I’m gonna do something a little bit different here.
Generally speaking, with my past music reviews it’s just little blurbs here and there, essentially saying “This is good!” Now – for the time being – I’m going to focus on one artist’s discography, reviewing one album at a time, with the reviews spread out over a number of weeks. Additionally, I will be featuring sound samples, so you can hear whether I’m full of it or not.
It would be easy to do The Beatles or someone equally popular…but really, most everyone has heard that stuff before. So I’ve decided to focus on one of my favorite musicians from Japan, Shoko Suzuki. Additionally, I’ve decided to do the reviews in chronological order, so you can see (and hear) how her music developed over the past twenty years. Hopefully this will prove as worthwhile for the reader/listener as it will for me, the writer.
First, a little bit of info on Shoko. She was born August 21, 1965, in Tokyo’s Ōta ward. At 8 or 9 she began taking piano lessons, and began taking drum lessons a few years later. Upon graduating from high school in 1984, she began to work on her dream of becoming a musician, doing auditions and the like. Shoko’s journey began in earnest the next year, when she became a backing musician on a tour for Shinji Harada & Crisis. This led to more work as a live backing musician, for singing idol Kyoko Koizumi (whom Shoko would write songs for several years down the road) and also The Beatniks.
Finally, in 1987 Shoko signed a record contract with Epic Sony Records (now known as simply Epic Records Japan, not to be confused with the U.S. label Epic Records), and also a publishing contract for songwriting. At this point Shoko did not write any lyrics; she was strictly a composer. On Shoko’s first two albums — and for many songs after that — the lyricist was Masumi Kawamura, whose biggest success was writing the lyrics for Misato Watanabe’s 1986 hit My Revolution.
It’s with this background that I delve into Shoko’s first album, Viridian, released October 21, 1988.
Probably the first thing you may notice is that this is not a long album at all — only seven tracks, in fact. Nowadays in Japan, it would be called a mini-album; at the time, it was advertised as a “7 Songs Album.” I’m not sure why the album is so short; perhaps Shoko didn’t have enough songs written, or maybe it’s just what the record company wanted.
Speaking of what the record company wanted out of Shoko, I must admit that I’m not sure exactly what it is they wanted. At the time of Shoko’s debut (1988), most female artists in Japan were idols — Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori, the aforementioned Kyoko Koizumi, etc. Female singer-songwriters, with the exception of Yumi Matsutoya, were just not in vogue. Shoko, as a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter with a publishing contract, was obviously not being groomed to be an idol (this is especially apparent when you notice how she was styled in her early years — lots of jackets with padded shoulders, goofy hats and layers). But if she was signed to be a songwriter for others, it’s odd to note that she didn’t actually start writing for others for another year or so.
Anyway, the album. It was produced and arranged by Yoshiyuki Sahashi and Akira Nishihira — the former would be featured on every Shoko Suzuki album through 1993; while the latter has worked with the likes of L’Arc~en~Ciel, Utada Hikaru (he arranged about half of her First Love album, including the single Automatic) and — perhaps most importantly (to Chief Oddball, anyway) — he arranged Kagami no Naka no Actress, the third (and final) opening theme from the Kimagure Orange Road TV anime. Sahashi and Nishihira also feature prominently in the musical backing — Sahashi plays all guitars and sings backing vocals, while Nishihira handles much of the keyboard work. Additionally, Shoji Fujii — who taught Shoko how to play drums, and whose connections helped Shoko get the backing gig with Shinji Harada — plays most of the drums on the album.
Despite being a more than capable musician herself, Shoko’s instrumental contribution is limited — she plays the drums on “Koi wa Tsumi,” synthesizer on “Sayonara no Roudoku,” finger cymbals on “Kanashii Aozora,” and percussion on “Natsu wa Doko e Itta.” Interestingly, during this period Shoko rarely played keyboards live and never played drums (despite being proficieint with both); instead, Shoko was often stuck with a big acoustic guitar during concerts (this despite the fact Shoko wouldn’t even touch a guitar on any of her albums until 1995).
