Album Review: DJ Okawari – Mirror (2009)
Rating: 2 out of 5 Potholes
For those of you that scan google blog search religiously, or stay up on independent music in other ways, I know what you might be thinking: Great, another japanese producer with an album. This year I have heard albums from other Japanese producers, namely Cradle Orchestra and Prisma, that share a very relaxed aesthetic with DJ Okawari’s latest release through Libyus Music, Mirror. Perhaps I simply hadn’t noticed in previous years, when Japan seemed to essentially revolve around Fat Jon and Nujabes, but there hasn’t been such a deluge of restrained, delicate hip-hop in quite a long time, if ever. The only other touchstone I have for Japanese hip-hop production is DJ Honda, who for all intents and purposes appears to be an anomaly.
This rounded-edges, smooth aesthetic is made pretty clear on the two opening tracks, “Sound of Silence” and “Luv Letter”. The first features relaxing, breathy vocals from KAORI, and a jazzy piano that plays continuously over very, very light hip-hop drums. This blueprint is important to note early because it continues to dominate most of the tracks. For example, “Free Bird” and “All I Have” are essentially smooth jazz and contemporary R&B. Amanda Diva guests on the latter, and accompanied by a pretty slick (though reminiscent of Kenny G) saxophone appears game for making as exciting a song as possible.
However, her vocals are a little blurry, and many times come out hard to understand. Which would be disappointing if I hadn’t already been put through Okawari and Amadori’s cover of Des’ree’s American R&B hit “You Gotta Be”, a track where Amadori is given ample time to prove she wouldn’t have made it in the ’90s R&B market, or any decade for that matter. Her mumbly, breathy vocals (which could be part of Okawari’s blueprint for the album and partially out of her control) ruin all the fun of the track’s charm, and her vocals lack the sexual element Des’ree had measured so well. The album’s other key aesthetic belongs (surprisingly?) to Final Fantasy and other role-playing game soundtracks. The piano-driven, not-exactly-at-all-hip-hop “Minamo”, “Afterschool” and especially “Luv Letter” sound more like overworld themes or shopping mall muzak than foreground music or, more exactly, like it should be marketed as hip-hop. Scratches can be found on “Evening Comes 2”, the final track, and trip-hop informs the personality of “Following the Dream”, but many of the tracks have a lighter than air feeling that makes the album as a whole quite difficult to pay attention to, or appreciate in a hip-hop context – just like those Cradle Orchestra and Prisma records. The only time the whole thing really comes together into a complete package is on mid-album highlight “Sweet Light”, which blends many elements of smooth NPR-oriented jazz with the mid-level, bouncy 808 bass that fellow international producers J.R. & Ph7 wield so effectively.
On his self-edited last.fm page, Okawari states, “I regard a scene and relevance with feelings as important, and make a sound and give it to ‘an ease’ – well-defined tightened feeling such wind (sic) when I open a book – to fall asleep just before that”. His goal appears to be sleepy music, or music with which to go about your day with calm and relaxation. And in that sense, he has succeeded beyond all measure because I can’t say I’ve complained my way through any of my sessions with this album the past week. In the right audience’s hands, I’m sure this is great music, but unfortunately it lacks that edge and polish that I’d like to see from my hip-hop. At it’s best, a slow morning/long night type of album, or for those beyond the braggadocio of most hip-hop, past and present.