‘Hikaru Utada Live Sessions From Air Studios’ Concert Film Review – Billboard
Japanese singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada has released his highly anticipated eighth studio album, WRONG MODE, Wednesday (January 19). Accompanying his latest project – which encompasses many of his recent hits such as “One Last Kiss”, “Facing my fears” and “PINK BLOOD” — is a studio concert film titled Hikaru Utada Live Sessions from Air Studios, with the very first live interpretations of 11 selected tracks, including some excerpts from his new album.
This live review from rising music writer Tsuya-chan – who interviewed the 38-year-old superstar for a Billboard Japan feature article in June last year – delves into the complex soundscape of the session and contemplates the innovative beauty of the J-pop icon’s online studio concert in London.
I want to stay immersed in the deep, erotic contours of this sound. Has there ever been a series of sounds this sweet and dignified?
On the occasion of the release of his new album WRONG MODE, Hikaru Utada will be doing something she’s never done before: streaming performances of 11 carefully curated tracks, including some from the new set. As the full image of her first new album in three years and eight months – along with the live video – is revealed, it invites various speculations. How will it reproduce the peak rhythms that have already been so sharpened and whose unnecessary sounds have been eliminated to the extreme? How much play will she add to her stoically minimal sounds? How will Hikaru Utada’s own voice, which forms a multi-layered structure of loops, be handled in the live performance? Is her casual look featured in the photos for WRONG MODE an important aspect to integrate into the session? What part of herself does Hikaru Utada intend to share with her audience?
As I looked at the screen eagerly, Utada and the other band members appeared in a relaxed mood. They are Jodi Milliner on bass, Earl Harvin on drums, Reuben James on keyboards and Henry Bowers-Broadbent on guitar and keyboards. I guess they know each other well. Even if they don’t, they are all up-and-coming musicians who are part of the UK music scene. Some of the members performed in the Sam Smith livestream in October 2020 and left strong impressions on those who watched the show. That performance was at Abbey Road Studios, while this one was from Air Studios, best known for their main venue, Lyndhurst Hall, a converted church. This time, Utada’s recording was done in the more compact Studio 1.
First of all, I would like to compliment the space of Studio 1. The glass reflects the people inside the studio as well as the instruments.
Director, David Barnard, actively captures the reflections of people and instruments on glass to show the fluctuation of Hikaru Utada’s pop music, which is open to the masses, but at the same time plays chamber music with a restrained mood.
Mirrors also played an important role in the music video for “PINK BLOOD” released last year. Utada affirmed the many facets that emerge from the different layers and began to expose them to fans. While the meaning of the lyrics should not be easily linked to the artists themselves, if we were to link the two in this case, we can infer that taboos no longer exist for the artist who sang, “I n don’t need to show it to anyone / For something beautiful to be beautiful / I already know it is” and “To hell with sitting on a throne / Only a chair that i chose for me will do” in “PINK BLOOD”. Utada – allowing listeners to take up his natural attitude as permission to deepen his works and confront them.
The livestream began with the album’s title track, “BAD MODE.” The music immediately goes against our expectation of what “bad” means in its simplest sense. The laid-back rendition of the extremely descriptive lyrics adds another layer of meaning to the song, which could be described as “bad positive” – painful because it’s love. Oscillating instruments create an airy groove. Soweto Kinch’s saxophone is particularly impressive. As soon as the song ends, Utada glances at him and smiles – the kind of smile that hides a hint of shyness when things are going well. The vibes are good and the air is full of joy.
Then we hear the intro to “One Last Kiss” – that quiet, yet incredibly luscious sound that fills our ears. Ruth O’Mahony Brady plays keyboards, her deep blue fingernails hitting the keys of the phrase, and I’m surprised that most of the sounds in this song’s lyrics can be reproduced by instruments – more so than I can. ‘d imagined. Towards the end of the track, Utada alternates between rhythmic vocals (“oh oh oh oh oh oh…”) and melodic vocals (“wasurerarenai hito”, which means “unforgettable person”), and finally begins to play the keyboard herself to join the multilayer groove. The KOMPLETE KONTROL A25 moves as Utada’s fingers dance across the keyboard. An immersive aura envelops the entire studio. Huge! I witness the recreation of “One Last Kiss” through the dynamism of a live performance.
Air Studios are often used by artists to achieve an ethereal, epic finish to their music, and while the space is ideal for creating this kind of grand sound, Utada’s performance has a much cleaner, more modern flavor to it. I guess the reason his live rendition of club-inspired music sounds so sleek and dynamic owes a lot to the skills of the band members and sound engineer Steve Fitzmaurice, as well as the technological ability from the studio itself.
The “lively” sound is further accentuated in the next song, “Kimini Muchuu” (crazy about you). The lush, sultry bass sounds typical of tracks produced by AG Cook lend a sense of abnormality to the live performance, and Utada meticulously adds his vocals to what must be an extremely difficult beat to sustain. At the same time, Will Fry’s percussion takes my breath away. Her performance reveals how these sounds are produced and invites viewers into what looks like a spiral maze-like sound structure. The same goes for the next two tracks, “Darenimo Iwanai” (I won’t tell anyone) and “Find Love”, where percussive rhythms and electronic sounds merge in an extremely organic way. Especially in “Find Love”, the crisp, disciplined drumming reinforces the band’s performance, and the reverberations in the intervals between the relatively sparse notes create an elegant sense of fun. This is the most effective use of the structure of recent Utada songs with fewer notes. The band members seem quite satisfied after the performance and the “OK!” »
The tribal-flavored drumming is one of the main features of the show, and the tracks “Hotel Lobby” and “About Me”, which are credited to Utada, may have been selected for this aspect. But it’s not just about highlighting these songs from a “world music” perspective. While studio recordings are faithfully reproduced in this live performance, it seems that careful attention is paid to how the sound rings out and how it resonates – the contribution of percussion is significant in this sense. The same goes for songs like “Time”, “Face My Fears”, and “Beautiful World”.
The highlight of the live broadcast may be “PINK BLOOD”. After repeating the track initially with a new feel, Utada goes back and forth between rhythmic vocals and melodic vocals to set the song’s trajectory. She links her speech to facial expressions seen for the first time, as if to wring something out, looking a little pained, but also majestic.
I remember the oft-quoted quote from the artist: “I regard the melody itself as a rhythm. She creates another trajectory through the song, another order that goes against the main rhythm. Throughout the set, I am impressed by the way she expresses her flow as if to generate rhythm from start to finish.
The creation of rhythm is an act of listening to one’s inner cadence, capturing the different emotions that spring up, returning them to the body. So you could say that this live performance is a time when we were allowed to enter his deep forbidden realm. Now, free from any constraints, Hikaru Utada has entered a new mode. This show was a historic moment where we were finally allowed to enter an area we had never seen before.
This article by Tsuya-chan first appeared on Billboard Japan.