Given that she writes the majority of the songs in both projects and works with many of the same musicians, it’s bizarre that Shiina Ringo’s finest moments come not in her solo work but with her band Tokyo Jihen. Last year’s long-anticipated solo release “Sanmon Goshippu” (“Superficial Gossip”) was a bland, overproduced collection of what sounded like game-show theme tunes. Thank goodness, then, for “Sports.”
Tokyo Jihen’s fourth album is another sonically ambitious stab at jazz- and funk-soaked pop, though with mixed results. Opening with an a cappella chorus of heavily processed voices that unfold into a crashing ebb and flow of rhythmic melody, “Ikiru” (“To Live”) sets an ethereal tone. “Shizun Sayonara” (“Season Final”) and “Nodoteki Sanpunkan” (“Active Three Minutes”) refold after-dinner jazz into an urgent rush of smoke and paranoia, as Shiina sings in a voice that sounds like overcrushed velvet and cigarette burns. Meanwhile “Kachiikusa” (“Victory”) and “Sweet Spot” are soulful seductions sung in almost flawless English. “Utenkekkou” (“Playing Through the Rain”) and “Zettai Zetsumei” (“Last Stand”) proffer cutesy melodies and, respectively, chimes and tambourines.
Though “Sports” lacks the songwriting chops that made Tokyo Jihen’s previous three albums so utterly essential, the musicianship and production are staggering. A reverb-soaked theremin gives “Noriki” (“Eagerness”) a mysterious B-movie feel, with a histrionic guitar and synth solo adding a touch of knowing 1980s cheese that should probably sound irritating but is instead glorious.
The standout is “Denpa Tsushin” (“Electronic Communication”): Kicking off with a hyperkinetic bassline from master producer Seiji Kameda, it soon explodes into an electronically enhanced, stratospheric pop masterpiece. The song proves that Shiina still has a bit of songwriting vigor. If she’d ladled it on a bit thicker, “Sports” could have been another killer Tokyo Jihen album; as it is, it’s merely excellent.
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