Album Review:  Moriyama Naotaro – Ougon no Kokoro

Hello AramaJapan readers, and welcome to yet another installment of our album reviews.  This time, we’ll be switching gears and looking at a male soloist who has more than distinguished himself in his field of music.  If you like folk, pop, or any mixture of the two, be sure to join us as we dig into Moriyama Naotaro‘s latest full-length album “Ougon no Kokoro” (“Heart of Gold”) and see if it’s worth your time.


As always, before we begin let us first answer the question that I’m sure is burning on the tips of your tongues:  who exactly is Moriyama Naotaro?  Good question.  To give a quick summary, Moriyama Naotaro is the son of well-known folk and jazz singer Moriyama Ryoko, who is known primarily for the anti-war anthem “Satokibi Batake”.  Though he was born to a very musically-inclined family, Naotaro actually didn’t express much of a desire to become a musician himself until he entered university, where he started to seriously play guitar and write songs.  After several years of street performances and playing at clubs in Tokyo, he was eventually signed to indie label NNR in 2001 and to major label Universal Music Japan not even a year later in 2002.

While Moriyama has had several songs become hits, none have surpassed the fame of his second major single “Sakura”.  The solo version of “Sakura” is considered by many Japanese people to be the song most emblematic of the spring season in Japan, and remains a popular song to sing at karaoke and use at high school graduations to this very day, almost 12 years after its initial release.  Critics have cited Naotaro’s beautifully clear tone and impressive vocal technique as additional reasons for the song’s incredible success.

That out of the way, let’s take a nice, long look at Moriyama Naotaro’s “Ougon no Kokoro” and see just how solid of an album it really is.

Track-by-Track Review:  Ougon no Kokoro

1. Wakamonotachi (若者たち)

Our journey begins with the trills of violins and the bright, clear call of a trumpet (not found in the above live version), ushering us into the sparse guitar and string instrumental that comprises most of the song’s verses.  These instruments are later joined by a full choir (and the trumpet once again) as the song approaches its climax, every aspect coming to a head before the song fades out with naught but guitar and strings once more.  “Wakamonotachi” is perhaps the true embodiment of the phrase “short but sweet”, an incredibly compact, yet beautiful piece of music that sounds so very atypical compared to a lot of what we hear today.  That’s in no small part due to the fact that the song is a cover of the 1966 classic of the same name by Japanese folk group The Broadside Four; the original, while possessing a different instrumental progression, is still very pretty in its own way, and many of the touches found in Moriyama’s modern version can also be found here.  I’d like to bring particular attention to Moriyama’s vocals on this song, which is something I imagine I’ll be doing frequently on this release, since they’re just wonderful to listen to, his years upon years of musical training put on clear display here.  All in all, a very solid beginning to this album, though some might find this song to be a bit too “choir-like” for their tastes.

2. Kousekisei Boy (洪積世ボーイ)

If I described the opening track as “heavenly”, I’d conversely describe its follow-up “Kousekisei Boy” as “earthy”.  I feel as though this song takes a surprising amount of inspiration from classic rock, with its anthemic electric guitar runs and “wide as the world” choruses, not to mention the several spellings of the song’s title a couple of minutes in.  Still, if the electric guitar is the track’s melody, then the acoustic guitar and drums are the driving force that keep it moving forward, as well as adding additional texture to the song’s overall sound.  The guitar solo at the end of the track might go on just a bit too long, but I still found “Kousekisei Boy” to be an enjoyable experience on the whole, particularly notable in that it showed off a very different side of Naotaro’s vocals than “Wakamonotachi” did, focusing far more on his lower range than his upper range.

