The last of the Love Planet Five group to get her own album for Geneon, Kaori Utatsuki has long been the most neglected member of the I’ve Girls vocal lineup. Does she exceed expectations with her debut? Read on to find out!
詩月カオリ (Kaori Utatsuki) – SPYGLASS (2009, Geneon Universal)
2. Shining stars bless☆
4. この空の下で (Kono Sora no Shita de)
6. ���̊星の海 (Hoshi no Umi)
7. Last Song
It’s more than a little telling that the press for Kaori Utatsuki’s first “mini-album” has focused far more on her image switch, from the nondescript “cute” stylings of her SHORT CIRCUIT appearance to a sort of retro ‘hippie’ look, than the album’s musical merits or lack thereof. Frequently marginalized as being ‘the boring one’ of the Love Planet Five girls, Utatsuki has had her work cut out for her when it comes to finding her own voice amongst her more popular peers. Initially brought in as a replacement for departed I’ve vocalist AKI, Kaorin (as she is known to her Japanese fans) was, and still is in some respects, largely seen more as a means to an end than as a unique personality amongst the I’ve roster, from her early days re-recording AKI’s vocal parts for album versions of the KOTOKO TO AKI unit’s songs to her current status as the go-to girl for low-priority eroge themes such as the unimpressive Shakkin Shimai 2’s lukewarm “Love is Money?!”. That a wardrobe change truly does seem to be the most interesting thing the girl has done in the last 7 years is incredibly unfortunate, and shows just how little I’ve seems to care about the last member of their special unit.
Given Utatsuki’s own less-than-stellar career, it’s not surprising that over half of the arrangement credits on her mini-album belong to the similarly-maligned I’ve producer Maiko Iuchi. Iuchi, starting out under the name “Miu Uetsu” before reverting to her birth name for unknown reasons, has gained the ire of the community through a series of incredibly divisive arrangements that have been in turn both hated and celebrated for their lack of compatibility with the “I’ve Sound” that her compatriots Nakazawa, C.G mix and Takase had built up. Just as Utatsuki is criticized for being ‘boring’ and vocally unremarkable, Iuchi’s often abrasive production style gets her criticized as lazy at best, and sometimes gets her called an outright hack. Iuchi also faced an identity crisis none too dissimilar from Utatsuki, more prominently in her early days but still noticeable today: more than the other producers, Iuchi’s production credits are rarely a simple “composed & arranged by”, with guests helping her out often and a good number of her songs being Iuchi arrangements of tracks originally composed by Takase or someone else. This fact both provides fuel for the ‘lazy’ argument and further establishes the parallels between Iuchi and Utatsuki, making it the reason why SPYGLASS is really Maiko’s album as much as it is Kaori’s.
However, as well-matched as Iuchi and Utatsuki may be in terms of their history with I’ve and their issues with personal identity, it would all be for naught if they didn’t actually match up musically. Luckily for them, and for anyone listening to SPYGLASS, the compatibility runs deep: Iuchi may wear her influences on her sleeve a little too openly, but the bright optimism of her arrangements for Utatsuki makes up for any lack of originality. And, listening through SPYGLASS, one quickly grows accustomed to Iuchi’s quirks, and the producer so reviled for a lack of discipline and an overabundance of borrowed techniques starts to develop a style of her own. Taken on their own, her mix of acoustic guitars, spare synth-claps, C.G mix basslines and Kazuya Takase synth-string arrangements doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table, but it’s how she works with the elements of her more famous contemporaries’ best compositions that starts to give one the impression that maybe there’s more to the producer than there seemed to be at first.
Listening to a song like Kono Sora no Shita de, it’s hard to imagine this newly-confident singer as the same one who seemed to have such trouble singing during I’ve’s famous 2005 Budokan concert, nor imagine her as KOTOKO’s indistinct shadow doomed to seemingly endless obscurity. The whole “hippie” re-branding for her may have seemed on the surface to just be a cheap attempt at rebooting her image without any real point behind it, but if her electro-R&B on this album is any indication of what is to be forthcoming from KOTOKO’s former second fiddle, then the makeover was something she should’ve had long ago. And, both fortunately and unfortunately by turns, it’s because of the success of her new style that SHORT CIRCUIT holdover Lemonade sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the album’s by-no-means-bloated tracklisting. Never one of her best songs even at the time of its release back in 2003, here the seemingly endless bore of a song provides a particularly unfortunate reminder of what the rest of SPYGLASS shows Utatsuki leaving behind.
Of course, just because the album belongs to Maiko Iuchi more than anything else didn’t mean that Kazuya Takase was going to sit the album out, and his original contribution to the album (the titular Spyglass) manages the surprising feat of being both a step forwards and a step backwards and the same time. Forwards in that the song is superficially in step with the pleasantly odd electro-acoustic feel of the rest of the album, showing off its R&B influences with pride while still retaining all of Takase’s familiar vices (listen to those synth strings!), but backwards in the sense that it sounds a bit too much like 2004 to be truly considered progressive. Listening to Spyglass, one gets the feeling you’re hearing the B-side to 421 -a will- from some alternate timeline’s KOTOKO, all big cheesy synths and not a hint of the pleasant subtlety that came out of nowhere to make Iuchi’s contributions to the album so wonderfully surprising. It’s a great song, but at the same time an unfortunate reminder of how Takase and Utatsuki were never the best-matched: even when the song is a success, as this one undoubtedly is, the fact that Takase is far better-suited to a vocalist with a more forceful presence remains. Similarly, Tomoyuki Nakazawa and Takeshi Ozaki flounder with their mediocre Last Song, but seeing as the album belongs to Iuchi, the other arrangers’ presence just seems like a distraction at best anyways.
While the presence of skip-button fodder such as Lemonade and Last Song on such a chronically short release renders SPYGLASS hard to truly recommend as an album, the excellent (with reservations) title track and Maiko Iuchi’s surprisingly mature turn as a producer make it an undoubtedly important step in Kaorin’s evolution as an artist, and bodes quite well for future efforts from the singer. It’s somewhat hard to believe that an album such as this one comes from the girl who was initially brought in just to fill in the spot AKI left in the I’ve Girls roster, but the passing of time can work wonders for a talented artist.