2004-10-28 - "Kitschy, catchy, cool" - Athens Banner-Herald
"Kitschy, catchy, cool"
Utada -"Exodus" (Island) Grade: B
By: Josh Love
Athens Banner-Herald - Thursday, October 28, 2004
Hikaru Utada is arguably the biggest pop star in Japan today.
When it came time for her to make an English-language debut, it's clear both Utada and her record company wanted this little tidbit to be readily apparent. After all, this wasn't just some unheralded newcomer, but a bona fide cultural icon to a nation of 125 million.
Problem is, Utada doesn't sound very Japanese, but rather like a cross between some anonymous mid-'90s trip-hop vocalist, late-period Madonna and Christina Aguilera.
However, a lack of exoticism doesn't dilute Utada's artistry one bit; in fact, it's admirable she doesn't conform to all the cutesy-pie, bad-grammar Japanese stereotypes.
Instead, Utada aims to make music beyond borders, a global synthesis of styles that can't be pinned down easily. The facelessness of "Exodus" is sometimes worrisome, and Utada's vocals can be a bit overcooked, but ultra-catchy dance-pop can do plenty to erase these minor irritations, and Utada delivers all the exhilaration, sex appeal and melodrama that make the genre so guiltily wonderful.
BPM-throttled club tracks like "Devil Inside" and "Workout" bump beside the sleek R&B of "Tippy Toe," the sugary pop of "Easy Breezy" and the beyond-epic balladry of "Exodus '04" and "Kremlin Dusk" (the former produced by Timbaland, who also handles "Let Me Give You My Love").
The songs themselves are good enough to prove Utada's unique talents, but apparently either she or her handlers believed a little cultural reinforcement was needed to seal the deal. Occasionally it works, as in the winsome evocation of "streets of Tokyo" on "Exodus '04," but more often than not these glaring signifiers sap the music's energy and force us to concentrate on Utada's other-ness, which would be fine if they weren't so awkwardly fitted into the context of the song.
The worst offenders are "Workout," with its suggestion of "how people in the Far East get down," and especially "Easy Breezy," with its almost-so-bad-it's-brilliant chorus "you're easy breezy/and I'm Japanesey."
On the whole, Utada's lyrics tend to be too literal and kind of tin-eared, but that's not necessarily a point to her discredit, rather, it's an encouraging sign she wants to shirk convention. Now that's she's been given a proper introduction, maybe next time Utada will be able to truly show us she's more than just a kitschy import.