Review: Morning Musume – Second Morning

2017 marks an important anniversary – it is the 20th anniversary of the formation of Morning Musume. While the group has had many iterations, 13 generations of members, name changes and both waxing and waning popularity over the years, 20 years is a major achievement for a group. This is especially notable given Morning Musume’s recent resurgence in popularity – while Morning Musume has been around for almost 20 years, I can’t see it going away any time soon.

To commemorate this I’ve decided to review all of the main Morning Musume albums through 2017, First Time through 14 Shou ~The Message~ or any Morning Musume album that comes out this year. I won’t be covering the two best of albums nor the updated album. The main goal will be to see just how Morning Musume has evolved over these 20 years.

Second Morning is a really interesting album for me because it’s a pretty definitive end of an era. It’s the last album with Fukuda Asuka, the first member of the group to leave, and it’s the last release of any kind before Goto Maki joined the group and they put out Love Machine, the two things that kicked off both the golden era of Morning Musume and the current trajectory. Morning Musume before Love Machine was more artists than idols, but Love Machine was a major turning point. So this is the last hurrah for artist group Morning Musume before they became idol group Morning Musume.

1. Night of Tokyo City 

So last review I wrote briefly about album pacing and song orders and how I thought Samishii Hi, while a great song, was a weird choice for the last song. Night of Tokyo City is a great way to start out an album. Right off the bat there’s a great energy and electronic sound, and then all the members shouting the first lyrics of the song. It’s an immediate burst of energy, which is a great way to not only start off this album but establish it as something different from First Time. There’s nothing quite like Night of Tokyo City on First Time – Summer Night Town possibly comes closest, but even that has a different vibe. It’s slower, slightly more laid back. The intro of Night of Tokyo City is a brand new Morning Musume.

The rest of Night of Tokyo City is great too. It combines the best of both worlds with early Morning Musume. It has the energy of the golden era lineups from later years, but has the musicality of early Morning Musume, with harmonies, back and forth vocal parts, some great background vocals. This is using a group to its fullest. The cool feel and energy of the song starting off an album feels like the start of a trend that really started with Morning Musume’s Rainbow 7 album, which is starting off an album with an upbeat song with a cool image (think SONGS, Moonlight Night ~Tsukiyo no Ban da yo~, Genki+, that sort of thing). Which is not a bad place to start – all the songs I listed are fantastic and some of my favorite songs to listen to. It’s a great way to kick things off, which is part of why Night of Tokyo City.

If I had any quibbles with Night of Tokyo City it would be that the instrumentation is pretty workmanlike. It’s not bad – there’s a great beat and the keyboard solo is especially memorable. That said, this is pretty clearly the start of Morning Musume opting for more electronic instruments rather than having actual instruments perform the arrangement. That said, the parts that stand out (like said keyboard solo) are great, and the lush vocals more than make up for this. 10/10

2. Manatsu no Kousen

If you ever asked me to name the most underrated Morning Musume single, I’d first tell you that’s a weird request, but then I’d immediately mention Manatsu no Kousen. It’s hardly ever mentioned when people talk or write about classic Morning Musume (the focus tends to be on Morning Coffee, Memory Seishun no Hikari, and gee isn’t it weird that Furusato is basically an Abe Natsumi solo?), and I’d say it’s pretty handily the most underrated single of pre-Love Machine Morning Musume. I once knew someone who, perhaps facetiously, mentioned that Manatsu no Kousen was when early Morning Musume concert-goers took a bathroom break. All of this is to say I think that Manatsu no Kousen is a very good song.

I think the thing I love about it is how perfect of a summer song it is for me. While I like a lot of the other summer songs that have been released lately (AKB48’s Ponytail to Shushu, Super Girls’ Max Otome Gokoro, etc.) is that summer songs tend to be super upbeat, cheery. While I love listening to songs like that, Manatsu no Kousen feels like summer to me – more laidback, more breezy, calling for an endless summer. It genuinely feels like a summer song.

Beyond that it has a great disco feel to the song, a great arrangement, and some beautiful vocals and harmonies from Morning Musume. The entire song has a great relaxed feel to it while simultaneously being a great song. The album features a “Vacation Mix” rather than the original on the single – however, there isn’t all that much different, at least from what I can listen to, just a few updates to the background vocals and arrangement mostly.

