Album Review: Namie Amuro – “PAST < FUTURE"

Tracklist:
1. FAST CAR
2. COPY THAT
3. LOVE GAME
4. Bad Habit
5. Steal my Night
6. FIRST TIMER feat. DOBERMAN INC.
7. WILD
8. Dr.
9. Shut Up
10. MY LOVE
11. The Meaning of Us
12. Defend Love

This is Namie Amuro’s ninth studio album, and it was released on December 16, 2009. The album reached #1 on the Oricon Daily Album Chart and has sold 112,213 copies so far. The songs MY LOVE and COPY THAT, though not singles, are being used in commercials for Vidal Sassoon hair products.

Ehhh, still not a big fan of these covers – I like the concept, but feel that they were poorly executed. However, Namie looks gorgeous so I’m willing to forgive any other grievances I have about them.

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FAST CAR was a totally great way to start the album. There’s a clear retro influence in the music, resulting in a really nice old jazz feel with a contemporary twist. A lot of artists would probably let the music do the work for them, but Namie takes it a step further by adding a scatting sections. She really commits to the style of the song, which makes it a really exciting opening track.

We’re only two tracks into the album and we can already tell that the influences for each track are going to be really diverse. COPY THAT draws its stylistic flair from 60’s-era slick rock tracks like those from spy films. But again, the music is brought into the 21st century by the addition of synths and an R&B beat. It’s a nice song mostly for these reasons, although two things – the flatness of Namie’s vocals and the repetitiveness of the chorus and hook – bring it down from a perfect score.

Just for those of you who were wondering, LOVE GAME is not a Lady Gaga cover. But even so it’s a really good song in its own right, and it definitely follows in the same style. Here we have a heavily-produced electronic song that introduces the “futuristic” aspect hinted at by the album’s title. Namie gives a clean, controlled vocal performance that really enhances the mechanical electronic atmosphere. Long story short, great song right here.

Bad Habit brings some of the hard-hitting dance music we’ve come to expect from Namie, and it doesn’t disappoint. The strengths of this song lie in its catchy beat and Namie’s strong vocals. These are good things. On the other hand, I still can’t decide whether I find Namie’s Engrish to be charming or distracting. Of course I know it could be and has been worse, but it’s still there. If you’re a seasoned Namie fan and you’re used to it, though, you’ll probably only find things to like in this song.

In Steal my Night, we get to hear even more of those diverse influences – this time, it’s Arabian combined with electronic. It’s a fascinating concept on paper, but sadly it doesn’t translate quite as well into song format. The most interesting section in my opinion would definitely be the bridge, but things just seem to go downhill at the chorus. It’s where the vocals and the music stop meshing – there are so many things going on, it just sounds more chaotic than harmonious. It’s worth a try, but I didn’t enjoy this song very much.

At this stage in the album we’re really starting to hear the futuristic/electronic style pick up. FIRST TIMER feat. DOBERMAN INC takes the theme a bit further with a more robotic sound. There’s a ton of stuff going on in this song as far as the actual music goes, as well as a great amount of finesse over the vocals. As one of the longest songs on the album, it gradually loses its initial excitement in sections that don’t belong to DOBERMAN INC., who actually brought something really cool into the song. Not my favorite track, but not really bad either.

I loved WILD back when I first reviewed it in March, and I still love it just as much now. It’s fast, edgy, and irresistible as far as dance songs of this caliber go. The thing that I really like about this song is the dramatic moves from the upbeat sections and the dropoff to the slower ones – they almost seem to border on trance music at times. There are some peculiar English sections, but nothing too distracting. Still one of my favorite songs off this album.

Apparently someone in a high place really believes that WILD and Dr. are meant to be heard together. Well, I can’t really complain. Dr. is truly the most epic song on this album, and for good reason. The lyrics are about the creative and destructive power of time (hence “Dr. Chronos; Chronos = time) and its ability to determine the fate of love. In short, it’s a gorgeous song. The PV is also really worth watching if you’re interested.

