Posted by: Leek | September 27, 2014

Music Purchase in Review: Aikatsu! Second Season Mini Album 2 – CUTE LOOK

So let’s get this out of the way, screw the USPS for openly trolling me all week. That’s all.

General Overview
CUTE LOOK is the missing half of the two mini-albums to be released during the second season of Aikatsu! It also marks the final release before the third season starts next week. And, just like last time, it is a bit of a joint project between MONACA and onetrap. Whereas onetrap had a bit less hand in Pop Assort, their staff shows up quite a bit more in the CUTE LOOK credits. CUTE LOOK, in general, marks a pretty far break from MONACA but it makes sense with the amount of music that had to be done in the recent life of Aikatsu! That or everybody just wants to jump on the money train, either way it’s not a terrible thing…not yet anyway.

The concept of CUTE LOOK was pretty easy versus it’s companion mini-album. Where I somewhat mocked Pop Assort for not sticking with it’s namesake, CUTE LOOK didn’t have much of a choice but to take on all the remaining tracks from the second season. While this allowed it to pack itself with great tracks, it also left it a little less room for freedom. Does it really affect it terribly? In some sense it did but not in a way that hurt it.

If it needs to be said again I will but no instrumentals this time around. Still, CUTE LOOK packs 8 tracks in total with six of them filling in the blanks from the second season. The remaining two spots are filled by one track that has solely shown up in the arcade machines and the other being a alternate vocal makeup of a previous track (much like Idol Katsudou! on Pop Assort). So, in case you didn’t notice, it’s the exact same deal as you got with Pop Assort. I guess they just decided this time to not write off one of the tracks as a bonus. Probably a good idea.

Design
So there’s only two real points that need to be addressed in regards to jacket design this time.

1) The artwork is incredibly cute this time. I realize it’s written in the title but, really, I want this on a poster. Or a bigger pack-in bonus calendar in the next best of album. And so you can view it as one large picture rather than split between two sides.

2) There is (prepare to gasp) no in game character models on the back cover this time around. Breaking tradition with the last mini-album Aikatsu! staff? For shame. Not really. I actually prefer the one large picture in this case but I just found it funny they finally decided to do it.

I will admit one thing bothers me. Aoi’s poor side tail getting cut off and split between the front and back cover. How dare you staff. I would have forgiven you if it was Kii but it just had to be Aoi, huh? And no Akari either? Look at what you’re making me do. This design section is basically me complaining about nothing.

(Good shit staff)

Music/Track Progression Musical Overview
So you want to know the real punch line of the two mini-albums? Somehow. I’m not sure how. CUTE LOOK ended up with more pop songs than Pop Assort. I know. All of the Aikatsu! library is borderline pop in some way but the gaps between the music in Pop Assort was ridiculous. So, if you can’t tell, CUTE LOOK has a lot more consistency when it comes to genre. In fact, it’s basically all solid, easy to understand pop music. I don’t really have an issue either way since there’s always tracks here and there that shake things up a bit. CUTE LOOK is still no stranger to this concept and it fits the bill as a standard Aikatsu! album. I think Pop Assort was just such an oddball that CUTE LOOK feels too normal. Not a bad kind of normal, just normal.

If you really liked the Pop Assort variety you might feel a little put off by the fact that CUTE LOOK is pretty cut and dry in comparison. But it’s still a really damn good album and I think the strength of the tracks hold up a lot more than Pop Assort. So, while it lacks dramatic variety, I just think it holds itself together with how much stronger the tracks are. But let me tell you something. If there’s one thing every Aikatsu! release needs to have, it’s one bad track. It doesn’t matter. There’s always going to be that one track. It’s not always that it’s bad but it really just never sits well on the album. Maybe I’m just obsessive but I feel like this is a running thing. It also allows every other track to be great though so maybe it’s better to just have that one stand out track.

