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Bland Title, Flavorful Music: GEM Impact’s “Japanese Songs” (Review)

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Hibino and the GEM Impact crew have been prolific publishers of original albums lately. Today, we’re talking about “Japanese Songs,” which is about as bland and descriptive a title as if they had renamed “Gentle Love” something like “This is some jazz music I recorded with my friends.”

This particular album is a collection of 17 piano solo recordings, arranged and performed by GEM Impact members Yuichiro Onuki and Yoko Nakamura. The source compositions are actually from more Western-style Japanese composers of the last century (a few of the tracks have unknown composers and are folk pieces from the last 200 years).

If you are into piano solo recordings as much as I am, please continue on the journey! … After the jump!!

I think I may have made a mistake in my opening. Is it actually fair to say that “Japanese Songs” is as descriptive as “jazz music I recorded with my friends” … ? Maybe not. It depends on what you infer when you hear “Japanese Songs.” Do you think of J-Pop? Enka? Old East Asian woodwinds and strings with quarter-steps written in their music? Noh theatre?

If you’re thinking any of those things, you’re actually way off base. These piano pieces have a thoroughly Westernized, Romantic, melodic/tonal sound to them. The arrangements on piano take the already simple source melodies and give them a sound that is 100% palatable to modern, “Western” ears. So despite the name Japanese Songs, don’t expect much of anything that sounds, or feels, foreign. This is comfortable. This is morning tea music. It could probably work in a doctor’s office or other “waiting room” scenarios.

One thing that is distinctly Japanese about it all, however, is the track naming. Most of these pieces are named after nature. “Fuji no Yama” — well, you don’t have to know Japanese to see this is a song about Mt. Fuji. “Hana” is “Flower,” “Umi” is “Sea,” etc. So these are Japanese songs inspired by nature, it would seem. The five or six source composers for these pieces seemed to have an affinity for writing music around these simple environmental settings/features.

As far as the arrangements go, I really enjoyed them all. I do have a clear preference, though. Yoko Nakamura’s five tracks on the album are my favorite, and among those five, “Umi” is my absolute favorite. It’s one of the shortest tracks on the album, a little over 2 minutes in length. But it has so much energy, and so much dynamic variation, it wins over my ears and mind every time I hear it.

There are very few tracks based in a minor key on this album. Among them, I noticed “Yoimachigusa” and “Koujyou no Tsuki,” both arranged by Onuki-san, were the somber, morose, minor pieces of the album. The rest are all very bright and uplifting. But I love these darker pieces. Dark piano pieces, done right, will always resonate with me. “Koujyou no Tsuki” actually uses the minor/major/augment half-step motion that you can hear in “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec” from Final Fantasy VIII. You know what I mean. A minor to F to the diminished A (A C F# chord) and back down. I love that.

A quick note on performance and production quality: it’s all strong. No noticeable flaws — as is to be expected.

So, who wants to add a piano album to their collection? “Japanese Songs” may not top, say, any Final Fantasy Piano Collection, but it is something different, and something you can grow to love. Or, if you’re not interested in growing, you can slowly waste away with a hot beverage in hand, sitting on your couch, relaxing to the music. It’s a tasty treat.