For a band that made its name by bucking kawaii conventions, Chai can be awfully cute. On its second album, misleadingly titled “Punk,” the quartet takes the giddy sugar-rush of 2017’s “Pink” and distills it into a mixture so potent, it should probably come with a health warning attached. They ought to have called it “Pinker.”
Mana, Kana, Yuuki and Yuna have come a long way from shooting guerrilla pop videos in the toy department of Target. They wrapped up last year with a sold-out tour and a spot on Pitchfork’s “The Best Rock Albums of 2018” list.
Fittingly, “Punk” marks a significant step up from its predecessor — an album so front-loaded that U.K. label Heavenly Recordings only licensed the A-side for the European release. It’s a more cohesive and confident work, with heavier basslines, fatter synths and drums riding high in the mix.
Speaking to The Japan Times last year, keyboardist and lead vocalist Mana explained that her song-writing with twin sister Kana tends to involve mashing together elements of different songs they like until they come out with something they can call their own. They have a knack for pairing bubblegum pop melodies and cheerleader chants with the rhythms of funk and old-school hip-hop.
“Future” rides a slow disco groove straight out of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” playbook as the group barks a peppy refrain: “There is nothing stopping me! Yeah! Come on my future!” It’s typical of an album whose default setting is irrepressibly upbeat.
Advance single “Great Job” was created for a Panasonic campaign to motivate people to do household chores, and Chai fulfils this remit with manic glee. Released a decade earlier, the song would have slotted comfortably onto a “nu rave” playlist between CSS and The Ting Tings.
Elsewhere, the group doubles down on the body-positive mantras of “Pink,” while also addressing more generic concerns. Sick of being told how you should dress all the time? “Fashionista” says you should do your own thing. Bad hair day? “Curly Adventure” says you should embrace it. Looking for a cheesy festive singalong in the Tatsuro Yamashita mold? “Wintime” has got you covered.
Perhaps mindful of an expanding international fan-base, lyricist Yuuki includes more English lines this time around, complete with wonky grammar that rather smacks of playing up the band’s otherness for a foreign audience. Although the lyrics maintain the slangy vernacular of “Pink,” they aren’t always as pointed, and at times — especially on the embrace-your-imperfections anthem “I’m Me” — they verge on platitudes.
“Punk” is basically a victory lap: After pushing back against oppressive beauty standards and J-pop orthodoxy, Chai is relishing the opportunity to do things on its own terms. Yet it would be disappointing if a group with such subversive potential settled for just making feel-good pop with quirkier trimmings from now on.
When the glitterball-ready shuffle of “Feel the Beat” peels back to a gauzy refrain of “love, love is all we want,” it’s as musically uplifting as it is lyrically banal. These girls may just want to have fun, but they could have a whole lot more than that if they put their minds to it.