3. Conveni no Chou-san (コンビニの趙さん)

Well, I did promise folk-pop, and I feel that “Conveni no Chou-san” definitely qualifies as that.  It’s the first piano-driven song on “Ougon no Kokoro”, the main instrument supported by a very faint acoustic guitar and a full set of orchestral strings starting with the first chorus.  The stand-out aspect of this ballad is definitely the style of vocal delivery used by Moriyama, contrasting the halted singing and unusual stressing of syllables in the verses with the smoother style found in the chorus.  While “Conveni no Chou-san” is also mostly set within the lower range of his voice, there are moments in the chorus where he does reach just a bit higher, for beautiful effect.  I’d actually also like to complement this song for actually not overstaying its welcome, since all too often ballads like this get dragged out, but at just over 4 minutes this feels just right.

4. Mukashibanashi (昔話)

The instrumental intro to this track is one of the most memorable moments on the record, since it’s just so pleasant, and all of the instruments come together so well.  The acoustic guitar is definitely the star of “Mukashibanashi”, for the first time taking on a more lyrical sound and serving as the melody instrument for the majority of the track.  However, ever so often the background instrumental (strings and trumpet) will switch with it and take over the melody role, pushing smoothly to the forefront of this forest of sounds.  This is also the first song in which I’d say that Moriyama’s vocals aren’t so much a stand-out as just one more instrument added to the overall mix, blending with everything else in order to create a single “voice” through which the song is delivered.  Definitely one of my favorite songs on the album, and I must say that the background chorals at the end are just such a nice touch.

5. Konna ni mo Nanika wo Tsutaetainoni (こんなにも何かを伝えたいのに)

“Konna ni mo Nanika wo Tsutaetainoni” starts perhaps the sparsest of any song on this record, with nothing but a single set of percussion strikes echoing through your ears.  Then suddenly the acoustic guitar and the bass come in and you feel as though you’ve taken a trip to an island somewhere and are lazily laying on the beach, staring out at the sun as it descends towards the sea.  As seems to be usual with this album, the orchestra joins the mix with first chorus and sticks around from there on in, adding yet another layer of sound (and sadness) to this particular tune.  Still, I’d say that the best moments of this track come in its second half once the tempo speeds up and Moriyama starts to hauntingly repeat a single phrase over and over again, leading into an instrumental section and one final, considerably larger chorus, before fading out into this hypnotic repetition once more.  Complete with some vocal ad-libbing in the background, of course.

6. Unmei no Hito (運命の人)

Alright, I’m going to open about this:  “Unmei no Hito” is a very, very pretty track, but it’s also probably the most formulaic song on “Ougon no Kokoro”.  Very big string intro which leads us into an acoustic guitar and vocal solo,  these eventually joined by the piano as well, with the drums and the strings rejoining later.  My biggest compliment for this particular song definitely has to do with how honest and genuine Moriyama comes across on the chorus; there’s a certain fragility present throughout this song that is characteristically different from what’s on the rest of this album.  Still, I just can’t shake the fact that beyond that, I feel like I’ve heard this track somewhere before – maybe even several times.  It just has all of the hallmarks that I associate with a fairly typical Japanese ballad, albeit being a fairly excellent execution of all of them, particularly on the vocal front.  Still, I was kind of hoping not to see a song like this on here.

7. Suru Koto Nai Kara (することないから)

Luckily however, the previous song is followed by what is perhaps my favorite song on the entire album.  “Suru Koto Nai Kara” is driven primarily by three instruments:  the acoustic guitar, cello, and what I believe to be clarinet.  This is a fairly unconventional combination of instruments that you don’t find in popular music all that often these days, and is a wonderful change of pace from “Unmei no Hito”.  This isn’t to say that the singing on this track isn’t wonderful though, since it most certainly is, the conversational style adopted by Moriyama perfect for the fun, jaunty tune and just makes it all the more unique.  Best of all, this is yet another song on “Ougon no Kokoro” that doesn’t overstay its welcome, its stay just shy of 4 minutes, time which it uses to the absolute best of its ability.  This is one of those moments where I’d recommend that you just sit back and enjoy.

