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In a sentimental mood

by Steve McClure

For Westerners of a certain age, the ’60s were an era of social and cultural ferment, when the Vietnam War, the Pill, rock music, drugs and the sexual revolution shook the foundations of society. In Japan, however, a “can-do” spirit prevailed as the postwar blahs were left behind and the country entered a period of rapid economic growth.

The Japanese pop music of that era reflects the bright, optimistic outlook that supposedly characterized the national mood back then. Besides their obvious nostalgic appeal, classic kayokyoku (Japanese pop songs) have a timeless, almost naive charm.

Oddly enough, in a culture where the tendency to sentimentalize the past is all too apparent, relatively little attention has been paid to Japan’s rich kayokyoku heritage.

That’s starting to change, as the Japanese music biz wakes up to the fact that in order to survive, it’s going to have to sell more music to people over 30, who of course make up an increasingly large percentage of the population. And one way to do that is to recycle some of those blasts from the past.

As part of that trend, veteran (does that sound ageist?) female vocalists Yuko Hara and Akina Nakamori have released albums featuring cover versions of J-pop classics, but each offering a very different take on the kayokyoku legacy.

“Tokyo Tamoure” is singer/songwriter Hara’s first solo album since 1991′s critically acclaimed “Mother.” Hara, of course, is keyboardist/vocalist of veteran pop/rock band the Southern All Stars, whose leader, Keisuke Kuwata, is her husband.

Highlights on “Tokyo Tamoure” include the opening track, “Taiyo wa Naite-iru (The Sun Is Crying),” originally recorded by Ayumi Ishida in 1968 and a great example of the “group sounds” pop-rock style of the late ’60s, and “Yogiri no Wakare Michi (The Path of Farewell in the Night Mist),” which was first done by The Cupids, also in ’68.

At times, however, Hara and her backing musicians sound like they’re just going through the motions, as on their soporific rendition of “Watashi to Watashi (Me and Myself).” And I really don’t understand why Hara decided to have her quite decent voice double-tracked throughout the album.

Despite the uninspired nature of some of the arrangements and Hara’s occasionally less-than-arresting vocal style, listening to “Tokyo Tamoure” is a lot of fun, simply because of the high standard of most of the songs, with catchy hooks you’ll be humming for days afterward.

Nakamori’s “Zero Album — Utahime 2,” is her first album in seven years, and it’s very different in style and content from “Tokyo Tamoure.” While Hara has basically stayed true to the pop-rock style of the tunes she covers, Nakamori’s album features lush, string-drenched reworkings of J-pop hits from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

And she sings them in a sultry, smoky voice that’s worlds away from Hara’s girlishly upbeat style. Sometimes it’s a little too schmaltzy and supper-clubbish, such as on her cover of “Shikisai no Blues (The Color of Blues).” But, for the most part, Nakamori sings with a sense of restrained passion that makes “Zero Album — Utahime 2″ a much more “adult” album than “Tokyo Tamoure.” Her assured, subtle version of the ballad “Tasogare no Begin (The Beginning of Twilight)” originally recorded by Naomi Chiaki in 1962, is a case in point.

It’s tempting to think that Nakamori’s sometimes troubled personal life (she once attempted suicide after being dumped by pop star Masahiko “Match” Kondoh) is the source of much of the emotional depth she brings to these songs. Whatever the reason, this one-time teen idol has developed a mature, elegant style that’s tailor-made for oji-sans and oba-sans with discriminating taste.