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On First Listen: Miwa’s Guitarissimo

J-Pop artist Miwa recently made Japanese music history when her debut album Guitarissimo reached the number one spot on the Oricon album charts. The 20 year old became the first Heisei period-born singer (this period started in 1989) to climb to the top of that list. This feat coupled with a movie-worthy climb to musical fame (Wikipedia can do the heavy lifting, but she worked part-time jobs to save up money for her first guitar despite that being against her school’s rules amongst other obstacles) makes Miwa an already interesting subject to look at. Yet what really makes Guitarissimo’s rise fascinating is how she did it for someone her age.

The Heisei angle makes for a good headline, but plenty of other performers born well into the 90s can boast similar success. The majority of members in AKB48 and the various other (insert city initials)48 acts came into the world around the start of the Clinton administration, and they’ve moved way more singles than Miwa has. Three-fourths of rock group SCANDAL are Heisei babies, and the Johnny’s act Hey! Say! JUMP wears its pride via an eye-roll of a pun. Miwa isn’t some musical outlier, especially in a culture obsessed with youth like the Japanese are.

Yet Miwa isn’t leaning entirely on the super-young angle to sell her debut album. The thing’s titled Guitarissimo after all, implying some sort of six-string skill presumably on display within this disc. Admittedly it’s kind of a silly move, the classic “forget all those OTHER pop stars, I PLAY my instruments” defense busted out by people hung up on artists having to play some sort of “real” instrument…no computers please!…to have any credibility. That thinking is pretty silly, but I’ll also cop to thinking the way Miwa’s being branded stands as a fresh blast of air compared to say AKB48, who prance around in schoolgirl outfits or cat costumes. That act…along with SCANDAL who started off in sorta the same place as Miwa but now have turned into fashion magazine inserts…emphasizes physical appearance over the musical side, to the point where the actual music takes a backseat to whatever “cute” clothes the group members are wearing this week. Miwa avoids that pitfall (not to mention the emphasis on her being in university while a lot of AKB48 aren’t), putting the focus on her music almost exclusively.

The one drawback to this shrew move – when one listens to Guitarissimo they will be expecting to be wowed by perceived musicianship. Miwa gives ample opportunity to show off, as the whole album clocks in well over an hour. This also ends up being its greatest weakness, as having to fill up all that time leads to a lot of filler. A large chunk of Guitarissimo features not-quite-heavy-but-not-quite-ballad guitar songs that sound like a whole lot of other J-Pop artists armed with acoustic guitars. That sound being “pretty boring.” Miwa certainly comes off as a good musician, but this isn’t some DIY cassette release she’s selling out of her car. This is a major release, and it definitely sounds like one, sometimes to the point of feeling a little too sanitized.

Guitarissimo does show flashes of pure, great pop. Opener “Arienai!!” is a nice chirpy-but-aggressive bopalong that starts Miwa’s debut off very well. Her singles boast a similar charm – “Don’t Cry Anymore” apes the sappier moments of Avril Lavigne’s career but features such a strong chorus those missteps don’t come off too badly. Better are the moments when she swipes from Lavigne’s upbeat pop, like on “Change” and especially the giddy bounce of “Little Girl.” Scattered across this disc are solid J-Pop numbers, nothing game changing but pleasantly catchy.

Though Guitarissimo as a whole goes on way too long, it features strong moments that could probably be freed from the LP itself and turned into a pretty good J-Pop EP. Ultimately, it’s Miwa’s image most worth celebrating, a nice change of pace when it comes to how young musicians get marketed in Japan. Glad the people still buying albums feels the same way.