Review: Aso Natsuko – My Starlit Point

Aso Natsuko is one of those idols I really wish got more press. It could be mostly my personal biases, but she’s had consistently good music and is a strong performer. As a singer that mainly does things for anime openings, so she doesn’t really get considered among most idol performers, which is unfortunate. Also unfortunately, she just announced that her music career is going on hiatus. This is an understandable move; she is a presenter on ZIP, a morning TV show and is, of all things, in school as a law student. While I wish Natsuko the best of luck in her future endeavors, and I know she’s going to be successful at whatever she does, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. This album, as I’ll elaborate further, makes me wish that she was sticking with this, on a purely selfish level.

1. My Starlit Point – Every Natsuko album comes with a titular song that generally does a good job of summing up the album as a whole. My Starlit Point is no exception. I recommend Natsuko’s albums for a reason; they are cohesive products that feel like a natural whole, as opposed to the collection of singles that idol albums too often tend to fall into.

This song is an upbeat, pleasant song that isn’t as dramatic as some of the later songs (MoonRise Romance is one) in the album but is probably the best way to start it off. The instrumentation could have been too busy and overdone; there’s electric guitar, strings, some (fake) brass instruments, percussion, clapping and Natsuko is often doing some background/echoing vocals. However, it’s a testament to the arrangement that so many elements sound so cohesive and never detract from the melody and from Natsuko’s vocals. She sounds especially good here; it’s clear she’s continuing to improve as a vocalist.

This song is light and pleasant. It occasionally veers into the dramatic swelling strings that define some of the later songs, but this is mostly a pleasant, easy to listen to song. 8/10

2. Merry-go-Round– This is actually a B-Side from the Lovely Girls Anthem single. Natsuko sang this when I saw her live, and this was the one song I really wanted to listen to more, so I’m very glad it made it onto the album!

Merry-go-round features one of my favorite hallmarks of Aso Natsuko’s music; her fast singing (and how she does her background vocals). While it’s not quite to the level of Parade (which comes straight after…) some of the fast lines are enough to make some vocalists trip.

This starts off the trend of very staccato, pizzicato performing, particularly in the backing strings. This is a running motif of this album, and I think a very indicative one for whether you will care for this album. If this sounds a bit too precious for you, you might want to stay away. However, I personally love it, so this album fits with my personal tastes.

This is not the best or the most mind-blowing song by Natsuko; in fact, it feels very standard for this album. However, that’s particularly why I enjoy it. 8/10

3. Parade – One of my top songs of 2012! Parade is probably the single that fits least on this album (though Fighting Growing Diary could be debated). While strings (well, string sounds) are still here, the main focus of Parade is a strong, driving drum beat and the electric guitar. It never stops sounding like a Natsuko song, but it focuses more on the upbeat rock type of sound you get from a drum/guitar heavy arrangement/mix. The guitar solo is quite nice, and I’d feel comfortable putting it on a list of best guitar solos found in idol songs (OK where is this list).

I also mentioned that the fast singing that Nacchan is known for is in here. Which it is. She sounds fantastic rattling off these lyrics. Some sound slightly awkward, but Natsuko delivers it with such style that it doesn’t matter.

The song is fun, almost uplifting, and is a pleasant deviation for this album. It fits Natsuko remarkably well, and the balance of the arrangement is spot on, like always. 9/10.

4. Fighting Growing Diary– I generally like all of Natsuko’s music. However, for a long time, this is what I considered to be Natsuko’s weakest single. It’s not bad, but I never loved it as much as Parade, and found it to be an anomaly of her singles catalog. However, with some listening, it doesn’t feel as anomalous. There’s still a lot of pizzicato strings, for example. The instrumental might be mostly (way fake) brass instruments and Natsuko never sings fast, but this is still a worthy, happy song.

