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Nice And Slow: Ayumi Hamasaki’s “Ballad”

If you are a regular reader of this blog (insert self-deprecating sentence here), you’ve most likely seen me mention the “J-Pop ballad problem.” It refers to the challenge of critiquing a slow, ballad-type tune by a Japanese artist, partially because the central-to-the-song lyrics are in another language, but primarily because it seems like every single song comes out of a giant mold. Most of the big, emotional anthems I’ve heard follow the same trudging template, and after a while all these songs have sort of bled together into one constantly-building karaoke smash.

Ayumi Hamasaki knows this J-Pop staple well. Since her debut in 1998, “the Empress of Pop” has given the world an arsenal of so-similar ballads. Hamasaki’s latest single “You Were…” even captures the critical challenge rather well – I touched on “You Were…” before. Her songs aren’t exactly forward thinking.

So it’s surprising to find that the B-side to “You Were…” is one of the better J-Pop ballads I’ve heard since starting this blog. The appropriate-but-boringly titled “Ballad” offers a few swerves on this type of song that make it miles more captivating than it’s peers (or A-Side). Most J-Pop ballads sound like they are trying to capture the dizzy magic of a Disney film in five minutes, usually jamming too many elements together for anything to really stand out. Hamasaki opts to pace “Ballad” like a piece of cinema – “Ballad” opens with some almost-traditional Japanese guitar plucking, before an orchestral swell hits prior to Hamasaki’s verses. After that, the instruments become minimal once again until the strings shoot up at the chorus. This reserved approach allows “Ballad” to reveal itself over time and tug the listener along with it.

“Ballad’s” reserved structure also allows the track plenty of room to highlight it’s greatest asset – Ayumi Hamasaki’s voice. Francis Henville of Stylus highlighted this back in 2004 when discussing the acoustic piano version of her song “Moments,” writing “it’s a track that lets you put her voice under a microscope. And a new world is revealed.” Give “You Were…” another listen and notice how the Salvation Army production always boxes in Hamasaki’s vocals, never allowing them a chance alone in the spotlight. The minimal strokes of “Ballad,” on the other hand, force her vocals to the very center. Even when the strings pick up at the chorus, they quickly die back down and let her singing take care of business. And those vocals are absolutely killer. Hamasaki’s voice here drips with jittery emotion, the quieter verses trembling ever so slightly. Henville labeled Hamasaki’s ballads “insincere,” but if she’s faking on “Ballad,” she’s still doing an excellent job conveying a sense of longing.

Hamasaki’s “Ballad” transcends so many J-Pop ballad pitfalls it should be a case study – it never lags, it never overwhelms and it makes its emotional intentions clear even if you don’t know a lick of Japanese. It might be a fluke in her song book, but it’s a pleasant pop surprise to start 2010