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For Utada, third time’s, uh, same-ish

by Steve McClure

Set for a June 19 release, Hikaru Utada’s third album, “Deep River,” doesn’t contain any major surprises, staying true to the pop/R&B synthesis that has proven so successful for the singer since she burst onto the scene with her debut single, “Automatic/Time Will Tell,” back in December 1998.

Besides previously released hit singles “Traveling,” “Final Distance,” “Hikari” and “Sakura Drops/Letters” (No. 1 on the May 20 Oricon hit chart), “Deep River” contains eight new tracks. Most interesting among them is “Uso Mitai na I Love You (Looks Like a Lie I Love You),” which, unusually, features some loud electric guitar high up in the mix.

The overall mood on “Deep River” is one of romantic longing, which Utada accentuates by employing her trademark vibrato-laden vocal style. Take the darkly atmospheric track “A.S.A.P.,” which features the lyrics: “Waiting at the traffic lights, as the wind dies down, I suddenly become uneasy/I go past the crossing and suddenly I want to meet you in this neighborhood.”

What makes the song particularly effective is the production, featuring the echo-laden sound of a bell chiming eerily in the background.

Utada has recorded in both the United States and Japan and has worked with American producers such as Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Rodney Jerkins. “Deep River,” however, was jointly produced by Utada, Akira Miyake and Utada’s father, Teruzane “Skingg” Utada, and recorded entirely in Tokyo. This hasn’t had any appreciable effect on Utada’s sound, though. Like Utada’s first two albums, “Deep River” has a very “American” production style, with deep bass grooves and a hip, “organic” vibe.

As you might have read elsewhere, Utada was recently hospitalized after she suffered side effects from medication taken after an operation in early April to remove a benign tumor from an ovary. After being released from the hospital, Utada posted a message on her Web site telling her fans that she’s OK and urging young Japanese women to have regular gynecological examinations.

Utada’s hospitalization was just the latest in a series of incidents involving artists signed to record company Toshiba-EMI. Earlier this month, singer/guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei fractured his skull when he lost his footing while walking along a road in Miyazaki Prefecture. Hotei is expected to recover in a couple of months. In April, singer Fuyumi Sakamoto announced she would be taking a break from her career in order to get some much-needed rest. And back in January, another Toshiba-EMI female vocalist, Chiharu Onitsuka, suffered minor injuries when she fell off her scooter.

All of which has been blown up in classic sensationalist fashion by the weekly magazine Shukan Josei. In its May 28 edition, it featured a story with the wonderful headline “Successive nightmares are the curse of Akasaka!” (where Toshiba-EMI’s main office is located). One subhead reads, “Toshiba-EMI’s developing mystery — the falling dominoes nightmare.” The only mystery is that anyone would fall for such crapulous “journalism.”