Caramel Milk is a compilation of the second phase of Chara's career, after her hit "Swallowtail Butterfly" revitalized her career. That single, from a 1996 film of the same name and credited to Yen Town Band, a fictional band featured in the film (it's a great film, by the way, set in a polyglot dystopian/utopian near-future Tokyo), is the best thing on the album. A lullaby-like ballad sung by Chara in her most blissed-out baby-doll goo-goo voice, it rises to prom-night intensity on the refrain, where the singer bursts unexpectedly into soulful wailing. Add strings and sitar noises and you've got yourself a perfect late-'90s J-pop record.
Unfortunately, it's, as I say, the best thing on the disc. In fact, it might be the only listenable thing on the disc. Chara's one of those artists whose look and sound are memorable enough that if you spent enough time in Japan in the '90s and early '00s you'd know who she was even if you were as half-hearted in your interest in J-pop as I was. Meaning, I knew who she was, and liked the aforementioned song well enough to, eventually, getting around to buying a compilation that included it. And, eventually, listening to it with full attention.
The other songs on here were recorded in the wake of "Swallowtail Butterfly," and they sound like it: similarly intricate musical settings, gesturing toward sunshine pop, soul, dance music, and the typical Sunday-morning chiffon-curtain J-pop ballad. But whereas "Swallowtail Butterfly" sounds effortless and inevitable, the rest here sound overthought: every sound is not just carefully chosen, but intricately shaped and processed and spun. The recordings are full of detail, and no doubt a full connoisseurial accounting of them would prove the good taste of artist and producer - but this kind of thing can be awfully tiring. And here it's not balanced by particularly memorable melodies.
Above all, it turns out that I find Chara's singing style positively irritating. It turns out I have very little patience for blissed-out baby-doll goo-goo vocals.
So why write about it? Why, out of the blue, pick on poor Chara? Because listening to the dozen or so really unbearable songs on this record gave me a new appreciation for just how good the good song is. Like, suddenly the effortlessness of it sounds like a massive achievement; suddenly I understand that the producer, Kobayashi Takeshi, about whom I know nothing, did wonders in coaxing that kind of a vocal out of Chara. I'm not quite a poptimist, but I do try to cultivate a healthy appreciation for what goes into making a good pop record, to balance out my reflexive rockism.