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Two men and a poor baby

by Steve McClure

I have a thang, as Isaac Hayes would say, for Yuki Koyanagi. Maybe it’s her sultry pout. Maybe it’s her bleached-blonde hair. Or it could be her gloriously trashy fashion sense.

Koyanagi burst onto the J-pop scene in September 1999 with the single “Anata no Kiss o Kazoemassho (I’m Going to Count Your Kisses).” The cover of that CD established the Koyanagi look, showing her leaning against a wall, wearing a silver lame tank top, with a half-sneer, half-pout distorting her lovely face.

As for her music . . . well, she ain’t a half-bad singer. Like most female Japanese vocalists who’ve debuted since Misia and Hikaru Utada established the prevalent pop/R&B template, Koyanagi’s music is rooted in American soul. And like any decent soul singer, she knows how to breathe, how to project and, most importantly, how to emote. You can hear the passion in her voice.

That combination of looks and musical ability helped Koyanagi ascend rapidly into the upper realm of the J-pop firmament, just below superstars Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki.

Now, in an audacious career move that has received tons of media coverage, Koyanagi has teamed up with Nathan Morris and Shawn Stockman of American vocal group Boyz II Men. The fruit of their collaboration is an album titled “Intimacy,” which is being released April 24 in Japan and in the rest of Asia after that.

The project got started when Koyanagi and Boyz II Men met some months ago during the taping of a TV show here in Tokyo. According to the liner notes for “Intimacy,” an offhand remark by Koyanagi about the possibility of working together with the group resulted in her management receiving 30 demo tracks from Morris and Stockman some weeks later.

The bulk of the songs on “Intimacy” are ballads, and all the lyrics are in English. And therein lies the only problem: All too often I simply cannot understand what Koyanagi is singing.

From the start of her career, Koyanagi has recorded the odd song in English with less than spectacular results. I thought that working with Morris and Stockman might help her improve her English singing ability, but it is my sad duty to report that things haven’t worked out that way.

There’s nothing wrong with the music per se, especially if you like Boyz II Men’s brand of silky-smooth pop-soul. The songwriting, arrangement and production are all first-class. A good example is the album’s fourth track, “Keep on Loving Me,” which has a lovely hook that delicately insinuates itself.

I think “Intimacy” would be more successful if there were more up-tempo tracks, such as the infectiously funky “Boyz Don’t Cry.” On this song Koyanagi sounds way more relaxed, and her English pronunciation problems are less evident.

Without wanting to sound patronizing, I give Koyanagi full marks for having the guts to take on this sort of creative challenge. I hope her experience in working with two of the Boyz stands her in good stead next time she collaborates with an international act. How about an album of duets with female R&B singers, for example? Yuki and L’il Kim, now there’s a thought . . .

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Idol Pursuit Dept.: Believe it or not, underneath the glitz and the carefully constructed images, pop idols are normal people, with the same human desires and frailties as we mere mortals.

This was all too clearly demonstrated by a recent episode involving Yukki Goto, the male half of pop duo EE Jump. That fine journalistic organ Friday magazine recently reported that Goto (who is the brother of Morning Musume member Maki Goto, by the way) had been seen drinking alcohol in a club at which “erotic dancers” were performing.

So what? you might say . . . The thing is, Goto is all of 15.

Harmony Promotion, EE Jump’s production company, promptly fired Goto. Female singer Sonin, the female half of EE Jump, issued a statement in which she described her feelings on hearing of Goto’s miscreant behavior. “Honestly, when I heard about this I felt a kind of shock and despair I have never felt before,” the statement reads.

Goto had previously been suspended from EE Jump for six months after he “disobeyed” the production company by reportedly failing to meet the commitments that came with his job, and he was only recently allowed to rejoin the duo. This time it looks like Goto’s gone for good. He really blew it timing-wise, as EE Jump’s debut album, “EE Jump Collection1,” is being released on May 9.

The album — produced by Morning Musume Svengali Tsunku — is a weird amalgam of J-pop, rap and quasi-operatic vocalizations by Sonin. Since Sonin does most of the actual singing (Goto’s role was mainly confined to yelps and half-baked raps), I imagine EE Jump will manage to limp along as a one-person “unit.”

The incident highlights the way idols are basically treated like indentured servants by the production companies to which they are signed. You’ve got to toe the line — or else.