Uta Gusui

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Yanawaraba's Uta Gusui is a nice attempt to break away from the monotony of female J-pop by introducing some elements of Japanese traditional music, and while it doesn't live up to the promise, its potential still makes it noteworthy. The band builds upon the ballad-heavy foundation perfected by the likes of Chihiro Onitsuka and Angela Aki -- Uta Gusui is one sunny, slow-flowing, and relaxed record, filled with piano playing and delicate percussion, and centered around the charming and confident, if not overly strong, voices of the duo, singing out some simple and romantic melodies. What makes it stand out is the usage of the sanshin -- a Japanese string instrument -- for underscoring the themes of the songs, as well as the occasional folky passages in the vocal lines. It could've been plain cool, given the melody and emotion carried by traditional music, but the girls were either unsure of what they wanted, or hit over their fingers with a ruler by producers demanding some safe and predictable pop hits. The ethnic vibe is mostly pushed to the periphery of the mix, with the sanshin lines stealing into the songs like a shy village relative visiting the big city for the first time. The standard J-pop fare dominates on Uta Gusui, but Yanawaraba can't really stand their ground against the leaders of the style: many songs just drone by without much excitement, and even the stabs at diversification -- there's a country number, a bluesy number, and a reggae number on the album -- sound like attempts to skip the songwriting issues and not deal with them. When they're on, Yanawaraba can really shine ("Yume Wo Mita"), their unsophisticated melodies sounding timeless rather than trite because of that slight archaic vibe brought in by the sanshin and the singing. But they haven't really mastered the fine art of balancing folk and J-pop on Uta Gusui, although they it's made obvious that it's worth going for.