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Apr 19

[Review] Hamasaki Ayumi: Next Level

Her gloves have fingernails

Her gloves have fingernails

If you’re interested in purchasing Hamasaki Ayumi’s 10th album, Next Level, and don’t know which of the four versions—ranging from the plain CD to a blinged-out, 6800-yen USB stick—to buy, go for the 2CD+DVD package. It’s the only one that includes the singer’s first live CD, an attraction that is better than the uneventful feature album.

The live album, pulled from the 10th anniversary concert “Premium Countdown Live 2008-2009 A,” revisits some of Ayu’s underrated classics. Only four of the 16 tracks are singles, and none of them is an ubiquitous track like “Trauma.” Instead, we get excellent album songs like “Signal” and “Naturally,” which sound fresh and energetic here. The live CD reminds us why Hamasaki was so fun in the first place—from 1999 to 2006, she released albums whose songs all had the catchiness and quality of singles.

Ayu also delivers one of her better recent vocal performances, which is impressive considering her left ear went deaf in 2008. That’s not to say it’s good. She’s never held a tune that well, though she sang with enough emotion and personality to suit her idol music. But here she sounds more smooth and on-key than she has lately, close to her live singing around 2001-2002.

Next Level itself is less exciting. For starters: Where are the hooks? Hamasaki used to release albums full of songs that could have been singles. On this CD, the singles themselves barely sound like singles. I had to listen to “Sparkle” and “Rule” five times before I started to remember the choruses. That’s far from “Seasons,” which stuck with me immediately when I heard it in 2000, got me into Hamasaki’s music, and remains a favorite today.

It’d help if the songs were arranged in a new or interesting way to match the futuristic title. Instead, we’ve got the light techno of Rainbow—sans the crystalline effects that made it ethereal—in “Next Level,” and emptier-sounding versions of Ayu’s trademark hard pop (see “Game” and “Inspire”) in songs like “Rollin’” and “Identity.” “Green” is a pretty song with the Asian flavor of Hamasaki’s hit “Vogue,” but the hook isn’t nearly as strong. And 2003’s “No way to say” was a much better chime-filled winter ballad than “Days.”

Sadly, this is nothing new. For the past three years, Hamasaki’s new songs have sounded like blander versions of older ones. As a fan of eight years, I want to her to release top quality pop again. I hope her next album is truly “next level.”

Artist: Hamasaki Ayumi
Album: Next Level
Label: Avex Trax
Release date: March 25, 2009