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Welcome to the ‘real’ world

by Steve McClure

“Utada Unplugged” — it has a nice ring to it. Hikaru Utada is the latest artist to get the MTV Unplugged treatment, and this correspondent was one of a small group of media folk invited to the taping of the diminutive diva’s MTV Japan “Unplugged” special.

Hikaru Utada

Utada isn’t the first Japanese act to do an “Unplugged” show — male duo Chage and Aska did one for MTV Asia in London in June 1996 — but she’s the first Japanese artist to do an “Unplugged” for MTV Japan, which, given her superstar status, is obviously a source of pride for the channel.

So how well did Hikki-chan do in an acoustic setting? My overall verdict is “not bad.” Her performance wasn’t exactly incendiary, but her innate charm came across fairly well.

The idea of hearing Utada perform in an unplugged setting appealed to me, given the too-slick production style of her second album, “Distance.” And given all the technological studio wonderment (ProTools, for example) that can be used to modify and improve a singer’s voice, I was very curious to hear the “real” Utada.

But before the taping began, the stage managers explained to the audience (mainly comprising a few dozen lucky MTV Japan viewers) that the mix they would hear would be different from the final on-air one. This was for good reason: It was kind of hard to hear poor Hikki against the rather large backing band assembled for the occasion (I really felt sorry for the folks sitting immediately behind the drum kit).

Utada’s voice was more audible in the broadcast version of the show (MTV aired it Aug. 10, 11 and 12 and will broadcast it again Oct. 5), but she still sounded somewhat frail against the massed musical might of her backing band. She also seemed a bit nervous, and I think she needs to work on her stage presence. Utada’s no Aretha Franklin, but she emotes in a way few Japanese pop vocalists do.

At the taping, Utada performed the entire set twice, and she was much better the second time round, singing with more confidence and power once she got over her initial jitters. Her second rendition of “Automatic” was particularly good, as she breathed new life into the now very familiar song in a subtle, nuanced interpretation.

The most lasting impression I have of Utada after seeing her in such an intimate setting is of her as a singer/songwriter. The personal, deeply felt nature of her lyrics comes across much more strongly when watching her up-close and personal. For me the highlight of the show was when Utada sat down at the piano and, with no accompaniment from the band, sang the first couple of lines from “Kettobase.” It was a very “real” moment that was truer to the unplugged concept than the rest of the show.

And there’s the rub: To me, “unplugged” means stripping away all the layers of production and electronic instrumentation to get to the core of an artist’s music, or at least to gain an insight into their music by hearing it in an appreciably different style, i.e., with acoustic instrumental backing.

But just what does “acoustic” mean? To my way of thinking, it means getting as close to the sound of unamplified, “natural” music as possible. Trouble is, if you play your music in a room or hall beyond a certain size, you need microphones and amplifiers to pick up and project your sound.

If you’re working with just a couple of acoustic instruments, their “natural” sound will still come across. But when you start adding lots and lots of instruments, even string sections, the unplugged concept becomes so watered down as to be meaningless. In Utada’s case, her backing band comprised a drummer, a percussionist, two guitarists, a bassist, a pianist, an organist, a guy who doubled on synthesizer (which appeared to be very plugged in) and vibraphone, and a big string section. All that was missing was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Credit to Utada for having the guts to do the Unplugged thing, but I don’t think she needed such a wide safety net.