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Signs of the times

by Steve McClure

Is the world ready for Hikki?

The folks at the Island Def Jam label apparently think so, which is why they’ve signed Hikaru Utada to a worldwide recording deal. Under the contract, Utada will record at least one English-language album for the label. So far there’s no word as to where it will be recorded or when it will be released.

This was one of the biggest news stories in the Japanese music scene last week, since it brings together one of Japan’s biggest stars and Def Jam, which is part of the world’s biggest record company, the Universal Music Group.

But this won’t be the first time Utada has recorded for Def Jam. Last July, she made her first appearance on the label with the song “Blow My Whistle,” which featured Foxy Brown, on the “Rush Hour 2″ soundtrack.

Having grown up in New York City, where she got a thorough grounding in contemporary R&B, Utada stands a much better chance than most Japanese artists of achieving overseas success. But it won’t be easy, since she’ll be competing with the world’s top R&B divas.

Utada, of course, already has a record deal here in Japan, with Toshiba-EMI. But that only covers her Japanese-language material — her deal with Island Def Jam is for stuff in English. In Japan she’ll continue to be marketed as Utada Hikaru, while she’ll record with Island Def Jam as Hikaru Utada. Confusing, wot?

“Most of my lyrics come out in English, which I then rewrite in Japanese,” says Utada in the press release announcing the deal, “so this project will save a little bit of time in songwriting, which I’ll be needing, to give the best of both Hikaru Utada and Utada Hikaru.”

Perhaps Hikki should take the next logical step and clone herself. Seriously, though, I really hope she kicks ass in the U.S. and the rest of the world, because it’s about time an Asian artist made it big in the West. We’ve had the Latin boom — is it finally time for an Asian music boom?

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First, the bad news: The Trattoria record label, home to such musical luminaries as Cornelius, Hideki Kaji and Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, will cease to exist as of June.

The good news is that Trattoria will be reborn with a new name and a new brand image.

Trattoria is just one of the labels operated by Tokyo-based record company Polystar. It was set up in 1992 with Cornelius (aka Keigo Oyamada) as “label producer,” which meant he oversaw all of Trattoria’s activities — finding acts for the label, making licensing deals with overseas record companies and establishing its hip brand image.

Noriko Kawamoto, an A&R staffer at the label, tells me that the decision to give Trattoria a new identity was made simply because everybody at Trattoria thought that, after 10 years, it was time for a change.

Whatever new name they come up with, I hope Oyamada and company continue to release the same kind of intelligent and inspired pop they’ve been producing during the past decade. Recent examples include Cornelius’ own superlative fourth album, “Point,” which came out last October; “Tres,” a wonderfully ethnically eclectic mini-album by female artist Yoshie; and Kaji’s very catchy new single, “Footballing Weekenders.”

Kaji’s single was the closing track on one of Trattoria’s odder recent releases, the album “Footballing Weekenders Vol. 1 Up With the Arsenal,” which consists of songs dedicated to the legendary London football club Arsenal. Just out in January, the album includes gems such as “Here We Go Again,” recorded by the 1932 Arsenal squad. Only for the very dedicated football fan.

Trattoria’s quirky yet inspired catalog of re-releases includes stuff by cult band The Apples in Stereo, ’60s pop-vocal group Free Design and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman.

Upcoming Trattoria releases include Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her’s best-of album, “Dying for Seagulls,” due out April 17, and a compilation album featuring key Trattoria tracks in June or July. No word as to whether it will include any Arsenal anthems — I hope not.