Tuned cardiac resonators

Heart Station PV

You may want to skip the preamble, which is mostly anecdotal.

The review preamble

So this is a Heart Station review, and a late one at that. It was something that I’d get around to eventually, but this is a pretty tardy kind of eventually for which I have no good reason.

The kicker was when I purchased the CD, which is a bit of a story in itself. Strangely, Heart Station was cheaper to get at the mall than online, and that’s before any shipping and handling costs. Despite the price difference, it’s going to take more than an Utada Hikaru CD to drag me out to the mall, and the extra push didn’t appear until recently.

I almost didn’t find it. In the past, Utada Hikaru stuff has appeared in the R&B/Rap section, the World Music section, and I think I heard somewhere that she was once found in the Electronic section, which is a bit of a stretch but still plausible. At this store, she was in none other than Pop, but Exodus was nowhere to be found. Kind of neat seeing two Japanese-language albums (Ultra Blue and Heart Station) within spitting distance of…U2…

Except not.

Because despite marketing herself by her last name, she was for all intents and purposes one Hikaru Utada, and consequently put in sub-section H. Maybe that’s how we’re supposed to roll in the Western nations? Or just westernized inventory systems. Even the one staff member I asked was confounded since she didn’t show up in the system under U.

On the way out of the parking lot I spotted a pick-up truck. Or a station wagon. The vehicle doesn’t matter, but the license plate: BAKA-109. That capped a pretty good day.

Before getting to the review proper, I should note that it’s perhaps not a proper review. Looking back, Heart Station related events began late 2006, even if the album didn’t have a name at that point. Half of the album’s titles (excluding the interlude and including the bonus track) are from previous singles, and my opinions on those have been mostly unchanged, so some tracks are probably going to be light on opinions.

The review proper

Fans like to segment Hikki’s career based on her albums, and somewhere along the line that inevitably means her style and sound. It’s worked pretty well: from First Love right on up to Ultra Blue, any given track just “feels” right for its particular era, whether it’s because of production, performance, or varying contributions of both. Sometimes even just a dominant style is all it takes to bin a song.

Things are just a bit trickier with Heart Station. After the (jarring) reset button that was Exodus, things have settled some, and the album represents a much more incremental change, but it’s not like she’s stopped running off and doing different things. It’s more like she continues to run off and try new things, but at a slower pace.

Fight the Blues

Case in point, Fight the Blues could very well have wound up on UB as Keep Tryin’, v2.0. It opens instrumentals first followed by chorus, there is an exotic sounding bridge with the same kind of hollowed out harmony, an extended version of the chorus appears later on, and everything is wrapped up by an outro. The only argument to be made against Fight the Blues‘ inclusion in Ultra Blue, other than the title being a bit of a send-up, is that Keep Tryin’ is a lot richer in its ambiance.

Heart Station

I’ve said my piece on Heart Station. Lots of movement, especially in the chorus, but subdued all the same. The only thing I want to add is that Heart Station is night music. So is This is Love. Heart Station is track two on HS, This is Love is track two on UB. Probably just coincidence, but Fight the Blues and Keep Tryin’ are also the first tracks on their respective albums.

Beautiful World

Utada Hikaru at HEY!x3, 3 Sep 2007

I’ve also said my piece on Beautiful World, but it’s archived elsewhere. It’s a somewhat austere vision, but it’s shaping up to be a theme in this CD.

Flavor of Life (the ballad and the bonus)

Flavor of Life, in both the ballad and origination versions, is pretty pedestrian. The original is an up-tempo ballad-ish song with an electronic slant. As a full-blown ballad with acoustic backing, it lacks the impact found in similar works from her. Maybe plain was the intent, a ballad not devoted to extraordinary feelings, but ordinary life. And as it plods along, so does the rest of the world.

Stay Gold

It’s a bit odd to put two slow songs one back to back, but that’s where Stay Gold ends up. The more it’s listened to, the harder it is to engage with it. The piano line that first appears is something that can be instantly latched on to, but in a repetitive, somewhat hypnotic fashion that eventually fades into the mechanical rhythm elements. A faint layer of fuzz is placed upon the whole thing, like the distant pattering of rain. The music really hollows out any comfort in the words being sung.

Kiss & Cry

Kiss & Cry has a firmer grounding to the past, in terms of the material used (Hotel Lobby) and the bold, in your face singing and instrumentals reminiscent of her R&B work. It’s definitely one of the easier tracks that I can latch on to, if only for its slightly jaded colouring. Suck it up, take a chance, and when it’s all over, kiss and cry.