Manatus no Kousen is unfairly overlooked, but it’s a really great track. 10/10

3. Memory Seishun no Hikari

As I mentioned in my look at Manatsu no Kousen, Memory Seishun no Hikari gets quite a bit of attention, and I’d say for good reason – it’s a great song that shows off the talent of Morning Musume. It’s also no surprise, then why this song has been performed as a solo to show off vocal skill in some other members of Hello!Project. While the intention is good, I’m not sure any of them really can pull this song off, and I’m also surprised at the prevalence of Memory Seishun no Hikari being performed as a solo song, when the vocal line works especially well with a group. Much like many of the tracks off First Time, Memory Seishun no Hikari has harmonies, multiple vocal parts, and so many overlapping parts. Even when Abe Natsumi (and to a lesser extent Fukuda Asuka) takes the main vocals, the rest of the group still has plenty to do. It’s part of what makes Memory Seishun no Hikari shine – just the melody line isn’t interesting, when compared to the melody plus the harmony.

The other notable aspect of Memory Seishun no Hikari is the rap sections, which aren’t really the norm in Morning Musume tracks, at least not performed by the members of the group – the only other example I can think of is maybe Take Off is Now, off of Platinum 9 Disc, but again it’s a rarity. It cements the R&B sound of the song, but also that combined with the melody and beat really dates this song – this more than perhaps any other Morning Musume single sounds VERY 90s. It’s the kind of song that I look back on fondly, but it’s hard not to laugh a bit at the rap, especially “You’re the love of my life, word.” which makes me giggle every time. This all combined with the song being fairly serious makes many aspects of it a bit hilarious in hindsight.

Memory Seishun no Hikari is a lovely song but man is it dated. 9/10.

4. Suki de x5
Suki de x5 is more of a song that I admire rather than a song I like. This song is pure jazz, and almost feels more experimental than most Morning Musume songs, even when they veer into different genres. There’s a whole lot going on, instruments overlapping each other, dissonant sounds, instruments clashing with each other. The vocal melody sung by the members also clashes, never really feeling like it fits with the instrumentation. In many ways the melody often feels like it would fit with an arrangement similar to Memory Seishun no Hikari’s – there feels like there’s a ballad buried under there, the jazz only emerging when words or phrases are repeated several times.

Because of this, Suki de x5 isn’t the most fun song to listen to. There are fun aspects – I love all the instrumentation. The drums sound great, as does the double bass, as does the saxophone. Each individual element works, but they don’t really work well together. However, it feels like this might be intentional, especially if you take the song togehter with the lyrics. The lyrics are a mishmash too, love mixed with hate, I love yous followed by tears. The lyrics focus on mixed emotions, so is it any wonder that the song would be a jumble too? This all makes Suki de x5 really interesting and unexpected from an idol group. Granted, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to listen to the song many more times.

Suki de x5 is a weird beast of a song – it’s not very pleasant to listen to, but one of the more interesting songs on the list. I feel like I could be justified in giving this a 5/10 or a 10/10 for different reasons, so I feel like it almost defies ranking systems. Still, I’ll give it a 7/10.

5. Furusato

Let’s get this out of the way right away – yes, this is pretty much 100% Abe Natsumi’s solo. The rest of Morning Musume performs background vocals and some harmonies, but those are minimal. Yes, earlier songs featured Nacchi as the lead vocalist, but the harmonies played a significant part of the enjoyment of the song. This is pretty much a solo song with some background vocals slapped in. Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of this style of focusing almost entirely on one or two front girls – my view is that you have a group, use it for a reason, either for harmonizing or spreading the solo parts to the rest of the group. That all being said, at least with the Nacchi focused group at least she’s a great singer, and performs Fusuato very well. Her vocals fit the song, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if Tsunku wrote the song with it being a solo song for her in mind.

I really love the instrumentation of Furusato. It almost sounds nostalgic in itself – part of that might be my own experience listening to this song about nine years ago for the first time, but the whatever keyboard sound they chose to use at the start of the song almost evokes the same kind of twang of a harpsichord or a shamisen. I realize those are two completely different instruments, but it feels more like a plucking noise rather than the percussive sound of a piano. It feels old-fashioned, and even though the background vocals don’t get the same amount of significance here as they do in earlier sounds, they sound forlorn, adding a lot of effect. The piano-heavy sound for the rest of the song works really well, too – the melody, lyrics and instrumentation all sound nostalgic and work well together.

