Album Review: Chara - Sympathy (2017)

Watabiki Miwa aka Chara
Source: chara-web.net
Watabiki Miwa—much better known as Chara—just celebrated over 25 years as an established artist. I have written extensively about her work here and will continue to chronicle and review her discography in future posts. However, I couldn't resist the opportunity to review her latest album Sympathy, released earlier this week. 

Although Chara will be 50 next year, and has spent almost half her life in the music industry, I believe Sympathy is indelible proof that her sound remains fresh and innovative. Sympathy includes some obvious weak links, but the star tracks shine through and demand several repeats, which makes this bittersweet album a whimsical summer gem. 

Sympathy (2017)
Source: musicman-net.com
While her sound has evolved and gone through many phases of experimentation through the years, one thing I love about Chara is that she's always unmistakably herself and never fails to be daring with her work. Sympathy is clearly a sensual album, a rare theme to spot in the work of a Japanese artist of Chara's generation. 

However, love and sensuality has been a running theme in Chara's work from her flirty, borderline exhibitionist early-90s days to her now more refined sultriness. Occasionally paired with her other common theme of innocences, this album serves romance on a wide, delectable gradient. To use an example from Chara's discography, this album is as if Madrigal (2001) had a baby with Chara's 2010s sound. There is a funky playfulness here that is hard to miss. 

Naturally, perfection is unattainable, so let's start with the weaker tracks in the album.

In terms of execution and cohesion with the other tracks and general composition, "Love pop" and "Herbie" seem a bit awkward and out of place. Chara appeals to me because she's quite far from the mainstream, so when she attempts a mainstream sounding track, it's a bit jarring and unappealing to me. I understand the premise of "Love pop" with it's saccharine sound and 90s pop flavor, but I found that it was uncomfortably repetitious and lacked complexity.

Considering the other tracks, I was most confused by "Herbie". I like techno and techno-inspired music, but I felt this one would have been better as a separate release. It's different from what Chara usually gives us, but there's something stale about the composition; it sounds like many other techno-ish beats. Nevertheless, it's an interesting one and I prefer it over "Love pop". 

"Mellow Pink", "Funk", "KILIG", and "Sweet Sunshine" are all solid tracks. "Mellow Pink", "KILIG" and "Sweet Sunshine" are true-blue Chara songs in terms of mood and lyrics. Between "Mellow Pink" and 2016 single "Sweet Sunshine"—both ballads—"Mellow Pink" wins for me as the soulfulness in the vocal execution shines through more. There's a feeling of yearning that's quite powerful and compliments the desperation in the lyrics; I consider this one a step above the other three "average" tracks. 

Speaking of lyrics, "KILIG" is characteristically cryptic and childlike, which gives the track it's charm along with the baby piano breaks.

"Funk" is a daring English track written by Chara along with her teenage son Himi. Naturally, there are heavy elements of funk within this song. There isn't much of a "wow" factor, but it doesn't come off as gimmicky. 

On this 13-track album, seven songs stood out as the stars: the opener "Tiny Dancer", "Stars", "Sympathy", "Symphony", "Intimacy", "Darling Tree", and the closer "Chisana o Ie (Tiny House)". "Tiny Dancer" is a pleasant opening track, mainly because of the lyrics and funky, rhythmic chorus. I love the "strong girl in love" attitude in the song, especially the expressions about having to give up a "(bad) attitude" and giving into a "tiny dancer" heart in love. 

The title track "Sympathy" feels like a mature, better executed version of what "Love pop" wanted to be. It's a pretty conventional sounding popish song, but has an intricacy that keeps me listening. It's a wonderful blend of sweet and spice that I think casual Chara fans would appreciate.

In terms of mood, "Symphony" and "Intimacy" are quite similar, and both feature male backing guest vocals for some refreshing variety. These two are also the most sensual out of the bunch, not a surprise considering the titles. "Symphony" is a laid-back love song with memorable lyrics about two lovers in their own world.

BASI, the guest vocal on "Intimacy" caught my attention immediately as I feel he sounds just like Japanese trance group globe's Marc Panther! (I had to check the credits to make sure it wasn't him). Of course, that's not the only high point of this song. It feels like two or three tracks put together, but the changes in sound are melded beautifully to create a uniquely sweet R&B sound. 

I can only guess Chara's true inspiration for "Darling Tree", but as a big Showa Era kayokyoku (Japanese standard pop) fan, it's my favorite track on the album. The song reminds me of what several Japanese artists were releasing in the mid to late-70s. I feel it fits in well with the loungey, "mood" kayo aesthetic of Onuki Taeko's 1977 album Sunshower, and it sounds like a lost track from Chara's own Madrigal (2001). It's truly a wonderful homage to the popular music of decades ago with an updated feel; it doesn't sound dated at all. 

Like "Mellow Pink", "Stars" is a trademark childlike Chara balled. I find "Stars" to be an especially adorable track (yes, the cute star icons are part of the title) which expresses truly innocent emotions related to love like laughing with all your heart and feelings like "floating through the stars".

"Chisana o Ie (Tiny House)", a sad balled, is a great contemplative closing track with a short, appropriate length considering the theme. A slower track, the anguish behind it saves it from being a sleeper and the lyrics clearly have a great deal of thought behind them.

This is a solid summer release, and I greatly look forward to the tour Chara will put together to promote these awesome new songs!

Rating: 4/5
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