You could never call Yumiko Shiina predictable. Finding success as a solo artist and then forming a band, her nine-year career has been as topsy-turvy as her music. And on “Heisei Fuzoku,” her first solo album in four years and the soundtrack to the Edo Period movie “Sakuran,” she and composer/ violinist Neko Saito turn in a set of jazz, Latin, tango, Broadway and classical songs that fuse perfectly with Shiina’s alt-pop songwriting and scratchy, throaty, sexy voice.
Made up largely of self-covers from Shiina’s back catalog, the tracklist at first glance looks like a copout. But these retreads are justified, each offering a new twist on the original by reworking arrangements, subtly changing chord-sequences or adding English lyrics. A sped-up “Meisai” sounds especially impressive, its swing-jazz groove referencing the influences Shiina reportedly gained from her father.
On the five brand-new tracks, Shiina turns in some of her best-ever vocal performances, showcasing English-language lyrics that radiate elegance. On the electronica-tinged “Oiran” she sings, “We’ve tied ourselves up together, but the knot is loose . . . I’m losing my mind to fits of jealousy,” and heartstrings are duly tugged. On the strength of these new songs, it seems a shame she didn’t include more.
Although Shiina has always come across as rather pretentious — using archaic Japanese, covering obscure show tunes, singing in French and German — each of her releases has been more confident than the last, distancing her from the apple-red blushes that allegedly inspired her childhood nickname “Ringo”; and while this album falls short of the highs of her band Tokyo Jihen’s recorded output, it’s another fine release from Japanese pop’s most intriguing star. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
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