One thing that does bug me about Furusato, though, is the weird electronic blip that pops up every few seconds – it’s not a bad effect, but its frequency is impossible to ignore. It’s a bit grating, and I’m almost annoyed that I started to notice it!

For all its criticism over being an Abe Natsumi solo, Furusato is great and a great addition to this album. 8/10

6. Daite Hold on Me!

First off, much like Manatsu no Kousen before it, this is a special remix for the album – however, there’s not all that much different in this version than the original single version, just some extra mixing. Next, Daite Hold on Me! has a special place in my heart because of the TV show Utaban, where Iida Kaori’s spoken “Nee Waratte” line at the end became a running joke. Because of this, I can’t listen to this song without laughing to myself a little.

That all being said, Daite Hold on Me is very good – it has a similar feeling of datedness much like Memory Seishun no Hikari, but at the same time has a lot of energy to it. The strings make it have a disco feel to it, which I definitely appreciate it. There is a rap section, but this time performed by Morning Musume themselves. I wouldn’t consider any of the members of Morning Musume to be particularly proficient at rap (perhaps why they hired someone else to do it in Memory Seishun no Hikari) but they don’t really need to be – with a song this energetic, all you really need is some shouting, which they do admirably.

Daite Hold on Me has a lot of energy and doesn’t really let up. It’s the most energetic single in this pre-Love Machine Morning Musume. That being said, it has a lot of what makes early Morning Musume great – some great vocals, harmonies, the back and forth of the chorus is great. I wouldn’t put it as being as great or timeless as, say, Summer Night Town, but it’s still a fun, energetic song that works really well. And yes, Nee Waratte. 8/10

7. Papa ni Niteru Kare
Again, right off the bat, the lyrics are literally about dating someone who reminds you of your dad. That’s creepy to me, so the rest of this review is going to be in spite of that added weird factor about the lyrics. It’s not only dating someone who reminds you of your father, that’s the reason the song protagonist likes him. Tsunku, what were you really thinking?

The shame of lyrics like that is that Papa ni Niteru Kare is a pretty great song outside of that. It has an old-school feel to it – the strings and flute that start out the song are pretty lovely. It has a nostalgic feel and the chorus is genuinely pretty catchy. The vocals are all breathy and not exactly showing off Morning Musume’s vocal prowess, but are pretty fitting. For the most part it’s not the most memorable song but nice, which is almost more unfortunate because the lyrics stand out to the front. 7/10

8. Senkou Hanabi

This song is basically “hm, we liked Furusato, but how about a song with MORE Abe Natsumi?” This is basically a Nacchi solo with some background vocals and echoes by Ichii Sayaka and Yasuda Kei. Nacchi’s voice is fantastic, so it’s not a huge deal, but I wish there was more of a chance for featured vocals for Ishiguro Aya and Yasuda Kei in particular because their vocals are great.

Senkou Hanabi has a real nostalgic feel to it, not even counting its age as a song. I think this is mostly the instrumentation, which is mostly pretty acoustic with some nice strings and piano at the start. While there is some electric guitar in here, it still maintains a home-y, nostalgic feel.

If at this point you’re not sick of ABe Natsumi, and I’m not, it’s a nice little song. It has a nice melody, the instrumentation is nice, and I like the echoes sung by Sayaka and Kei. It’s not necessarily a song I go back to all that often, but it’s nice. 8/10

9. Koi no Shihatsu Ressha

The keyboard and guitar intro is probably one of the most dated parts of any Morning Musume song – it is VERY 90s. However, I find it kind of charming for it. Even as it’s kind of a cheesy song, it has an earnestness to it that makes the cheesy 90s feel work. It’s a very upbeat song too, which makes a lot of difference – most of the rest of the album has been sad, wistful, and aggressive, with the most upbeat song so far being Manatsu no Kousen, which is more laidback. Koi no Shihatsu Ressha is a much needed happy reprieve.

The song is well put together throughout, but it really shines in the chorus – the way it just bursts into action is very nice. The verses feel like they are building up to the utter joy and sweetness of the chorus, and I love the transition from verse to chorus in the song.

