Album Review: Crystal Kay - I Sing

Album Review: Crystal Kay / クリスタル・ケイ - I Sing | Random J Pop

It’s been 84 years since Crystal Kay first mentioned that she was working on a cover album, the first in her 20 year long career. And through the fire, the brimstone and Miss Corona flipping tables and stage diving on her world tour, it has finally arrived.

For fans like myself who got into Crystal around the release of “Kirakuni”, and one of the 23 fans who purchased the criminally underrated flop Vivid, it’s been a rough past few years. Crystal’s last 2 albums felt like they were pulling Crystal further from her signature sound into something that felt far more ‘anybody’, and dare I say it, like a waste of her talents. Sure, Shine had a couple of great songs, as did For You. But they felt like projections of what a label wanted Crystal to be in order to sell records, and less of who she herself wanted to be and what her OG fans wanted from her at those points in time. It seemed to completely disregard the groundwork Crystal had laid for over a decade, doing what so few artists manage to do in their careers; establish a sound that is quintessentially theirs.

When the tracklist for I Sing was released, it seemed that I Sing was more of the same, but the end result is rather surprising. Because the CK sound that Shine and For You seemed to not give a shit about is present here.

Well. Kinda.

Album Review: Crystal Kay / クリスタル・ケイ - I Sing | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay has a great voice. I’d go as far as to say that she has one of the best voices in Japanese music, which isn't saying all that much. But this still doesn’t take away from the fact that Crystal truly does have a great voice. She has a beautiful tone, clarity and texture which gets better with time. And it's great that after 2 albums where Crystal sounded like she was just coasting vocally, that she’s truly SINGING again, true to the album title. I do however wish that Crystal was a little bit more adventurous with her vocal arrangements on certain songs.

Intricate vocal layering was something that I considered a signature of Crystal Kay’s music. She was giving vocal layers and vocal arrangements in a way that not many J-R&B singers were, which gave her takes credibility, because vocal layering is such a staple of R&B. But over time her songs have featured less and less of it, which causes some songs to feel as though they're missing something. If you’re somebody who was put on to Crystal during her Crystal Style and Call Me Miss… days, or somebody who listens to her older material often, then you will really notice it when you start moving through her discography from Spin the Music through to I Sing.

I like that Crystal has a good enough voice that she doesn’t feel the need to embellish every song with about 10 layers worth of vocals. But it would have added breadth to some of these covers, in addition to helping further set her versions apart from the originals. It also gives the album an unplugged feel, which is no bad thing. But I want a Crystal unplugged album at some point anyway. I just feel that the producers and Crystal herself didn’t make use of the fact that Crystal isn’t only a good vocalist, but one who sounds great when she backs herself.

But on the whole, I Sing has Crystal in a place where she's found her voice again, whilst showing us different facets of it. She's not singing everything high how she used to, but is dipping into her mid and lower ranges with far more frequency, something she said she wanted to do more, and she sounds amazing.

Crystal knows she can sing. But I honestly don't think she realises just how good a voice she has, and how many singers in the J-music game probably look up to her when it comes to singing well. Her voice is truly something special and I wish she knew just how much so, and that more music listeners in Japan really appreciated how good this woman can sing. Because GOOD singing in the Japanese music game truly is a rarity.

However, as great as Crystal sounds on every song, I Sing for the most part is a case of being overwhelmingly safe to a fault. Half of the arrangements of the songs on this album are almost identical to the originals, but with strings and maybe a bit of a bassline. Universal and LDH wanting Crystal to appeal to the Japanese mass market affects these covers to such a point where so few risks are taken.

Whilst you could argue that the all-too-safe song choices are the problem, it's actually the arrangements. Safe song choices matched with vanilla arrangements create this really flat listening experience, even with a vocalist like Crystal Kay. I Sing starts strong and ends strong, but everything in-between just sounds the same. In some instances, keeping the arrangements similar to the originals would have actually helped. Really tapping into the rock vibes of RADWIMPS’ “Nandemonaiya” and Bump of Chicken’s “Tentai Kansoku” would have given the album more peaks. But when you’ve got 5 covers all giving piano, strings and a bass guitar; no matter how good Crystal is singing, everything just sounds the damn same. I know I was banging on about Crystal’s signature style, and many of the arrangement choices on this album lean into that; but it leans so far into it that it removes the distinction between songs. Even on Crystal Kay’s original stretch of albums between Almost Seventeen and All Yours, despite there being a unified sound, there was still variety. And that’s what I Sing is sorely lacking. Variation.

Despite the album only featuring 13 songs, it feels longer, because every song is so blasted long. There is only one song on this entire album which is under 4 minutes. Half of the songs are over 5 minutes long. And what doesn’t help is that there is no build, no surprise and no climax in most of these songs. They all end the way in which they started. “Sangatsu Kokonoka” could’ve done with a massive flourish towards the end, with a full on string section, a kids choir, all the things. They shoulda Michael Jackson “Will You Be There”’d the hell out of this shit. But nope.

