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The best kept secret in music


"CD Reviews: Akai - Pretty Songs About Ugly Things"

As backstories go, Akai's is pretty interesting. Hiromi Matsumoto was born in Green Bay, Wis., the son of a Japanese father and Polish/Swedish mother, and he began making music with his wife, Robbie, when they began dating. They're both Jehovah's Witnesses, and now their song "Beautiful" has been released as part of a Starbucks Music compilation called Off the Clock Vol 1: New Music from Up & Coming Starbucks Artists, by which they mean music made by people who work at Starbucks.

Now, I'm no fan of Starbucks (their coffee tastes burnt most of the time, they're killing off local coffee shops, etc.), but I'm willing to concede that every once in a while, a megacorporation gets it right, and Akai deserve to have their music reach a wider audience. Their debut full-length album, Pretty Songs About Ugly Things, is a dull bright mix of polish and splinters, turning from majestic swirls of keyboards and crashing guitars to intimate studio chatter in a heartbeat. "Hardened Soil" begins with ambient noises like scratching and clunking layered in underneath Hiromi's vocals and guitar as he spins out a story of disillusionment. As keyboards fold steadily into the backdrop and the drums find their feet, a burst of jabbering strings enter and an electric guitar builds in and the song explodes into full flight, Robbie's harmony vocals lifting the chorus up. The interplay between Hiromi and Robbie's voices is the real key here, evoking comparisons to other epic boy-girl indie rock bands like Stars, and it's the thing that keeps the introverted and personal lyrics from becoming solipsistic--there's a real "we're all in this together" feeling to the disc.

Nowhere is this more evident than on "Beautiful," where in alternating lines, the couple puts on a play about the boredom and weariness that can come from modern life. "Beautiful, beautiful luxury we live in," sings Hiromi. "How I do adore my luck in this life." "Every day I count my blessings," answers Robbie, "like the stars in the endless sky." The grinding bass of the song pulls it along through this back and forth, Hiromi's baritone voice the model of stability and Robbie's a picture of longing and regret. "Monday is my holiday / First day of the week, away from you," coos Hiromi. "Your checkbook keeps me company / I treat myself to dinner for two," answers Robbie, and the tensions mount up, well, beautifully.

There's the tension between the protagonists, but then that edginess is at odds with the music, which is steady and inexorable, not stagnant. And all of it seems at odds with the way the song is being sung, sounding as it does like an ode to beauty. This blend of idealism, disillusionment, boy-girl harmonies and big, big swathes of guitar and keys is a far better one than Kona or Cafe Estima or anything else Starbucks has come up with, coffee-wise; I'd recommend going straight to the source and ordering Akai's full-length from their website at theakai.net. Akai are playing a CD release show for the aforementioned compilation on Sat., Apr. 21 at Suburban World Theater with The Autumn Leaves, The Umbrella Sequence and Cindy Ivy. 7:30 p.m. $8. 3022 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. - Pulse Magazine - STEVE McPHERSON

"Starbucks Entertainment Uncovers Some of the Best Emerging Talent, Right in its Own Coffeehouse"

www.starbucks.com/aboutus/pressdesc.asp?id=745 - Starbucks Press Release

"Coffee server/musician becomes a Starbucks star on new CD"

Local coffee barista Robbie Matsumoto is featured on a new CD that will make its debut Tuesday at thousands of Starbucks coffee shops around the country.

The CD, "Off the Clock," features 15 tracks from musicians who work for Starbucks in the United States and Canada. Matsumoto, who has worked at the Grand and Victoria Starbucks for five years, plays in the band Akai ("red" in Japanese) along with her husband, Hiromi Matsumoto.

She submitted a track called "Beautiful" to Starbucks' companywide contest from their "Pretty Songs About Ugly Things" CD, recorded last year. It was one of 15 selected for the Starbucks CD from more than 800 submissions. "Beautiful" can be heard on the band's MySpace page, www.myspace.com/theakai.

The Merriam Park couple, married five years, began writing pop songs when they started dating in 2000. - By Joe Kimball, Star Tribune


2005: EP ".5"
2006: LP "Pretty Songs About Ugly Things"


Feeling a bit camera shy


Drawing from the common failures of many relationships, Saint Paul based Robbie and Hiromi Matsumoto began writing tongue-in-cheek pop songs soon after they started dating in 2000 and decided to name their efforts after their shared favorite color red, or in Japanese, "Akai". Though most of their raw material was composed on two guitars, in early 2005 producer Eric Elvendahl began to arrange and record their songs with full instrumentation, which by 2006 grew into their first full-length album entitled "Pretty Songs About Ugly Things". Today Akai draws on the talents of 10 musicians for live support, playing mandolin, glockenspiel, flute, classical guitar, accordion and banjo.