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With Shina, the songs don’t have to remain the same

by Steve McClure

All too often, albums of cover songs are just stopgap efforts put out by artists whose creative juices have run dry. So when I heard that Ringo Shina was making her comeback in the form of a covers album after taking a year’s maternity leave, I was skeptical. But my expectations were raised as the names of the songs she was covering were announced one after another on her Web site. It was a weirdly eclectic list, including songs as utterly different as The Beatles’ “Yer Blues” and “I Wanna be Loved by You” from the movie “Some Like It Hot.”

I’ve been listening to the album, titled “Utaite Myori — Sono Ichi” (which translates very roughly as “I’m So Happy to Be a Singer — Volume 1″) over the past few days, and it is anything but a time-filling, contractual obligation collection. In fact, I think it’s one of the best albums released in Japan so far this year.

The first thing that strikes you is just how widely Shina has cast her net in gathering material to cover on this two-CD set. Besides Japanese, she sings in English, German, French and Portuguese. And she tackles the foreign-language songs with assurance and aplomb. Not many Japanese artists could handle this kind of linguistic challenge.

What separates the album from other covers collections is that Shina and her producers, Toshiyuki Mori and Seiji Kameji, have come up with some wildly unorthodox arrangements that put an entirely different spin on many of the 18 songs included in the album. For example, Serge Gainsbourg’s “Jazz a Go Go” (originally recorded by ’60s chanteuse France Gall) is done in a weirdly mutated electronica style with Shina singing in robotic-sounding vocals.

She has great fun vamping her way through “I Wanna Be Loved by You” (made famous by Marilyn Monroe), with her backing musicians sounding like a bar band that’s been to the bar a few times during the course of the evening. A theremin solo adds a wonderfully surreal touch to the track. And on her version of Schubert’s “Heidenröslein,” Shina sounds like a psychotic Teutonic harpy.

The album also features an English-language duet between Shina and Utada Hikaru on the Roger Nichols-Paul Williams song “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” (which was a hit for The Carpenters back in 1974). Utada sings in a somewhat lower register than usual, and the two singers breathe new life into this MOR number.

There’s even a version of that all-time schlock classic “More” (as in “More than the greatest love the world has known . . .”), which Shina sings dead straight, without a hint of irony. Somehow she gets away with it.

Shina’s scorching version of “Yer Blues” shows that motherhood has not mellowed her at all. On this song, she’s in full screaming banshee mode, singing against a bone-crushingly heavy backing track. But she adds an ethereal, dreamy-sounding bridge section that contrasts beautifully with the metallic power of the rest of the song. Brilliant.

“Utaite Myori — Sono Ichi” (which is currently No. 2 on the Oricon album chart) establishes Shina as an artist of great vision, emotional depth and maturity. And she’s still only 23.

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Yusuke Chiba, frontman of truly excellent band Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, is one of Japanese rock’s best vocalists. He’s got a voice that can peel paint from walls. Now he’s joined forces with former Blankey Jet City bassist Toshiaki Terui and Masato, who’s the drummer for the curiously named Assfort, in a new band called Rosso. Their debut album, “Bird,” is simple, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, performed with the same kind of blazingly intense passion that TMGE fans know and love.

“Bird” could almost pass for a TMGE album, were it not for the absence of Futoshi Abe’s lead guitar, which adds so much to the TMGE sound. Chiba is a much more limited guitar player, so the focus of Bird’s music is his on-the-edge-of-psychosis vocals (although “Jerry Love” features an insistent staccato guitar riff that recalls Television’s “Marquee Moon”).

“Bird” has sold rather well for such an uncompromising hard-core rock album, reaching No. 19 on the May 15 Oricon chart. That’s welcome news for Rosso’s record label, Nippon Columbia, which has been fairly hit-free of late.