What do I have to say about Shut Up? Well, I really like it. It fuses the electronica we’ve been hearing along with rock and some kind of industrial-sounding elements. In spite of this, Namie’s lovely voice manages to soften the music a bit, making it sound even pretty. I especially liked how the music moved into straight R&B during the bridge before going back to what the rest of the song sounds like. Definitely a nice track.

Whoa, did BENI suddenly decide to hijack this album? That’s really what I thought when I heard MY LOVE, a fairly mainstream-sounding R&B track that’s pretty much what every singer out there is trying to break into. I mean, don’t get my wrong – MY LOVE is a really nice song by any standards. However, in the context of this particular album, which sounds anything but your average mainstream, it just seems out of place. Hence why I said it sounds like a song BENI would sing with gusto.

As the only true ballad on PAST < FUTURE, The Meaning of Us is truly lovely. It’s soft, delicate, and really only borders on generic during the chorus. Namie’s voice is especially nice in this song. She’s a seasoned ballad singer and it shows. Perfect winter ballad for 2009? Quite possibly.

And finally, we have Defend Love, an atmospheric electronic song that basically sums up the overlying sounds and themes of the album: love, and electronica. The intense futuristic atmosphere and dramatic, well, everything make it a close runner-up for most epic song on the album (which I earlier identified as being Dr.). This is just one of those songs that instantly sticks upon first listen, and I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to call it one of the best on the album.

Summary: Namie Amuro has come to reclaim her throne as the Queen of J-Pop, and if PAST < FUTURE is any kind of indication I’d say she’s succeeded and then some. Electronica has been a popular theme in J-Pop in the past year, and many have tried (Perfume’s ⊿) and occasionally failed (Ayumi Hamasaki’s NEXT LEVEL) to do it correctly. Where most have blundered, Namie has triumphed. Not all tracks were winners – Steal my Night and FIRST TIMER in particular – and some of the retro-inspired influences seem to contradict the album’s statement-heavy title, but the experimentation with aspects of different music eras is precisely what makes PAST < FUTURE so progressive. I am confident in saying that this album is one of, if not the best J-Pop album of 2009.

Album Grade: A+

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Single Review: Namie Amuro – “WILD/Dr.”

covera Namie Amuro’s thirty-fourth single, WILD/Dr., was released on March 18, 2009. Commercial tie-ins for this single include WILD being featured in a commercial for Coca Cola Zero, and Dr. being used in a commercial for Vidal Sassoon. The single reached #1 on the Oricon Singles Chart.

 I’ve got a lot to say about WILD, so I’ll start by saying that it is positively FIERCE. Right off the bat, the prominent electronic elements of this song make themselves known, telling the listener that they’re in for a heck of a ride. The beat, which is one of the most danceable I’ve heard in a while, is downright awesome. Namie’s fast-paced vocal performance is excellently suited for this song. Definitely one of my favorite parts is when she says Get wild, get wild, get, get, get wild, which just fits in perfectly with the sexiness of the song. 

Dr. has got a lot going on, and by a lot I mean A LOT. First, the song starts out with some electronic blips and beeps, and Namie’s smooth voice coming in with the first verse. Everything sounds good, even the charming Engrish way Namie says Doctor. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, comes a short verse that sounds nearly militaristic, with snare drums and vocals that could be described as operatic. It’s a pretty jarring contrast from the slowness of the verse and chorus, but on the whole it all melds together nicely. So glad this is another A-side and not just a B-side.

The final two tracks on this single are WILD (Instrumental) and Dr. (Instrumental).

Summary: Although I’m not normally the biggest fan of Namie Amuro, I simply had to review this single because it’s that good. Both A-sides are amazing, hip, FIERCE songs that really reflect what’s popular in music right now. Even though there are only two real songs on this single, there’s still more than enough to get an enjoyable listen out of it.

Single Grade: A