Koi no Shihatsu Ressha has stuck around a bit more than, say, Senkou Hanabi or even Night of Tokyo City. I think that’s due to how joyful and fun it is as a song. 9/10

10. Otome no Shinrigaku

This is possibly my favorite track on the album, maybe tied with Manatsu no Kousen. It has a really interesting sound to it, a solid energy, and it’s just fun in an interesting way. I barely know how to describe the sound – it has a bit of a mysterious, darker sound coming from the bass line, but it also has a great guitar sound to it. It’s very old-school rock, but even then I don’t know of any songs like this, especially songs by Morning Musume. It’s rock and roll (hence the “I love rock and roll” at the start), but not in the way typical idol music does it. It’s a really interesting songs.

It’s pretty easy to see this as a proto-Petitmoni. The song is primarily sung by Yasuda Kei and Ichii Sayaka, who would join up with Goto Maki a few months later to put out one single. But even then, Chokotto Love, the only Petitmoni single that Ichii Sayaka featured on, is much happier and poppier than Otome no Shinrigaku – if anything, Otome no Shinrigaku reminds me a bit of Seishun Jidai 1 2 3 or Baby Koi ni Knockout, the singles put out after she left.

The vocal line is where the song shines – both Kei and Sayaka sound great and have a great back and forth. The rest of the group does some harmonies that work well together, too. If I had any complaints occasionally the echo/reverb is a little too much, but even that’s a tiny quibble. Otome no Shinrigaku is a great song and one that H!P should perform more. 10/10

11. Never Forget

I find it a little weird that Morning Musume would include this on Second Morning when it’s a solo song by Fukuda Asuka, who is not on the album cover nor is she credited in the album. It is a pretty seminal song, but it’s just weird that it would be on this album without credit for the soloist singing this.

This is the graduation song performed by the first member to ever leave Morning Musume, Fukuda Asuka, and has since been a major graduation song for Morning Musume members. And it’s pretty easy to see why it has been – it’s a pretty timeless song. The arrangement is very good, with a mix of strings, acoustic and electric guitars. The melody and pace of the song feels bittersweet – it’s nostalgic and pretty, but doesn’t linger. The lyrics reflect this too – they speak of leaving as an inevitability rather than a choice. It’s accepting, as if “I have to leave, I don’t want to, but I also want to move on” which is probably the nicest way of putting the real choice that Asuka made.

It’s not a song I choose to listen to very often, but a very good one. 8/10.

12. Da Di Du De Do Da Di

After the sadness of Never Forget, it’s nice to have something upbeat like Da Di Du De Do Da Di. And really, this is a nice place to end the album. Whereas I thought First Time had a weird ending with Samishii Hi, Da Di Du De Do Da Di is upbeat, happy and fun.

In many ways this feels like foreshadowing for Morning Musume to come. It’s upbeat and fun and focuses more on being fun rather than quality in the vocals. There are a few times where two members sing a line together and they aren’t mixed perfectly, or one member is a bit off. There are several spoken/shouted lines, and at one point during these Nakazawa Yuko starts to laugh. This gives the song a very off the cuff feel, as if it was recorded with Morning Musume performing from start to finish and goofing off. I know this isn’t how it was done logically, but it’s a fun touch.

The arrangement is a bit weird – sometimes it feels like the guitar clashes a bit with the vocals. However, for the most part it works pretty well, and the guitar sound is nice. It’s not particularly interesting, but works for the most part.

Da Di Du De Do Da Di isn’t particularly my favorite Morning Musume song, but it’s interesting to listen to in the context of current Morning Musume, where serious vocal skill is traded for Morning Musume as a group goofing off and having fun. 8/10

Overall: I can’t really tell if I like Second Morning or First Time better. Both albums are excellent, though Second Morning is more of a move towards the Morning Musume current fans know, which would probably make it a bit more accessible. Songs like Otome no Shinrigaku and Manatsu no Kousen are my particular favorites, but even listening to songs like Memory Seishun no Hikari, Senkou Hanabi and Night of Tokyo City, while dated, still feels a little more like current Morning Musume. This is a solid collection of songs and I like all of them – even something like Suki de x5, which I don’t know if I actually like, is at the very least interesting. While a little less cohesive than First Time, I almost prefer the overarching pacing of Second Morning to First time. Second Morning is a great collection, though, and if you like Morning Musume and haven’t listened to this you owe it to yourself to check it out.

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