That said, even after a new appreciation, it is the weakest single that appears on the album. There’s no drama from swelling strings, it doesn’t have the guitar-driven excellence of Parade, and it’s not nearly as pleasant to listen to as My Starlit Point. This isn’t to say this is a bad song; not at all. However, if I had to pick a weak link from the pre-established songs of this album, this would be it. 7/10

5. CROSS x OVER SENSATION – This is the other A-Side on the Parade single, and, as much as I love Parade, this has to be just as good as Parade. Whereas Parade was more of the rock-inspired side of things, CROSS X OVER SENSATION goes back into the upbeat, happy side with lots of staccato. The arrangement of this does feature some guitar (the bridge near the end is especially good) but it’s mostly electronic instruments. I wish that Nacchan would have been able to perform some of this stuff with a full band and orchestra, because that would only improve the songs.

CROSS X OVER SENSATION is cute and upbeat, but Nacchan manages to fit the song perfectly. Even though this is no test of her vocal skills it still allows her to emote and make her voice fit the song. She also does all the background vocals, and those work together nicely. Some of the best Natsuko songs have her voice playing together in harmony and as an echo, and that works the best here. The choruses are improved immensely by the response of “Sensation” to her vocals.

This is a surprisingly good song that manages to hit the level of Parade. The back and forth is particularly pleasant, as is the arrangement. 9/10

6. Watashi Iro Clothes – This is the B-side to MoonRise romance, and manages to be more guitar driven while including the great string sound. I do like that there’s what sounds like some deeper strings like a bass in there in the chorus; it’s a nice reprieve from the rest of the song.

This is a fairly mellow song that was one I skipped over on my first listen through of the album. However, it’s the type of song that grows on you with more listens. As always the instrumentation is very nice, although this throws in a little electronic sound that is almost dubstep-esque. It is surprising but sounds very nice.

While the instrumentation does make it a tad heavier (especially after the airy and upbeat CROSS X OVER SENSATION), this song is mellow and pleasant, and comes at exactly the right time in the album. 8/10

7. Lovely Girls Anthem – One of the mellower tracks, Lovely Girls Anthem is pretty understated, and as such I think it’s a little underrated for the Aso Natsuko discography. That said, it’s still a rousing fairly fast number that only feels mellower in comparison. That said, it is a cute song that only improves after more listens. When I saw Natsuko live I liked this song, but was waiting for Perfect Area Complete and the other hyperactive songs that Natsuko does so well. However, after listening to this song more and more, it starts to stand out more.

The one thing that sounds especially good is the harmonizations that Natsuko does with herself; she has a very beautiful voice, and hearing it in duplicate or triplicate just works. It’s one of the things I like about a lot of Natsuko’s songs, but it’s especially good here, and is the particular item of note for the song. The other elements (catchy melody, strong arrangement, strong vocals) are all there, as well.

All of this said, this also fits really well into the album. If you haven’t liked Natsuko’s music until now, then I doubt you’ll like Lovely Girls Anthem. However, this is a song that has grown on me a lot, and has become a valuable part of Nacchan’s discography. 8/10

8. MoonRise Romance – OK, why didn’t I put this in my top songs of 2013? I’m serious. I don’t think I gave this song the attention it deserved when it came out, because this is fantastic.

The biggest strength is in the strings; there is a really great instrumentation here, with the swelling of the strings. This adds to how well the song builds over the course of the song; the whole thing builds and builds. The slower, jazzy part that seems to come from out of nowhere only serves to make the following section even more explosive.

This song is a fantastic pop song, and one I wish I got more into sooner. Its arrangement is perfect, and does a great job of serving how well the song builds. This is wonderful, and, in hindsight, one of my favorites of 2013. 10/10

9. Fuantei na Wakusei – After a song like Moonrise Romance any song is going to be a bit of a letdown. However, Fuantei na Wakusei is probably the weakest song of the album. It’s a much more electronic-based song. There’s a lot of dissonant sound in the background, and it manages to be much more minimalist than the rest of the album.

