A call to rock on 8 years too late

Maybe 8 years is nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I feel so old regardless. Why 8 years?

Utada Hikaru covering Living on My Own (1993 remix)

Whoo! That’s why.

Contrary to unpopular belief, my Hikki-tardation has limits, and one of those lines in the sand was Bohemian Summer 2000. It was something that I actually kind of avoided, and the ridiculous looking cover art had something to do with it. But I also heard way, way back that it bordered on sub-par, while her Unplugged performance just one year later was held up as one of her best recordings at the time, studio or otherwise. I’m listening to the audio stream right now, and it still is up there.

I’d better stop that. So firing up the performance at hand, maybe I’m just watching through Hikki goggles then, but it’s not nearly as bad as I was expecting. Oh sure, balance problems at the mixer board lead to instances where the band overpowers her voice; little things like inconsistent pitch control on the edge of her range and the tendency to just belt things out lead to an overall concert that isn’t as polished as her later ones.

And then there’s the occasion where she totally faked her high note in Wait and See, delegating it to pre-recorded vocals.

Yet it’s also the most entertaining. I don’t like having to choose between performance or perfection, but when presented with a barrel of fun, is it possible to say no?

Tony Royster Jr. in seifuku, smiling into the camera

You don’t see any of her other concert DVD’s featuring aerial footage of a baseball stadium. There’s just something about the scale of the event that makes it worth noting. Her backing instrumental section is probably second only to her Unplugged performance, but only because that had a string section. This was also the only time she had dancers, which generally just drove home the widely accepted fact that Hikki can’t dance.

Sound balance dissatisfaction is mitigated a bit by the fact that there’s some great drum work going on by John Blackwell and a 15 year old Tony Royster Jr. Many of the songs are percussion weighted and for good reason. Blackwell would later give the Unplugged performance its strong drive.

Highlights include the guest appearance of the arrangers of Wait and See towards the end, the drum duel between Blackwell and Royster, the best rendition of Amai Wana ~Paint it Black as well as pretty good performances of Take on Me, I Love You, Playback part2, and Living on My Own

But none of the last four are her songs. In total she had 4.625 covers, if you count the John Luongo remix of First Love as a half, and her Shiina Ringo impression as an eighth.

Hilarious image of her jumping down as if holding a broken pogo stick aside, these covers are the reason for me lamenting about the good ol’ days that I never experienced. She exudes more attitude covering Freddie Mercury and Yamaguchi Momoe than she does in most of her own songs. The devil inside could be spotted four years prior.

The irony is that since 2000 her performances have retreated from the “I’m going to sing/do whatever the heck I want” attitude even as her songs incorporate more of it. You get the more tightly controlled performances as a result, but an equally controlled image comes with it. Bohemian Summer Hikki would step out swinging; by 2001 she was already beginning to pull her punches.

Utada Hikaru at Music Lovers, 2008

No more covers, no more crazy cosplaying band. In Hikaru no 5 she looked very much the diva; Utada United two of her elaborate costumes bordered on stuffy and immobile. About the only element that pressed forward unchanged was Kawano Kei, and his antics along with his presence were noticeably absent in 2006.

I think Hikki is one those artists that has always had their trypants on, it’s just that they’re a lot more apparent these days. Even when she’s trying to act casual, it comes across as forced more often than not. She’s fairly transparent, and there’s little reason to doubt that she’s holding back, for reasons that only she knows.

Paradoxically, she is better because of it. The same self-consciousness that makes her awkward on stage puts polish in the studio and fresh sounds on the staff paper. Can’t stage and studio peacefully co-exist? I suppose not: it was a struggle for Prisoner of Love — a product of a distant era (or DISTANCE era) — to be included into HEART STATION. My guess is that we will never see something quite like Bohemian Summer again.

But I hold out hope that one day she’ll devote a block of time to reclaiming a less obfuscated image of herself, forgoing the technological wizardry that propels her along today.

Kawano Kei approves, and so must I

Kawano Kei would approve. That ought to be enough for anybody.