The humble ukulele needed a man like Jake Shimabukuro, the 28-year-old string virtuoso determined to turn all your "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" preconceptions on their ear. Shimabukuro's unconventional approach to the instrument produces a sound and a complexity more akin to a mandolin or a lead guitar than what you might recognize as a uke. Revered in Japan and in his native home of Hawaii, Shimabukuro has enjoyed little fame elsewhere, but with Dragon, his fourth LP (and the first to be aggressively marketed in the continental U.S.), that seems likely to change.
Dragon finds Shimabukuro in an adventurous, expansive state; there's considerably less novelty and bravado than in his previous, folksier releases. Instead, the focus of the album rests on Shimabukuro's songwriting, and the results are generally positive: "Toastmanland" and "Me & Shirley T" are light and sweet, "Shake It Up" and "Circle of Friends" are rousing anthemic power ballads, and "El Aranjuez Con Tu Amor" (an unconventional take on Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," featuring a drum loop from superstar turntablist DJ Q-Bert) is, if not triumphant, at least always interesting.
The album's greatest fault is its sentimentality; much of the CD is drenched with treacly orchestration that threatens to obscure Shimabukuro. While I would have preferred a more stripped-down set, Dragon is an impressive effort and a thoroughly enjoyable listen.