New Music Reviews: Mitski, Arooj Aftab, and Hikaru Utada

Welcome back to the first instalment of new music reviews for 2022. This week I feature three female artists in their thirties of Asian descent – the art-rock of indie heroine Mitski, the jazz/Hindustani classical hybrid of Arooj Aftab, and the pop sounds of Hikaru Utada.

I still have a small pile of 2021 records to review that I only learned about this year. Aftab’s Vulture Prince was released in April 2021, but I’ve only caught up with it more recently. It comes recommended not only by Barack Obama, but also by my two chickens, who move close to the speaker and listen intently when I play it outside.

Mitski

Laurel Hell

2022, 8/10
Mitski’s Be The Cowboy is my favourite album of 2018 and possibly of its entire decade. On it, the Japanese-born musician seemingly had endless possibilities, her musically sophisticated songs exploring the palette of studio pop confections. It’s taken four years for a follow-up to emerge – and where Be The Cowboy was full of wide-eyed wonder, Laurel Hell is the work of an artist who’s reached the top and is now questioning the futility of the exercise. The title comes from Southern Appalachia, where laurel bushes grow in impenetrable thickets – the flowers are beautiful, but according to legend, it’s almost impossible to escape.

Even though Laurel Hell is less buoyant than its predecessor, Mitski’s still a cut above most of her contemporaries. Her frustrations are clear on lead single ‘Working For The Knife’ – “I used to think I’d be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same.” Some of the tracks recall the chamber-pop of Be The Cowboy – ‘Should’ve Been Me’ is full of twisting melodic ideas, but the lyrics are still resigned to failure. Mitski sings “must be lonely loving someone/Tryna to find their way out of a maze.”

But Mitski also introduces dance beats and disco synth leads to her music – it’s a welcome addition to what would otherwise become a downer of an album. Closer ‘That’s Our Lamp’ sounds positively joyful, even though the lyrics are about the end of a relationship. ‘Stay Soft’ is also guarded about love, singing “Open up your heart/Like the gates of hell”.

Mitski has made stronger albums, but she’s still one of the most creative and vital musicians of her generation.


Hikaru Utada

Bad Mode

2022, 7/10
Whereas Mitski was born in Japan to an American father, Hikaru Utada was born in New York City to Japanese parents – her father is a record producer and her mother was a singer. Utada has dominated Japanese domestic album sales – her 1999 album, First Love, which she released at the age of 15, is more than 80% clear of its nearest competition (Utada’s following album, Distance). Her personal life has often been tough over the past two decades, including stepping away from music for a few years in her early 30s. Utada’s far from a predictable pop star – Bad Mode is a boundary-pushing pop album with some experimental production.

Bad Mode is Utada’s 11th studio album and her first bilingual record – she’s previously recorded albums in Japanese and English. On it she works with a variety of producers, including Floating Points, PC Music’s A.G. Cook, Skrillex, and Japanese producer Nariaki Obukuro. Bad Mode runs 55 minutes – a long time for a pop album – and sometimes struggles to keep momentum. In particular the record gets bogged down in the middle – the seven minutes of ‘Not In The Mood’, with its nursery rhyme chorus, and the moody ‘Darenimo Iwanai’ make for the least interesting stretch of the record.

But there’s also some excellent material – the opening title track, produced with Floating Points, hits a perfect mix of buoyancy and sophistication. The two Cook-produced tracks that follow are also strong, including ‘One Last Kiss’, already used in the 2021 film Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time. The closing ‘Somewhere Near Marseilles’ is magical, the house beats and gorgeous production (again from Floating Points) providing the record’s high point.

Bad Mode is a little long and drifts in places, but it’s also gorgeous and full of personality.


Arooj Aftab

Vulture Prince

2021, 9/10
Arooj Aftab was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents. She taught herself guitar and became a viral sensation in Pakistan, an early adopter of the internet with hits ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Mera Pyaar’. She moved to the US at the age of 19 and studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Vulture Prince is her third studio album, but has reached a wider audience than before – Barack Obama featured one of its tracks on his annual playlist.

It seems at this point in musical history that every possible style has been tried, but Vulture Prince sounds fresh with its cross-pollination of western and Pakistani sounds. There’s jazz in Aftab’s vocal style – she was influenced by Billie Holiday. But her musical backing has elements of Hindustani classical and minimalism – she’s backed by gorgeous guitar, harp, strings, and subtle ambient electronics.

The album pacing is helped by placing a notably different track at the midway point – ‘Last Night’ is in English and has a dub flavour. It feels like an island of familiarity in an exotic sea. Elsewhere, Vulture Prince is gorgeous – the minimalism of ‘Mohabbat’ is stunning, and there’s a lovely violin solo on ‘Baghon Main’.

Vulture Prince is immersive and gorgeous – it’s lovely to see something so original getting a wider audience.

13 Comments

  1. I will be buying Mitski’s new one. Not too geeked about the Utada sound. Most of Aftab video you included was really good and reminds me of some of the jazzy stuff Sting did mixed with Lisa Gerrard. Her monotone parts not real crazy about. Much appreciated intro to the 2nd two artists, first time hearing of them. Aftab especially sounds fresh.

  2. Kudos for continuing to feature/explore artists beyond the English language world, Graham. I had heard of Mitski before, and I’m pretty sure it was because of you. While “Laurel Hell” falls outside my core wheelhouse, I can’t deny there’s something about it. I would need to spend more time with it.

    I think I’m even more intrigued by Arooj Aftab and how she blends western and Pakistani sounds. “Last Night” is a pretty cool tune – I’m impressed with the sound and also like the harmony singing, which sounds like she’s singing harmony with herself. Neatly done!

    • Some of Mitski’s previous records, like Bury Me At Makeout Creek, are a bit more rock-oriented. She’s embraced a poppier sound more recently, but it’s quite sophisticated and it works for me.

  3. It was you who introduced me to Mitski, Graham, and I’ve grown to like her music. The two other artists you featured are really compelling too, particularly Arooj Aftab, whose vocals and music are really beautiful.

  4. It seems like I cannot catch your blog on time on Monday… ever.
    Mitski is the one that I have listened to some and this song you highlighted is quite enjoyable as is her other music. She is the one I can relate to the most…she has some edge to it.

    • My Monday posts are almost always the longest, so that’s understandable. She’s getting a more poppy sheen to her music, but I like her evolving.

  5. You really have chickens? Do you live on a farm or something? I’ve heard other Mitski albums before cuz my friend likes her but this song here was better. I wanna hear the song with the Disco synths. I bet I’ll like that one.
    Arooj is kind of like Natacha Atlas, who I love, but she needs beats and stuff.

Leave a Reply


Review Pages

Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:

Blog Posts

I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections: