Sing to the Sky

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Ayaka's blues-based acoustic pop may sound a bit archaic in 2008, but she has an impressive skill in resurrecting the pop ballads of the '90s. This could be credited to the fact that Ayaka is one of the few Japanese musicians who really understands American songwriting -- she's proficient with it without sounding either retro like Superfly or losing the Americana vibe because of her desire to revel in sweet pop harmonies like Onitsuka Chihiro. This is not to say that Ayaka shies away from all the best gimmicks of J-pop -- the production is still so polished you coud see things reflected in it, there are strings everywhere, and the arrangements are executed with nanotech precision. However, while J-pop often lacks a good groove to keep things dynamic, groove is the thing that Ayaka has no shortage of, not to mention that she remembers to vary the approach between faster songs ("Ai Wo Utaou"), ballads ("Why?"), and barroom blues numbers ("Ai Mo Uso Mo Shinjitsu"), most of the songs having their fair share of larger-than-life, hopeful-sounding choruses and deft guitar picking both of which are able to create the same mood Bryan Adams' best slow numbers had, only with less melodrama. It may become a trip down memory lane -- if you wish, you can dismantle the album into Sheryl Crow bits, Tom Petty pieces, Roxette hooks, Suzanne Vega singing, and those ubiquitous gospel backing vocals. But if you're all right with derivativeness in your music -- and it's hard to enjoy J-rock otherwise -- Ayaka will come across as a talented musician with the amazingly rare knack of rooting the slick brightness of Japanese pop into a solid bluesy foundation.

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