Watching the roll-out for Avex’s newest pop soloist Kalen Anzai has been interesting, to say the least. While most agencies would attempt to break an artist through some combination of currently popular music trends, Anzai has been positioned as a nostalgia play for late-90’s J-pop – specifically the icy-voiced, melodic dance sound of Ayumi Hamasaki. In fact, Anzai recently starred in an utterly bonkers soap-operatic drama chronicling Hamasaki’s rise to fame. Few debuts that I can remember have hinged so strongly on a specific influence.
But, you know what? This is okay with me. Ayumi Hamasaki’s late-90’s material is fantastic, and far-removed from any current pop trends we’re hearing. I would prefer to see Kalen Anzai carve a path unique to herself, but I can’t say I’m upset to hear a few modern Hamasaki retreads. New single Bokura wa Tsuyoku Nareru (roughly, “We Can Be Strong”) is both the most successful and most baffling of these throwbacks.
On one hand, Bokura perfectly reassembles the late-90’s synth dance-rock sound. This comes courtesy of composer/producer Mitsuru Igarashi, who co-founded pop trio Every Little Thing (seriously, drop what you’re doing and check them out right now). He knows his way around a retro beat and pleasantly anthemic pop melody. Oddly, he’s imbued Bokura with a full on marching band (the Kyoto Tachibana Senior High School Band, to be specific), and the effect is quite strange. There are times it works, but the instrumentation is mixed so strangely that Bokura often sounds like a pop track with a school band practicing along over the top. Repeated listens make the experience less jarring, but I can’t help wish for a mix that felt more balanced.
Even so, at its heart Bokura wa Tsuyoku Nareru is a supremely charming pop song that makes good use of Anzai’s bright, high-pitched vocal. I know that Avex’s copy-and-paste approach to pop stardom has ruffled a few feathers, but I’m quite taken with this nostalgia trip – marching band or no marching band.
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