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Monday, October 25, 2004



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COURTESY OF KENNETH CAPPELLO / ISLAND
Japanese pop star Utada Hikaru has released her first English-language CD.


Heading east

n the first track off her new album "Exodus," Utada sings, "I don't wanna cross over between this genre, that genre ... I just wanna go further between here and there, grow wiser." But, indeed, crossing over is what the singer has done. The 21-year-old artist formerly known as Utada Hikaru has already conquered Japan with three hit albums, "First Love," "Distance" and "Deep River."

"Exodus"
Utada (Island)

Now, she's going after American audiences with her first English-language release, diversifying her musical style in the process. The result is an album markedly different from anything she's done before.

Utada made her mark in Japan singing upbeat, catchy songs that people could tap their fingers and try to sing along to while driving to work. (Not that this reviewer has ever done such a thing, mind you.) "Easy Breezy," which is being positioned as her breakout single, certainly fits into the style of those songs, although cheesy lyrics like "You're easy breezy and I'm Japanesey" and some yowling at the end about how "she's got a new MICROPHOOOOOONE" hurt that cause.

Many of her other songs aren't exactly the stuff of karaoke room legend, targeted more for the dance club crowd than anything else. Some of them echo her ethnic heritage with hints of Asian music, like the koto-like sounds that back the beat in "Devil Inside" and the Indian-influenced violins playing in the background of "Exodus '04."

But what sets her apart from the current breed of pop singers on America's airwaves, is her ability to write lyrics that don't rely on raunch and show she has a firm command of English. (And rightfully so -- she is bilingual and was studying at Columbia University before taking a break to focus on her career.) Thus, there are lines that reference everything from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" to Led Zepplin's BBC sessions. Again, they aren't sing-along material, but Utada's vocals combined with the dance beats backing them manage to pull it off.

As in most any other album, there are a few clunkers. "Tippy Toe" features Utada straining to fit far too many words into a single breath, making the phrase "Every time I think about you, heaven knows I fall into a groove" sound like three words glommed together. And who knows the reasoning for "The Workout," with its moans, squeaks and something that may or may not be a melody.

Still, while longtime fans may at first cringe at her new sound, repeated listenings will reveal a collection that stands on its own unique merits.



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