8. Kanashiin Janakute Sabishii Dakesa (悲しいんじゃなくて寂しいだけさ)

This is where we find the album itself at its slowest, this whole track naught but Moriyama and his guitar accompaniment.  There’s somewhat less to say about this song as a result, but I will note that this is also the moment we see Moriyama’s vocals are their rawest, where he seems to be eschewing a certain degree of his technique and deliberately allowing his voice to crack.  I have to imagine that this is intended to produce a kind of emotional effect, and while it kind of works for me, I can easily see “Kanashiin Janakute Sabishii Dakesa” being a little annoying to some people.  Still, I’ll once again laud Moriyama for the track’s length, since the song definitely doesn’t go on to the point where this would become played out and overdone.

9. Gosenfu wo Hikouki ni Shite (五線譜を飛行機にして)

“Gosenfu wo Hikouki ni Shite” is the album’s lead track, and for that it is quite the right fit.  It’s an incredibly uplifting song that manages to relaunch the record’s momentum without necessarily being all that fast of a track itself, a lot of the credit for this going to the drums and Moriyama’s singing.  These two aspects are this song’s driving force, supported by both acoustic and electric guitar and the ever-present strings, but never overtaken by them.  I think many will find this to be the track where Moriyama is most immediately vocally impressive, since the drawn-out choruses were without a doubt structured with that in mind.  Even I’d have to agree that “Gosenfu” is a great display of what his voice can do; plus, it also has a couple of particular great instrumental moments that make it a pretty well-rounded track on the whole.  The ending is particularly pretty, as a lot of this album has been, and is also worthy of note.

10. Ougon no Kokoro (黄金の心)

I was waiting for a song that would invoke the Wild West influences that appeared to be present in the album’s cover, and it looks like the release’s title track and closer will be the one to finally do so.  This song has that aged, world weary quality to it that makes you feel as though you’ve just reached the end of a long journey, yet at the same time there’s still a certain excitement and hope to it.  “Ougon no Kokoro” is led primarily by acoustic guitar, piano, and later electric guitar as well, all of these instruments coming together to produce a homely sound further reinforced by Moriyama’s pointed yet lyrical singing.  His vocals fade out just under a minute before the track closes, leaving us with a warm folky outro as the sun sets on this particular release.  Solid and kind of symbolic closer to what I’d definitely call an enjoyable album.

Album Digest:

Final Thoughts:

Luckily, my feelings about “Ougon no Kokoro” are a lot easier to sort through than those on the previous album I reviewed were.  It’s not a weak release by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s definitely one of the most beautifully composed and sung albums that I’ve heard all year.  However, beauty doesn’t necessarily replace pure technical ability and creativity; a lot of the songs on this album found themselves using the same instruments in very much the same ways, excluding some standouts like “Suru Koto Nai Kara”.  That said, even after multiple listens to “Ougon no Kokoro”, I still can’t find more than a few extraordinarily minor issues with Moriyama’s singing technique (outside of “Kanashiin Janakute Sabishii Dakesa”, where I really have to assume that was intentional), and for that he should be commended.  Admittedly, I’m not as familiar with Moriyama Naotaro’s back catalog as I was with Gesu no Kiwami Otome.’s, so I can’t comment on exactly how strong this is compared to his entire set of releases, though it does appear to be on par or slightly stronger than his previous album (“Jiyuu no Genkai”).

So, my overall opinion is that while “Ougon no Kokoro” is without a doubt a particularly competent release, it is not without its flaws and bumps in the road (in particular, I wish that “Unmei no Hito” had been a different kind of track).  I’d still very much recommend it to people who enjoy folk music that’s a bit more accessible than what you might necessarily consider normal, as well as those who find a particular enjoyment in hearing really pretty instrumentals, as this album has those in spades.  However, I also caution people that if you’re looking for anything incredibly upbeat, this is probably not the release you’re looking for.  Many things “Ougon no Kokoro” is, but upbeat and fast-paced it most certainly is not.  Favorites this time around are “Wakamonotachi”, “Mukashibanashi”, “Suru Koto Nai Kara”, and “Ougon no Kokoro”.