The more I listen to I Sing, the more confused I get. Because I get why certain decisions were made on this album, yet I’m also baffled as fuck at these same decisions. On one hand I absolutely adore the ways in which “Kaede” and “I Love…” got flipped. The energy and the vibe of Crystal’s covers are so different from the originals to the point where her covers are just different beasts and whole new songs. Yet, I wonder how much of this decision to flip the songs was to make them sound more CK, versus having them fall in line with the vanilla sound of the album as a whole. Speaking of “I Love…”, we really didn’t need the uptempo version. It’s like flat cola. It doesn’t pop like the original version and it’s nowhere near as good as the ballad version. I really don’t see why it was included. It’s even more shocking after the rousing cover of “Saudade”, which takes Porno Graffiti’s already energetic and funky-ass song and then dials it up to a 11, hamming up the Latin flavour and even increasing the BPM count. It’s like “Dream World” high on sugar at Disney world. So it’s not like Crystal can’t give high energy, and there’s no producer in the mix that can’t serve it hot. I’m just so confused.

It’s a real shame that I Sing, on the whole, is funnelled into this one sound which causes it to sound so flat, because the production across this album is actually good. Unlike Shine and For You, a bitch got a budget. So, there’s a real richness to the production on this album due to the use of session players and live instrumentations. Again, it all feels like a swerve back to the likes of Call Me Miss… and All Yours, but without the variation, the sensuality and that edge, and Crystal lacing the songs with backing vocals. And what makes it worse is that “Kaede”, “I Love” and “Saudade” hit the mark so perfectly, so there were people in the room that knew what they were doing and who they were doing it with.

Album Review: Crystal Kay / クリスタル・ケイ - I Sing | Random J Pop

Initially I felt that I Sing was a return to form of sorts for Crystal Kay after Shine and For You. But the more I listened to this album, the more I realised no song from this album will give me the mileage than songs from Shine STILL give me, and that Universal and LDH are still playing one foot in, one foot out with Crystal. The lack of commitment to Crystal’s talent and what works for her musically is going to prevent her from reaching her musical potential, and this saddens me.

I Sing manages to strike a decent enough balance that I felt wasn't achieved with Shine and For You, which is giving Crystal a set of songs that will work for her commercially, without completely stripping out the musicality and the style that she was known for. BUT. Crystal still doesn’t feel like she’s giving 100% of herself, and these song arrangements don’t always allow her to. She has no wiggle or breathing room on “Sangatsu Kokonoka”; resulting in a cover that’s really nice, but also really boring. Contrasting with songs like “Kaede”, “I Love” and “Saudade” where Crystal is given all the room to really breathe and put her whole foot into these covers. And this highlights a big part of where I Sing stumbles the hardest; Crystal isn't always given enough to really work with. There’s no room for Crystal to reinterpret or flex vocally, and the musical backdrops are so tepid to a point where the songs come off as bland, which does nobody any favours. Not only is Crystal not presented in the best light, but it renders Crystal's takes on songs not as good as others which exist, compared to other cuts where Crystal's versions are in their own league and in some instances better than the originals.

Album Review: Crystal Kay / クリスタル・ケイ - I Sing | Random J Pop

I can’t help but feel that Crystal Kay should have already released an album like this. Everything about I Sing feels like something we should’ve gotten from Crystal about 10 years ago. In fact, I Sing feels like the kind of album Sony wanted with Spin the Music, and what Universal wanted from Crystal with Shine and For You. So for this to be what we get 3 years after Crystal Kay’s last studio album, it feels underwhelming. Crystal needs to start getting into a groove where she’s shortening the time between her album releases. Because I’ve been listening to this album for the past 2 weeks and I’m already over it and wanting the next thing. Even if it’s not great. Just keep moving through the releases until we get to where the hell we need to get to where things are great again.

Nothing about I Sing feels new, and the songs on it which are good are not levels of good that will stay in rotation for the next 2 years or so, whenever Crystal decides to release something new. There is no attempt on this album for it to sit with anything contemporary whilst still being timeless. We didn’t get anything of a city pop vibe, nor a whiff of disco. Even Kumi 'I live for inconsistent studio albums' Koda managed to take classic songs for her cover albums and thrust them into a space where they felt like there were not only hers, but reimagined for a whole new generation who may not have even been born when the original songs released. Aside from there being no bravery here, there's no real sense of what anybody involved here wants I Sing to be or to represent in the grander scheme of things. It's just...Crystal Kay singing covers, which you'd think would be enough. But apparently it isn't.

I Sing is pleasant enough. You can play from start to finish without skipping and enjoy it. I do feel that it would have been better served if it were promoted as a ballad album though, despite 2 of my favourite songs being uptempo. Not only would this let people know what they're in for up front - but I think from a marketing perspective it would help the album sell better, because Japan loves a ballad album. This is what Universal have pretty much been pushing the album as anyway given the choice of digital singles.

Crystal Kay’s first ever covers album is good and it’s respectful. But it’s far too bland. Especially for an artist like Crystal who throughout her career has flown in the face of safety by tooting the R&B train and a time when pop was reigning supreme, and then curving us all by releasing a pop album after years of doing R&B. I Sing also isn’t the best showcase of Crystal as a whole because of how flat the listening experience is. More risks with the arrangements, and a selection of covers which weren’t so overwhelmingly safe and what we’ve seen on countless cover albums before, would have done wonders for an artist and a roster of producers who clearly have the talent to do better than what they were made to do here. But I Sing is still a decent album, and a return to a form that reminds many CK fans why we fell for Crystal in the first place.


■ Kaede
■ I Love… 🔥
■ Suki
■ Saudade 🏆
■ Shiroi Koibitotachi