Shogo Hamada

Best of Shogo Hamada, Vol. 3: The Last Weekend

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Few J-pop artists would dare to kick off a best-of collection -- even the third one in a row -- with an 11-minute epic, and fewer still would pull it off. But Shogo Hamada does just that, romping from Joe Hisaishi-like pop-classical string flourishes to soft rock, then to dreamy monologues about J.D. Salinger and everything else under the sun, and then back to square one over the course of the opener, which alone could serve as a best-of collection, or at least the blueprint for the stuff Hamada does and for how well he does it. The rest of the record is basically more of the same, with sugar-sweet movie themes intermingling with old-school rockers, sometimes even within the same song. Of course, that description works for every second Japanese musician who ever charted in his or her home country, but the thing about Hamada is, he's simply more catchy. The slower songs have actual melodies -- something 99 percent of J-artists forget about once they get their hands on a string group -- and the guitar-based compositions have hooks. It's nowhere near groundbreaking, with its sights set firmly on Western performers, mostly '80s giants, but at least it's a good set of influences, listing the likes of Chris Rea, Whitesnake, and even David Bowie ("Theme of Father's Son" gently channels "China Girl"). Of course, this is still an old hand's portfolio, and no song here is a monster hit on par with stuff by artists Hamada follows, but the music sounds handcrafted, not mass-produced, and the record in general is quite worth some attention if you care about quality, not trends, in your pop.