Track by Track Breakdown

happy crescendo – Ever since second season, Kakeru Ishihama has basically been slated to the “write openings and only openings position”. Which is a shame because both “Thrilling Dream” and “fashion check” were easily some of the better standalone songs from the first season of Aikatsu! So how is the one dedicated stage song Ishihama got to do for the second season? Good but nothing that trumps his previous work. I know, what does that mean? It’s kind of like when KIRA☆Power first came out that I felt it was a really good song. A lot of spirit and really vibrant sound. And both are really songs that will get you on your feet. But when I think back to his previous work I’d prefer him to have put more of that sound into his second season work. I think it really came through in SHINING LINE* but both KIRA☆Power and now happy crescendo just strike me as catchy. Fun to listen to but once the novelty wears off you’ll realize you hit the skip button more often than not.

otona mode – There’s a few songs here and there that pop up in Aikatsu! that makes me wonder how parents feel. Let’s not forget that the target audience is younger girls and I’m not sure how’d I feel about a song going on about trying to get ahead of all your peers by stealing your mother’s wardrobe. So that’s not entirely what it’s about but it’s still a pretty questionable song for younger girls to be hearing. Let’s not dwell on it too much. The real point is that “otona mode” is a great song and that’s all there is to it. From it’s piano backing, to the slow pace, to, particularly, Mona’s vocals it’s just on point in every respect. I want to say it’s perfect but they decided to go with the duet version versus the original solo Mona (Mikuru) version from the anime. I’m sure it’ll show up if another best album rolls around (god it better) but it’s kind of lame they couldn’t just let Mona have the solo. It definitely doesn’t help that the two already showed up as a duet on Pop Assort and the WM push doesn’t need to be THAT strong. But versus when it was first announced, I don’t hate Risuko thrown into the song as much as I thought I would. I still don’t think her vocal fits with the song but she is surprisingly tame through most of the song. In the end, Risuko would have to be the main vocal on the track to really bother me, but since she mostly takes a backseat to Mona it still retains the sound it needs to to make it great. However, I feel if the solo version does get released (kind of like the Trap Of Love solo on Calendar Girls) the song will be at it’s highest potential.

stranger alien – While Fuuri got plenty of spotlight in Season 2 music, it’s hard to say that her as Aoi got a lot of spotlight…ever. And it’s a shame. I think the reason I even got to liking her in the first place was that her vocal style for Aoi feels the most fitting. Funny, because I didn’t like “stranger alien” all that much when I heard it in show. But I guess it just shares the trait of “CHU-CHU♡RAINBOW” in that respect. Once I heard the full version and got to actually listen to the music, it just clicked. “stranger alien” just conveys the “perfection in simplicity” concept. There’s no real special sound in it but it just matches up with itself perfectly. The theme of the song is clear and it’s just cleanly done. Personally, I probably still enjoy “prism spiral” as Aoi’s true character song but I’ll never complain about her having multiple that I can listen to and enjoy.

Arabian Romance – You know, I could never lie to you guys. I’m a sucker for that super stereotypical oriental themed pop song that inevitably must be written. If you listen to a lot of Japanese music (specifically pop groups) you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. I can’t say they’re all the same but once one comes on you instantly know what general direction it’s going in. It’s not exactly a super stereotype kind of situation but it’s such a small, very distinctly defined sound. I haven’t been the biggest fan of what Takao Nagatani has done for the Aikatsu! series thus far but I think he finally nailed something into me. I also honestly believe this is the character song Sora probably deserved in the first place. And the vocal pairing of Eri and Waka is somehow perfect for it. You have that mature vocal mixed in with Waka’s, I don’t know, cuter sound? I don’t think I have a way to describe Waka’s vocal style yet but it just stands out. Point it’s either the two just pair well or the song itself was just made for them.