The thing is, this isn’t a bad song. I like it a lot. The worst crime this song does is fit the wrong album. This song would be a perfect fit for Precious Tone, and would fit well next to something like Tokimeki Traveler. This is just the odd duck of the album.

I do like how this song builds, and how everything seems to crescendo throughout the song. The start of the song is very low in energy, but it builds up nicely. Natsuko’s voice sounds great here, too. I like how mellow it is, and I do like the instrumentation. It just doesn’t fit.

If this song was on Precious Tone, it would probably be one of my favorite songs on the album. However, on an album like My Starlit Point, it doesn’t quite fit. 7/10

10. ICE NINE – ICE NINE continues with the more electronic feel of Fuantei na Wakusei, and, again, would fit very well on Precious Tone. However, ICE NINE tends to have much more of a drive to it, and has the upbeat feel that’s consistent throughout the album. Further, while all the instrumentation is clearly electronic, there are many points where it sounds like it’s trying to approximate strings. Everything is a bit more dissonant than the rest of the album, but in a good way.

Still, while I do like that they are trying something new and this does fit a bit better than Fuantei, these two songs (soon three) have created a weird pocket in the album of much more mellow, much more minor/dissonant stuff. It’s all great, don’t get me wrong, but I kind of wonder if it would have been possible to spread these out throughout the album.

ICE NINE is good, and I like it a lot, but again it feels like it doesn’t quite fit as well. 7/10

11. You’re My Brightness – If you were wondering about Natsuko’s vocal skills, look no further. While Natsuko sounds great on all of these tracks (another reason why this album is so great), You’re My Brightness is a ballad that shows off how strong her vocals are. She sounds beautiful.

The ballad itself is pretty standard and doesn’t break any barriers. The way that the song is set up is nothing new. What should make you want to listen to this ballad, however, is just how well polished it is. Natsuko sounds fantastic, the strings are particularly good in this one, and get an extended focus at the end. The end of this track makes You’re My Brightness as much about the instrumentation as it is about Natsuko. The songwriting itself is a bit bland, but the arrangement is lovely.

This song won’t convince you of Natsuko’s music, but it should convince you of Natsuko and the strength of the team behind her. 8/10.

12. Never Ending Voyage – How is this not in my top 5 songs list of 2013? Seriously, Never Ending Voyage is pure pop music perfection, and the best way to end an album (even though ending your last album with the track “Never Ending Voyage” is kind of cruel). After the mellow songs off the album, Never Ending Voyage ends things with a bang. It’s pure orchestral-focused energy. Even in the mellowest sections of the song there is something, a guitar or a drum beat that is driving everything quickly. Even with this, though, it’s never exhausting or gets overplayed; there’s enough variety present in the song to make it keep my interest.

Everything about Never Ending Voyage is done perfectly. The melody is catchy but doesn’t feel old hat. The arrangement is, like always, perfect, with beautiful strings work. I don’t know if they recorded the strings in a different location or added in some echo in the mixing, but they sound superb. Natsuko as always sounds fantastic, but she really sells it on this song. She delivers her lines with such a punch that even though this might not be as strong a test of her vocal ability as You’re My Brightness, it still might be one of her best songs ever vocally.

While I wish Natsuko wasn’t going on hiatus, what a way to go. It is the perfect end to this album and the song that exemplifies why Aso Natsuko is worth following. 10/10

Overall: This album doesn’t have that many new songs, not really. A lot of B-Sides are on the album, and this is something I’ve criticized albums for in the past. I would have liked more songs. However, that can be forgiven because of how successful My Starlit Point is as an album. Every song, even the ones that feel like they’re a bit misplaced, is excellent. There is no weak link, and the best songs are some of my recent favorites. Every element is working at a very high level, making an incredible album. Honestly, I feel like this has to be my album of the year; nothing will be able to compete. I hate saying that so early in the year, but this is the type of album that I will be looking back on as one of my favorite idol albums.