“Photogenic” is the sound of a wrongfully imprisoned inmate who was cleared of all charges being sent back to prison for no good reason. J-pop siren Salyu (born Ayako Mori) has spent the majority of her decade-plus career singing over generic instrumentals, her voice wasted on sounds better suited for a TV drama’s end credits. Last year, though, she collaborated with braniac producer Cornelius on a project called salyu × salyu. He created the best backdrops for her to sing over, slicing up Salyu’s voice to create little Salyu orchestras brimming with joy. On “Photogenic,” she’s hurried back into her cell, now decorated with lukewarm bells and “Sussudio”-level horns.
Despite the depressing wallpaper, Salyu still sounds great on her fifth album. Her voice conceals rough edges, the sort of details you don’t hear in the honed singing of an Ayumi Hamasaki. Yet this gives Salyu a vulnerable charm, her words warbling slightly when she holds a note and when she switches to a higher register she sounds wonderful, at times bringing to mind Icelandic pop star Björk. Cornelius built a whole album out of these pleasing sounds, but “Photogenic” just relies on her singing to save otherwise tepid songs. The way she stretches out sounds on “Aozora” (“Blue Sky”) and “Tsuki no Uragawa” (“Back Side of the Moon”) lifts those tracks toward respectability. If ever an album pleaded for the isolated vocal tracks to leak, it’s this one.
The music, meanwhile, might actually be the worst material Salyu has had to deal with. Only the parade horns of “Life” and the chilly dance beat of “Parallel Night” end up worthwhile. Nearly everything else bores, from the too-long ballad “Lighthouse” to the cheesy saxophone of the poorly titled “Breakthrough.” The experimentation of salyu × salyu looms large over this album — the closest “Photogenic” gets to experimental is when opening track “Camera” busts out some bongos. Salyu deserves better than this.