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Like Sheena, only happier

by Steve McClure

Like many people, when I first heard Hitomi Yaida’s music, I immediately thought: Aha, Ringo Sheena Lite. With her high-pitched, keening voice and energetic, guitar-based pop-rock style, Yaida certainly has a lot in common with Sheena, that twisted pixie.

But the resemblance is superficial. As any true Yaida fan can tell you, the woman they call “Yaiko” (her childhood nickname) has her own very distinct musical style and personality.

Closer study of the Sheena and Yaida oeuvres reveals that while Sheena revels in an almost nihilistic sense of decadence, both in her lyrics and her visuals, Yaida exudes an upbeat, positive vibe. With her melodramatic, guitar-strumming performance style and hippie-chick dress sense, Yaida comes across as a sort of nonthreatening eccentric, with charm and energy to spare.

“The people who liked Sheena like Yaida,” notes Kosei Sasaki, associate executive general manager at Virgin Tokyo, the label to which Yaida is signed. “But our target audience for Yaida is wider,” Sasaki explains. “With her character and looks, anybody can like her.”

However, eccentricity, charm and energy aren’t enough to sustain the listener’s interest over the course of a whole album. It helps if you have a good supply of decent tunes or, as in Yaida’s case, you’re capable of writing clever, hook-laden songs in a variety of styles.

And that’s exactly what Yaida has done with her first two albums, “daiya-monde,” released in October last year, and the curiously titled “Candlize,” which came out on Oct. 31 this year. That album shipped 700,000 copies and entered the Oricon album chart at No. 1, which isn’t too shabby.

The two albums offer ample evidence that the Osaka-born artist is one of Japan’s most talented singer-songwriters, with an original voice that’s instantly recognizable.

One thing that makes “Candlize” a memorable album is what music-biz types call “sequencing,” which is the seemingly simple art of deciding in which order songs will appear on an album. Simple, yes, but sequencing can make the difference between success and failure. A classic example of inspired sequencing is The Beatles’ “White Album,” where the mediocrity of some of the material was masked by the clever way the tracks were arranged.

On “Candlize,” Yaida and her producers (a four-man collective known as Diamond Head) use the tried-and-true method of ordering the album’s tracks in a “peaks and valleys” sequence. For example, the fourth track on ” Candlize” is a joyful, up-tempo number called “Not Still Over,” influenced by Jewish klezmer music from eastern Europe. This is followed by a sentimental, string-drenched ballad titled “Over the Distance.”

The pace picks up somewhat with the vampish “I’m Here Saying Nothing,” which was a huge hit for Yaida at the beginning of the year. Despite that song’s title, though, Yaida does seem to have rather a lot to say — mostly on the familiar themes of love and life. The predominant mood in her songs is positive and self-affirming, not in a naive, Pollyanna sense, but in a passionate, worldly wise way.

Like some other Japanese artists, Yaida has tried to make her mark on the international music scene. But instead of a full-on marketing push, Yaida and her management have opted for a far more low-key, grassroots style of promotion. In August last year and again this past August, she did a series of club dates in Britain with British band Twisted Brand and has also released two English-language singles over there: “Darling, Darling” and “I Like Two” on the indie label F2.

Those singles have sold a very modest 2,000 to 3,000 copies each, but at the risk of sounding cynical, it’s probably safe to say that the main reason for Yaida’s releases and live gigs in Britain is to give her a kokusai-teki (international) cachet back here in Japan. Good luck to her, of course, if she does manage to penetrate the British or other overseas markets to any degree, but we have seen this kind of thing before.