heart no melody – Bringing down the pace, “heart no melody” is the incredibly adorable pop ballad (?) to make it’s way onto the album. It is also the one solo that managed to sneak it’s way into the mix. So what’s my problem with it? Part of what I had really liked was that it was Akari’s solo song at the end of the season and totally blew me away. So the album version being done by Eri was kind of a downer at the end of the day. Eri’s vocals are amazing, don’t get me wrong. But that might be my problem with it. “heart no melody” really oozes this pure-hearted cuteness that I think was captured really well by Ruka. It’ll come through even if a dude was singing it but I think there are just those voices that can amplify the effect of a song. It’s basically the same issue I have with “otona mode”. Really, it’s just a step away from being perfect to me and I hope that Akari’s version shows up on a best of album somewhere. I’ll wait…but hopefully not as far as the end of third season.

dancing☆baby – Remember how I talked about the one black sheep that shows up on every Aikatsu! album? Well, we’ve finally reached it. When I saw the full listings I saw Masashi Hamauzu and immediately thought to myself, “…the Square Enix composer?” Honestly, I didn’t believe it but it is actually him. And there is no doubt a difference in creating ambiance with game music and writing music for a actual rhythm game/group. The point is, this song kind of feels like a mess. I generally feel there are complex songs and, if it’s something you can pull off then it sounds amazing. But it’s no doubt a skill and one that’s exceptionally hard to pull off in vocal music. Outside of having way too much going on at the same time, I also felt the song suffered from what “Kira pata shining” did way back when. It just lacks any real focus and it’s style is so loose that I really have no idea what is going on during the song. There is indeed freedom and unpredictability in music and then there’s a mess. I would had to unfortunately group this in the latter. And with all the clean music that made it into this album, maybe this track wasn’t all that necessary. Maybe both Pop Assort and CUTE LOOK could have gotten away with 7 tracks. But then it wouldn’t be the standard Aikatsu! album, right?

friend – In case you ever felt the need to get you boogie back, “friend” is probably a good place to start. I think the best thing about all the music done for the Ichigo/Seira pairing has been the amount of energy in it. I’m not sure if it was done on purpose to contrast with the more cool, laid back style of Mizuki/Mikuru but that’s how it comes off to me. “friend” is just a fun song to listen to and even more fun to get on your feet and start grooving to. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly special in anyway, nor would I try and stack it up against “Sweet Sp!ce”. But I do believe it has the same high energy and simple, clean sound that made “Sweet Sp!ce” so much fun to listen to. And if all Ichigo/Seira music was to turn out like this then it’s a shame they didn’t start doing duets together sooner.

KIRA☆Power ~Dream Academy Ver.~ – So, just like last time, I don’t feel a real need to review a song over again. Sure, I never reviewed the first second season opening on here, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that KIRA☆Power is still a decent song and the Dream Academy version doesn’t really do anything spectacular to make it better. Do you like hearing Fuuri in Seira mode? Do you want to hear Eri in Maria mode? Well then you might just enjoy this version. The point is it’s merely a preference thing and I’d probably go back and listen to the original before I jump on this alternate. But if you are a really big Dream Academy fan then this is probably your joint.

Wrap Up
At the end of the day, CUTE LOOK was the great album I was expecting it to be. None of the songs were really broken by having a full version and each song did a good job of retaining itself well. Vocalist preferences aside, all the music was strong and it all fits together well as one long listen. But it is a shame that I know I’m going to have to hit the skip button at least once in the middle because of the black sheep track. Don’t let my complaint about it get to you though, CUTE LOOK is a great album and definitely worth your money. If you’re looking for an actual good assort of pop music then this is probably a great option and will provide you with a decent spread of music to run through your head. And it’s nice to know that long time Aikatsu! fans don’t have to be scared about less MONACA composers dominating the album. At the least, I’m going to keep trusting them until the names start disappearing entirely. But hopefully we won’t have an ordeal where MONACA ditches their own baby and we get to see more of them in the third season. Because it really wouldn’t be Aikatsu! without the guys that really got the ball rolling.

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