music, reviews

Album review: Asako Toki – STANDARDS: In a Sentimental Mood

After her band’s dissolution in 2003, former Cymbals frontwoman Asako Toki reinvented herself as a jazz singer; this year’s STANDARDS: In a Sentimental Mood is a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of STANDARDS, her debut as a solo artist. Like that 2004 album and its 2005 follow-up STANDARDS on the SofaIn a Sentimental Mood finds the singer performing light jazz versions of English-language pop standards – much as Maki Nomiya’s live album from earlier this month tackled Shibuya-kei selections with a jazzy touch.

November 2014’s most pressing question for the discerning Shibuya-kei enthusiast would seemingly be “which smooth-jazz standards album from a veteran Shibuya-kei singer to get?”; although Maki Nomiya’s earlier release is more varied musically (a greater variety of instruments were on hand during her performance), Asako Toki’s voice is a rare treasure – plus the difference in format means that her album lacks the spoken portions between songs that Maki Nomiya Sings had.

It would be doing both artists a disservice, however, to merely pit the two albums against each other. Asako Toki and Maki Nomiya are two unique performers with different approaches to similar material, and although both make music to leisurely sip coffee to (from actual coffee cups, none of that disposable nonsense), even a casual listener would be able to tell the difference between the two vocalists. Asako Toki’s voice is rich and deep, Occidental influences strongly overpowering any hint of Japanese stylistic origins. Although Shibuya-kei’s sound is always international, Toki downplays her Japanese identity far more than her peers, singing exclusively in English on this and many of her other releases. Her imperfect pronunciation (an accent is a hard thing to lose) is all that marks In a Sentimental Mood as Japanese, but in the occasional awkwardness of the way she says certain phrases you find the beauty of Shibuya-kei; even when trying to emulate a foreign style without a trace of Japanese identity left over, those telltale signs slip through the cracks and you find something distinctly Japanese in the broadly trans-national.

As In a Sentimental Mood is Toki’s third time around at the “standards album” format, the song selection unfortunately isn’t quite as inspired as previous releases, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t still have its shining moments. “Christmas in the City”, for one, is performed as a duet with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi “Harry” Hosono, and the presence of a veritable legend of the Japanese music scene elevates what could have so easily been the album’s worst moment (because, frankly, Christmas music is usually horrid) to one of its highlights. Similarly, the oddball presence of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” could have come off as unnecessary and gimmicky, but her subdued performance lends the lyrics’ descriptions of existential dissatisfaction a sense of heartbreaking pathos; a stark contrast to Anthony Kiedis’s subtlety-free vocal delivery on the original. As performed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Californication” was a watered-down retread of themes the band had regurgitated many times over the years, made more disconcerting by the condescension inherent in Kiedis condemning those chasing the exact same kind of Hollywood dream that made him both rich and famous. Toki’s version, by contrast, is made by one of those outsiders – instead of chiding those who might want what she has, she’s among the dreamers, longing for “Californication” even when she knows it’s a lie.

While the other songs featured lack the distinction of those two standout tracks, the album on the whole is incredibly pleasant to listen to; music like this is meant primarily as background music and it does its job admirably. None of the songs reach the heights of STANDARDS’ essential cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” but even if In a Sentimental Mood isn’t exactly “great” it’s most definitely very good. Its highs may not quite be the ecstatic peaks one might hope for when paying full price for a new album, but its lows are hardly lows at all. Sometimes, that’s all you really need. As for whether I would recommend it over Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards, absolutely not, but I’m sure that you knew that already; it’s not as if this blog isn’t about Shibuya-kei or anything.

Amazon Japan, HMV, CDJapan, YesAsia.

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