No Japanese music group has been more interesting these past two years than AKB48, but “interesting” doesn’t always mean “good.” Several of the 89-members-and-growing outfit’s most notable moments have been ugly (the Minami Minegishi head-shaving scandal tops that list), but the idol group has also made some strides pop-wise — the occasional great hook and a handful of creative music videos that have demonstrated some self-awareness. The already-a-million-plus-sold new album “Tsugi no Ashiato” (“The Next Footsteps”) encapsulates the hits and misses of AKB48 — and modern J-pop — perfectly.
In the spring of 2012, then-most-popular AKB48 member Atsuko Maeda announced her impending graduation from the idol institution. Her departure sparked a stretch of strong releases, starting with the last single Maeda featured on, “Manatsu no Sounds Good!” The track solves the group’s biggest musical problem — having to accommodate the vocals of 26 women at once — by giving them a singalong-worthy chorus and cushioning it with horns that sound like they were jacked from the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” soundtrack.
From there, the group fine-tuned its default pep on “Gingham Check” and even got a little thunderous on the George A. Romero-gone-J-pop track “Uza.” Not all the Oricon-topping releases were good — “So Long” says it all in the title — yet it was AKB48′s richest period to date.
“Tsugi no Ashiato” could have easily had the singles from the past two years put together with some up-tempo pop thrown into the mix as filler (“Love Shugyo” for example). That would have produced a solid full-length release. Alas, J-pop in 2014 (and the AKB48 marketing model) dictates that maxing out is the key to success. The main disc clocks in at a hard-to-get-through one hour and eight minutes. Then it’s onto a second disc that contains nearly another hour of music. And, to inflate sales (mission accomplished), there are two versions of “Tsugi no Ashiato” with entirely different songs on them, making the release a staggering 36-song collection that lasts more than three hours.
Fans will be ecstatic. Casual listeners will likely find a bloated album that’s too focused on marketing to those fans. When “Tsugi no Ashiato” indulges that fandom, the result is that some good cuts such as “JJ ni Karitamono” and “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” get overshadowed (the latter is especially strong — AKB48 swapping out arcade-worthy chirpiness for some mid-day disco).
“Tsugi no Ashiato” is contemporary J-pop pushed to the extreme and is hard to embrace, yet there are enough populist moments to imagine a more accessible AKB48. (Patrick St. Michel)