music, reviews

Album review: Maki Nomiya – Miss Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards

maki The latest from the former Pizzicato Five singer is a live album – recorded during her Billboard Live Tokyo performance from November 3 of last year (an event which seems to have become a yearly tradition – she did two encore shows this year as well). Miss Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards finds her revisiting familiar territory with covers of songs from Cornelius, Original Love (whose vocalist, Takao Tajima, she had replaced when she joined Pizzicato Five), her own former band, and some oddities somewhat outside of the direct sphere of Shibuya-kei.

Maki Nomiya is a woman I respect greatly – among her other accomplishments, she managed to pull off a massive career resurgence when she joined Pizzicato Five at age 30, in an industry obsessed with youth to the degree where some “junior idols” get their start before they hit the double digits. Her bright, expressive voice made her one of Shibuya-kei’s most beloved singers, and although she has been imitated often (everything Yukari Fresh knows about singing, she learned from Nomiya), she has yet to really be equaled. So, naturally, I will readily admit that I’ll definitely be going easier on this album than perhaps I should be; but regardless, I need to note that she was 53 when this album was recorded. She still sounds good, but I couldn’t possibly pretend like this album wouldn’t have sounded better by an incredible margin if it had been recorded 2 decades ago.

Vocal issues aside, the album is a wonderful concept – the setlist is packed with Shibuya-kei favourites like Pizzicato Five’s “Tokyo wa Yoru no Shichiji” (and a P5 medley late that ends the show), and the lack of synthesizers or samplers results in a decidedly old-school experience; this is most certainly not an album intended for younger audiences. Everything is smooth, jazzy and light – while most Shibuya-kei records are not necessarily adult contemporary, a good number of them are, this one included. The only drawback to the instrumentation (other than the repulsion that some feel whenever confronted by the unbearable lightness of adult contemporary) is that it occasionally renders songs a bit less distinct than they were originally, but such is an unavoidable consequence of a single band covering a multitude of material. Just as the Beatles Live at the BBC recordings provide an invaluable portrait of the Beatles’ favourite songs and musical influences, Shibuya-kei Standards gives the listener a feel for what Shibuya-kei sounds like, even performing one song (“Our Day Will Come”, previously made famous by Ruby & the Romantics in 1963 and posthumously by Amy Winehouse in 2011) from the English-language musical canon, lending that international air to the proceedings that defined Shibuya-kei from the beginning.

Nomiya’s aged voice may not have been absolutely ideal, but even as such Shibuya-kei Standards would be an ideal place to begin a Shibuya-kei collection; it works even better as a companion piece to Kahimi Karie’s 1995 classic I am a kitten: Kahimi Karie sings Momus in Paris, which is incredibly similar in sound and instrumentation even though it’s not a live album in the proper sense. From Shibuya-kei Standards one can easily branch out into further exploring the artists represented, and the recording is most definitely audiophile-friendly – the warm tones of the music are splendidly clear, never overpowering Nomiya’s vocals – a rare quality in a live album; I only wish more concert recordings (and, let’s face it, I am a kitten) sounded as lovely as this one.

While she’s certainly not getting any younger, Maki Nomiya is still a singer to be treasured, and this live recording is an excellent document of this fact. She’s bright and animated throughout, and non Japanese-speaking listeners will be happy to know that all of the between-song banter is entirely skippable; songs and monologues are neatly separated into different tracks, so you can easily choose whether you want to hear the full concert or just the songs. Once again, would be nice if this was a standard feature on all live albums, but in a format that’s often an excuse to put in the least amount of effort possible while still coming out with an album a label can sell for full price, such graces are far from a given. Miss Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards comes highly recommended, especially if you’re just getting started in building up a Shibuya-kei discography – it’s still nice to hear Maki’s versions if you know all the songs already, but as a primer it only gets that much better.

Amazon Japan, HMV, CDJapan, YesAsia.

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