The songs are mostly acoustic ballads, with a couple of faster-paced rock songs thrown in (both of which have a distinct ’80s rock sound to them). At this point (and for several years after), Epic Sony seemed to try and sell Shoko as more of a gentle ballad singer, especially considering their choice in singles. That’s not to say that Shoko was recording death metal outside of her singles, but if one only heard her singles from this early period, you would be forgiven thinking that most of Shoko’s entire output was slow, easygoing ballads. Though it’s generally true that Shoko’s earlier work is lighter and poppier than what came later, there are still a good many of excellent upbeat pop and rock songs on those early records. (That being said, I prefer the later stuff.)
I have no clue how the record or its singles did on the charts; as far as Oricon goes, it’s database only starts tracking with Shoko’s third album. Seeing as most of Shoko’s early albums charted in the low 40s and 50s, I think it’s safe to say Viridian didn’t chart much higher than that.
THE SONGS: (Click on a title to hear a sample)
Natsu wa Doko e Itta
Shoko’s first single. It’s pretty enough, but I find I like most of the other tracks more. Like I noted above: if your only exposure to Shoko’s early work are the singles (as it was for me at first), you could be forgiven for thinking she was nothing but a ballad singer — though that’s far from the truth. None of this means it’s a bad song, though; I do like it, just not as much as other songs on the album.
BONUS: A TV performance of this song; the clip isn’t dated, but I’d guess it’s from 1988/89.
Koi wa Tsumi
A good, upbeat pop-rock number with a sort of classic ’80s production. I think this would have made a good single.
BONUS: Courtesy of someone on YouTube, here is a clip of Shoko performing this song on some TV show. My best guess is that this is from 1988; it’s cute how stiff Shoko’s posture and overall stage presence is — she barely moves at all. It seems pretty clear she’s not yet comfortable performing in front of the cameras!
Sayonara no Roudoku
A lovely ballad, and probaby my favorite one on the record — it’s the harpsichord that does it for me, I think. I always love a song with a good harpsichord part.
Baby It's You
The most rock ‘n’ roll song on the record (Yoshiyuki Sasashi puts on a nice display of guitar shredding during the solo), and also the one with the most 1980s-style production to it. At any rate, it’s nice that Shoko’s rock stylings weren’t totally subjugated by her record company (she’s a pretty big classic rock fan, among many other genres of music). This track also served as the B-side to “Sunday Bazaar,” Shoko’s second single (which will be heard in my next review).
Before I heard this record – and knowing that Shoko is a fan of Burt Bacharach – I wondered if this was the same “Baby It’s You” that the Beatles covered on Please Please Me (SPOILER: It’s not).
A nice, mid-tempo pop song. The chorus is definitely the best part for me, with the chorus vocals soaring nicely. I could do without the soprano saxophone (it instantly makes me think of smooth jazz, which I don’t care for), but that’s a very minor complaint.
Another sweet ballad. I really like the backing vocals on this one.
Nami no Fossil
The B-side of “Natsu wa Doko e Itta,” and probably my least favorite song on the album. I don’t know…it seems like it wants to build to something epic, yet never does. It’s ethereal sounding, with the wailing guitar line in the back, but…I don’t know. Sometimes I like the song, and sometimes I skip it when it comes on.
This record is long out of print (unless you find a used copy floating around online someplace); however, it (along with all of Shoko’s Epic Sony albums) was reissued as part of the SHO-CO-SONGS series of box sets. This particular record is found on SHO-CO-SONGS collection 1 along with Mizu no Kanmuri, Kaze no Tobira and Long Long Way Home (all of which will be reviewed in the coming weeks). You can purchase that box set at most CD import places.
Oddball Verdict: A pretty solid beginning.
OTHER SHOKO SUZUKI REVIEWS:
Mizu no Kanmuri (1989)
Kaze no Tobira (1990)
Long Long Way Home (1990)
Sings Bacharach & David (1994)
Candy Apple Red (1997)
Atarashii Ai no Uta (1999)
Love, painful love (2000)
I Was There, I’m Here (2003)
Suzuki Syoko (2006)
Sweet Serenity (2008)
Romances sans paroles~bande originale du film~ (2009)