I should be a bit more specific than describing the opening as “brass fanfare,” which it is, but it also could very well be the ensuing free improv characteristic of a big band jazz ensemble closing off a number. There should be a term for this, but I can’t remember it.

There are too many of these little ironies in this album to write all of them off as coincidences.

Gentle Beast Interlude and Celebrate

Sampling material from within the same album, as is done in Gentle Beat Interlude, does not go unnoticed. Given that it transitions smoothly into Celebrate, I think of it as one track. Although Celebrate (you sexy lady) can stand on its own, I wonder if there is anything to take away from the use of Heart Station in the interlude and the fact that it was initially titled Desperation.

It’s not the first time that Hikki has taken a run at latin, and Celebrate falls somewhere in between the stately and lamenting Letters and the more raucous affair that is One Night Magic. I’ve seen more comparisons made with the latter, but there is some leeway that spans the range of my perceptions.

As a result of having listened to something slower a bit before, the contrast makes Celebrate that much more up-tempo. On the other hand, if a faster track preceded it, then the opening bass line feels very heavy for a latin number. I don’t mean that it drags, but there certainly isn’t a party atmosphere. Rather, the party is being commented on from afar, in the same coy tone that defines Heart Station.

Prisoner of Love

Utada Hikaru at SMAPxSMAP, 14 Apr 2008

Just because we may have heard bits and pieces of this track before doesn’t make it less solid. The old harmonies aren’t so ancient that they’ve lost their magic, the fact that the chorus sounds a lot like the verse in Wonder ‘Bout doesn’t make it any less snappy, and so on.

The thing is, it’s a little too grim sounding to belong on Distance, and it’s not so out there as to belong on Exodus, even if the lyrics were originally written in English. If anything, I’m reminded of contemporary strings-backed American R&B tracks, except with more prominent strings in that respect.

You’ll get no complaint about a prominent strings part from me. After all, Utada Unplugged isn’t Utada Unplugged without a strong string section.

Prisoner of Love is up there with Kiss & Cry as one of the most tangible tracks on this CD, which is in stark contrast to the next one.

Teiku 5

Fight the Blues might have appeared on UB, but Teiku 5 nearly did, and I can’t help but think it’s the opposite of Making Love, like Heart Station is to This is Love. It seems a bit of a stretch to link the two, and I’m having trouble articulating why, so for now it remains one of those “sounds about right” statements.

I’ve heard opinions that this is the Kairo of the album, it being the most out there of anything present, but I find that Teiku 5 is a lot better because the former doesn’t really register with me, while the latter is in a toss-up for best track on Heart Station.

The only other thing I have to add is that the explosion of sound after the dim opening makes this a colourful trip into the void.

Boku wa Kuma

The decision to put a song for new life after a song about death (or transcendence if you’re optimistic) is a good thematic one. The song itself, not so much. You might sing it to your kids, or your kids might sing it, so a job well done I suppose. I didn’t watch day-time children’s shows nor had lullabies sung to me, so maybe I’m missing an expected amount of nostalgia. I do, however, like to note when simple is deceptive, but that’s (simply) not the case here.

Niji-iro bus

The last in a short run of non-English titled tracks, and where Hikki shows her true colours. Not the colours of the rainbow, but a certain shade of green as she outdoes Kiss & Cry in her blunt commentary on life. And to think that the music, with its syncopated piano and slippery analog loops, has such a cheerful disposition — at first.

In no time at all, the leaping vocal motif used to transition from the chorus back to the verse fades into an expanding landscape before returning with a much sparser arrangement. The little details that made the first phase so quirky return, but twisted into a minor key in a turn towards wistful lament, capped by the occasional zephyr. As she repeats her first line in this section, she is backed by a haunting multi-voice part, rivaling the swelling chorus from Hotel Lobby, that marks the height of this song, or indeed the entire album.

In Sigma

Putting Ultra Blue and Heart Station side by side leads to mixed results. There are tracks that could have been on UB, and one that was made for it but was eventually dropped. And then, from out of nowhere, you get run over by a rainbow-coloured bus.

Ultra Blue is a lot more earnest. It was overall richly layered, with vibrant lines and strong vocals reflecting passionate feelings. With the exception of maybe Prisoner of Love, you won’t find any of those at the same time in a Heart Station track.

This is really a somewhat pained album, in a “truth hurts” kind of sense and it seems only right that the tracks are generally thinner and subdued. Where Ultra Blue covered the excitement of the night, Heart Station is generally about the hangover the day after. That’s not a strictly negative comment; it’s just the cynical truth, and Hikki has made the most of it.