Single Steps Forward

TSUBAKI FACTORY – 2nd Step

For their first three years as a major act, Tsubaki Factory had been the model of stability and consistency within the Hello! Project, in terms of both song quality and lack of group drama. But a week prior to the release of their seventh single, someone discovered and made public the secret Instagram account of member Risa Ogata, which she had used to vent her frustrations about group members and management. There went TF’s stability, and with it, Ogata herself. To make matters worse, the single “Dansha-ISM / Ima Nanji?” was released amid strict Covid lock-downs, resulting in a steep sales decline and leaving many to wonder if Tsubaki Factory would suffer the same fate as their sister group Kobushi Factory.

With uncertainty facing TF fans like a blinking dashboard light, the announcement of 2nd Step was comforting news, although having been burned by Kobushi’s quick dissolution after their second album, I kept my excitement in check. The news that TF is set to add a second generation of members almost certainly means the group is nowhere near the chopping block, although I’m not sure how I feel about them becoming a generational group. In any event, new TF music is always good news, because I can’t think of a single song of theirs that I don’t like at least a little bit, and nothing on 2nd Step changes that.

Does that mean this is a great original album? That depends on your definition of “original album,” and for me, this one — like their debut first bloom — sits a little too close to the wrong side of the line between “album” and “singles collection.” Of the 15 tracks that comprise 2nd Step, six are single A-sides, three are B-sides, and just six are new songs. That’s the exact same number of album tracks as first bloom, which is as curious as it is frustrating because before Corona-chan crashed the party, H!P’s Old Normal had TF as one of their better selling acts. The single-to album track ratio of Morning Musume’s last two albums is the opposite of 2nd Step‘s, and Angerme and Juice=Juice each got multi-disc releases that sequestered most singles to one disc, and a proper new album on the other. Hell, even Beyooooonds got a legitimate long-player after their debut single. Compared to the rest of H!P, Tsubaki Factory is getting done dirty, and I don’t know why.

What I do know is that, despite the short-shrift, 2nd Step manages to be a step forward for H!Ps most conventional idol group, and includes a set of album tracks that surpasses that of its predecessor. The track order flows nicely, with engaging new songs sprouting up amid the forest of singles, and they nudge TFs sound ahead ever so slightly. The upbeat “Dansha-ISM” is a strong opener, re-establishing where TF left off, then slamming the pedal the rest of the way down with the funk-burner “Masayume.” Driven by a tight-pocket rhythm section, snappy rhythm guitars and funky horn accents, “Masayume” features the strongest vocals I’ve heard from TF as a group to this point.

Moving into “Sankaime no Date Shinwa,” the accelerator doesn’t let up, which is a decision I love. Seriously, this album opens like a Mike Tyson fight, with a flurry of haymakers that demands your attention and doesn’t relent until the beautiful single track, “Ishiki Takai Otome no Dilemma.” Then just to make sure your guard is still up, it’s another shot of prime H!P pop-funk, “Ai wa Ima, Ai wo Motometeru,” and some of the most shit-hot, tasty bass work you’ll hear all year. This sort of funky pop suits Tsubaki Factory well in that it’s both cute and cool at the same time, and offers Kishimon room to showcase her ever-expanding vocal chops.

The gorgeous “Fuwari, Koi Dokei” is next, followed by one of the least H!P-sounding tracks to come out of the company in years, “Saijoukyuu Story.” This straight-ahead, 8-beat guitar-and-piano J-pop track is an anime opening song in search of an anime to open, and TF sounds great on it. More classic J-pop ensues with “Hikari no Curtain,” a timeless, melancholy J-ballad that again shows off TF’s steadily improving vocal skills.

We get a double-tap of B-sides, starting with “Nineteen no Shinkirou,” which is the one song I really wish was replaced by something new, not because I dislike it, but because it feels like the odd song out, and cutting it for a new track would have resulted in a more reasonable portion of new material. The playful, funky pop of “Koi no UFO Catcher” and the somber beauty of “Ima Nanji” nicely close out the album’s middle section.

Saori Onoda, party of one.

The final act of four songs opens with the frenetic and anxious “Dakara Nannanda!,” a song that I can’t listen to without seeing Saori’s hilarious deadpan dancing from the teaser video in my head. Up-Front really should release a full-length cut of this, A) beacause it would be awesome, and B) because its potential to go viral is legitimate. From there it’s straight into the Takui Nakajima pop gem “My Darling ~Do you love me?~” before returning to solidly familiar TF territory with “Dakishimerarete Mitai.”

This would have been a suitable way to close things out, but not nearly as well suited as “Tarinai Mono Umete Yuku Tabi.” Composed by Shingo Yamazaki, this is 180-degrees from the eclectic, Shina Ringo-esque 3/4 jump-swing he gifted Angerme (“Aisare Route A or B?”), “Tarinai Mono Umete Yuku Tabi” is light, mid-tempo pop with a sentimentally hopeful mood. The winsome melodies on both the verse and chorus sound far more simple than they really are, as do the chord progressions they tie together. There’s a decent amount of wide intervals which the girls handle capably, but the stars here are the extraordinary choruses which consume nearly 2/3 of the track (the second verse ends at the 2:15 mark of the 4:47 running time.) Yamazaki makes sure it never gets old, though, deftly mixing things up with a B-melody, la-la-las, a mix of the two, a modulation and no repeating lyrics. Copious instrumental syncopation and funky synth bass tie everything up in a Nozomi Tsuji-sized H!P bow, and the result is a superb closer.

As a whole, 2nd Step is about as perfect a sophomore album as Tsubaki Factory could’ve hoped for considering the ingredients they were given. Sure, I’d prefer a larger helping of album tracks — especially as the six we get are top-tier — but the smart construction of 2nd Step makes it feel like what an album should feel like: a creative entity that is greater than the sum of its individual songs. People discovering TF from this point forward won’t care that most of these songs pre-date the album’s release, they will simply enjoy it for what it is: a great J-idol album. I suspect that for long-time fans, 2nd Step will age at least as well as first bloom has, and ultimately that’s what matters most.

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