Review: Hideki Kaji’s Strawberries And Cream

Hideki Kaji came closest to an international breakthrough after he got mugged while dressed as a pineapple this past Spring. While filming the music video for “Passion Fruits” in Sweden, three guys attacked the fruit-costume-clad Kaji and stole $2500 worth of camera. The story worked it’s way to various “News of the Weird” features and even earned a post on Fark (read the comments at your own peril). After 13 years of releasing music, this would be the reason international media started paying attention to Kaji.

Contrary to The Local’s description of him as a “world-renowned popstar”, Hideki Kaji is one of the most under-appreciated artists around. He’s been an absolute workhorse for more than a decade, regularly releasing good J-Pop influenced indie-pop. To borrow a baseball metaphor, he’s yet to hit on an A-Rod-sized homerun of an album, but rather has consistently singled with his music. Kaji, sans pineapple, has been more or less ignored by the music media outside Japan. Dude doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia page.

Strawberries And Cream, Kaji’s latest full-length, won’t come close to surpassing the attention he got for being beaten up. It’s another solid release that finds Kaji flexing his poppy songwriting abilities with an occasional sidestep thrown in for good measure. Not the stuff of Top 50 lists, but an enjoyable album that only reinforces the idea the rest of the world is missing out on something great here.

Strawberries initially sounds like a potential next-level work thanks to the strength of the first three tracks. Opener “Mini Skirt” bathes itself in sunny-day drums and guitar, Kaji’s singing happily skipping ahead to the beat. It’s pure pop pleasure with a few extras stacked on for good measure – Kaji sneaks in some blippy electronics, horns and strings to keep things fresh. Next up is “Passion Fruits,” which somehow takes two of the most overused musical tricks of 2009 (children singing and ’80s synths) and makes them sound fresh. Kaji avoids the mistake countless bands and even genres (coughglo-ficough) have made of shoving them front-and-center, instead using the two effect sparingly during the song’s run time. This allows Kaji’s tropical-tinged, giddy chorus to steal the show on what ends up being the album’s best pop moment. “Wicked, Smashing, Action” rounds out the opening trio with a relentless drumbeat and a dorky-but-endearing keyboard running underneath the song. It’s a more dancey affair complete with a nifty Reggae-breakdown that, admittedly, adds nothing to the track but still sounds cool enough.

“Here Comes The Sunny Beat’s!” forced ska-by-numbers quickly ends the album’s strong start, the horns squanking away but never going anywhere interesting. The middle portion of Strawberries And Cream is a very hit-and-miss affair. The string-heavy “Brave Our Hearts” offers up a great disco impersonation while “Heaven Only Knows” reaches the peaks of those first few songs by boasting three moments that could anchor a song of their own, all while being far more downtrodden then anything else here. “Check This Out,” however, is guitar-centric J-Rock that could be streamed on countless other artists MySpace page. “The Sweetest Love” follows, and it’s barrage of kiddie-sounding instruments and what might be squeaky toys come off as way too cutesy even for an artist big upped on twee.net.

The back end of the album comes off as a much more consistently strong, starting up with the excellent “Ska Vi Fika?” The song boasts all sorts of details (bells, snippets of horn) but places the spotlight on the upbeat guitar-driven melody, which leads into a chorus perked up by rinky-dink piano. The most intriguing song on the album, “Alright!,” find Kaji dipping his toes into R&B, enlisting a female singer to coo over a barely-there keyboard. It lasts 15 seconds but ends up being the one track on Strawberries one wishes could be stretched out. Kaji rocks out on the title track, his guitar playing unhinged so much it almost feels like he’s sonically apologizing for the walled in “Check This Out.”

Strawberries And Cream sounds a little busier than other Kaji releases at times, but overall isn’t a massive departure from the upbeat indie-pop he’s been rolling out since 1996. It’s another bullet point on a strong resume not getting put on enough desks. No matter – the eventual “Best Of Hideki Kaji” disk is going to kill and for now, he’s given the world another solid album. And who knows, the whole pineapple-mugging story could pop up again in end-of-year news features and boost album sales.

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