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Starting off on the right foot (and ending on the left . . .)

by Steve McClure

The Japanese music biz produces boy-girl pop duos with clockwork regularity — think Love Psychedelico or EE Jump. The most recent example is Orange Pekoe (that’s pronounced “peh-koe,” by the way), which comprises Kobe natives Kazuma Fujimoto and Tomoko Nagashima.

The two first met at university and formed a band in 1998 with other musically minded students, but soon decided to make a go of it as a duo. Orange Pekoe’s stylistic template is based on a light, almost effervescent pop-jazz fusion that’s sophisticated without being pretentious.

Orange Pekoe’s first release was an eponymous mini-album that came out on an indie label in April 2001, and it wasn’t long before the duo’s obvious talent landed them a deal with major label BMG Funhouse, which was in urgent need of signing some hit-making domestic acts.

Good taste is the central motif of Orange Pekoe’s debut album, “Organic Plastic Music,” which peaked at No. 5 on the Oricon album chart a few weeks back. The songs are light, well-crafted and catchy in an unobtrusive way. Call it “designer pop” — music for people who shop at IKEA. It’s perfect summer listening.

As is the norm with this kind of duo, the boy (Fujimoto) writes the music and plays most of the instruments, while the girl (Nagashima) writes the lyrics. Fujimoto lists The Beatles, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Stevie Wonder as his key influences, with jazz his most recent enthusiasm. Nagashima lists only Wonder as an influence, but her confident, technically accomplished vocals make it obvious she’s a serious student of the great jazz and pop singers.

On tracks such as “Taiyo No Kakera (A Piece of the Sun),” Fujimoto and Nagashima veer close to jazz (scat singing, upright bass), but never leave their pop sensibilities too far behind.

Fujimoto and Nagshima apparently refuse to appear on TV, nor in their own promotional videos, which I guess is supposed to lend them an aura of mystery. Or maybe they’re just shy.

On their home page, they describe how weird they felt on going into a CD shop and seeing a big product display for “Organic Plastic Music.”

“It was so embarrassing,” Fujimoto said, adding that he had to work up his courage to overcome his self-consciousness over his newfound fame.

Fujimoto has nothing to be embarrassed about. With its excellent songwriting, and beautiful arrangements and overall production, “Organic Plastic Music” is one of the strongest debut albums in recent J-pop history. In fact it’s just my cup of tea.

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Footnote: What do you make of the cover photo on Hikaru Utada’s new album, “Deep River”? Her stern expression and the heavy chiaroscuro style of the photo are worlds away from the 16-year-old girl-next-door we saw on the cover of her debut album, “First Love.”

The photos (by Kazuaki Kiriya) in the CD booklet are in a similarly austere vein, the idea being, presumably, to make Utada look more adult and more “serious” than other, idol-style performers. But I’m puzzled as to why Kiriya has taken extreme close-ups of various parts of Utada’s body such as her clenched fist, her shoulder, and perhaps oddest of all, her left foot. It’s a nice foot, to be sure, and probably an expensively insured one at that, but as a photo subject, it really is weird. Maybe this means Utada is getting into “heel-ing” music. Sorry . . .