Morning Musume – “KOKORO&KARADA / LOVEpedia / Ningen Kankei No way way”
The most anticipated Morning Musume singles for me these days are those that debut a new generation. I’ve been less interested in the H!P flagship than all other H!P groups since Sayumi graduated, and that saddens me a bit. MM is the group that made me a J-idol fan back in 2001, as well as the group that rekindled my waning fandom in 2012. But the Fukumura Era, for me, has been one of spotty and inconsistent singles, and underwhelming member additions.
When early footage of the 15th generation made the rounds, I was legitimately excited for Morning Musume for the first time in years. Mei Yamazaki, Rio Kitagawa and Homare Okamura were all stable singers, and each had distinct charms and personalities. In short, they were eveything the 12th generation was not, and even though the remaining 12kis have settled into their roles nicely, they never had a potential star among them. Neither have successive generations until now (Kaga’s recent overseas popularity spike notwithstanding), and each of these newbies has star potential. The new girls get a fair amount of exposure on this single, so it appears that Up Front will be leaving the training wheels in storage for the 15kis.
While not a ground-shifting single for the group, it does feel like someone finally cracked a window open to let some fresh air in to the House of Musume. On “KOKORO＆KARADA,” MM’s signature EDM sound moves to a decidedly more electro territory, which is a move I wish they had taken a long time ago. A hard driving intro is (once again) belied by the orthodox EDMusume verse, including the defining element of this era of MM: the ever-present harmonies that cover nearly every note of the lyrics. These dense harmonies may be sung, AutoTuned, or created with a vocoder, but they are ubiquitous going all the way back to “Renai Hunter,” and they’ve aged as well as an un-refrigerated carton of milk. I’ve decided that this particular element, more than anything else, is what makes Morning Musume’s sound feel heavy and old to me, because the harmonies are thick, incessant, and they’ve been using them for eight years now.
Thankfully, the rest of this arrangement feels fresh and lithe, eschewing many of the sounds that MM arrangers have been recycling since 2014 in favor of a smart blend of acoustic instruments, thick lead synths, snappy accent synths and heavy sub-bass. Although the verse music pulls back a bit, the beat never completely stops driving, even into the B melody. This is followed by a beautiful 8-bar instrumental pre-chorus led by 16th-note piano runs, and into one of the most powerful and memorable Morning Musume choruses of the Fukumura Era. It’s powerful despite being being restrained after just two bars, as the syncopated stops punctuate a beautiful melody and chord progression. The dense harmonies work well here because they push the drama when the music backs off, and they’re nicely contrasted with actual solo lines. This is my favorite Morning Musume song since at least “BRAND NEW MORNING,” and possibly “Utakata Saturday Night!”
The other two A-sides work together conceptually as different views of love, both built on the same music, but featuring different lyrics and arrangements. The first, “LOVEpedia,” focuses on the desire of young girls to understand love, and it spotlights the 15th gen. Let’s get this out of the way right now, if you watch the video clip for this and don’t fall in love with each of these girls, I have no idea why you are following J-idol groups, because they are damn-near perfect. Their singing talent aside, all of them exude charisma and possess traits that make them look like born idols: Mei’s thousand-watt smile; Homare’s authentic all-encompassing cuteness; and Rio’s air of confidence (she looks really comfortable standing front-and-center, like she fucking belongs there.) MM’s future is right now, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
“LOVEpedia” follows an upbeat and modern electronic arrangement, and showcases a number of back-benchers in addition to the newbies. (Yokoyama gets the first solo line and reminds us that singing is not the reason we love her.) The lyrics and video follow the 15kis experiencing different forms of love from their senpais — “Coaching Love” from Chisaki, “World Love” from Miki, “Smiley Love” from Reina, and so on. (Speaking of which, can Maria find something other than baseball to identify with?) Mai gets the first solo of the 2nd verse and crushes it. Her voice is strong, clear and right in tune, and Akane has the misfortune of following her. Akane has grown on me a lot since her early years, and her hard work has resulted in measurable improvement, but she’s still a pretty bad singer. Maria, on the other hand, acquits herself fairly well on her solo line. The musical interlude features a hard-charging, percussion-driven Latin feel, and the Newcleus “Jam on it!” drop in the second half made this old man grin like an idiot. It’s all great fun, and about as perfect an introduction for the 15kis as we could hope for.
“Ningen Kankei No way way,” is more mature in its lyrical content, and sports a more proto-H!P arrangement. While not quite classic H!P funk, it is nevertheless funky, propelled by an emphatic synth bass line, spanky rhythm guitar, and the sort of percussion you’d expect from an H!P funk production. The fake horns and strings work better here than you might expect, and my guess is that the synth bass makes them sound more at home than they would against an actual bass guitar. Like “LOVEpedia,” “Ningen Kankei No way way” does a nice job of spreading the love to many of the back-line girls, but you scarcely notice the new girls at all, save for Rio’s solo line on the first chorus. Then again, you see more of them here than you see of Chisaki across all three songs, which is weird.
The instrumental-dance break is completely different from “LOVEpedia,” and it might be the one part I like better between the two songs. We get an IV drip of prime 80s synth and guitar goosed funk, and just when you really start to groove on it, “Turkey In The Straw” (or “Do Your Ears Hang Low” for you kids) drops in from planet WTF to break the mood. I honestly don’t know if it’s so-lame-that-it’s-cool or just so lame, because my feelings change depending on when I hear it. I do know that the dance for this part is ridiculous, though.
Lyrically, “Ningen Kankei No way way” is delivered from the perspective of a young woman who has probably experienced romantic love once or twice, but understands that she is not yet ready to commit to it. (The song title itself is translated to “Relationships, No way way.”) Kaga gets to run the show for the second half, and looks pretty good doing it. Her voice seems to have improved a bit compared to earlier songs, and she has always had a “bad bitch” air about her that says “leader.”
I like both versions of this song, but “LOVEpedia” is my favorite of the two, probably because it represents the possibility of a brighter future for this group I’ve been following for nearly 20 years. The song that I find getting stuck in my head, though, is “KOKORO＆KARADA.” It’s one of the few post-Sayumi EDMusume songs that sounds almost entirely fresh, and the chorus is gorgeous. It’s a pity that the verse doesn’t measure up to the rest of the song. Still, it feels good to be excited about Morning Musume again.