03. 東京事変 [Tokyo Jihen] - スポーツ [Sports]
I have mentioned previously that I think Katsuhiko Maeda is one of the most important contemporary musicians in Japan. Well, he shares the honor of that title along with Shiina Ringo, who is arguably more important due to her status as a quite well-known pop star, significantly broadening the scope of her impact. As a solo artist, she proved herself capable of hopping and blending genres with apparent ease, combining this with strong songwriting and production skills as well as obtuse lyrics riddled with archaic kanji and provocative themes. She is weird, to say the least, but she is the kind of weird that popular music needs--enough of a visionary to drive the genre forward without completely losing her audience. I cannot express my admiration of her music enough, and her 2003 album Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana would place confidently within my top five favorite albums of all time.
I was never much of a Tokyo Jihen fan, though. Tokyo Jihen emerged from Shiina's live backing band, which turned into this side project that ended up dominating her musical output for the latter half of the noughties. After the lavish excessiveness that defined KZKH, Tokyo Jihen represented a step back into simpler territory, constrained by the limits of a five-person band and not straying too far from a jazz-rock sound. It took a while for me to warm up to their albums, and even then I preferred Shiina's solo stuff. Sports changed that, however, as it hooked me immediately, and I may like it even more than Shiina's 2009 album Sanmon Gossip.
Their signature jazz-rock sound is still there, but this album takes a definite turn towards the poppier and the more experimental. It is still a rock album through and through, and though I have already expressed my disdain for much of modern rock, when it is done well and interestingly, as per this album, it is fucking fantastic. Tokyo Jihen really prove how much can be done within the constraints of a typical rock ensemble. Electronic and studio wizardry are present, but their contributions are largely minimal, yet quite effective.
I loved this album from the first moments of the first track (did I already write this?). It begins entirely a cappella, much like another album on this list, and it is nothing but spine-chilling choral harmony for two-and-a-half minutes. This gorgeous introduction is mirrored in the album's final, and my favorite, track. It begins almost like a carnival ride, with lackadaisical triplets from the guitars and an air of mystery from Shiina's vocals. The song builds and builds as more instruments are added into the mix, until finally the track explodes when the drums enter. Everyone sings and plays, the piano line continues to build tension, the drummer goes berserk, and the song devolves into beautiful and cathartic noise. It is an absolutely sublime conclusion to the album, and I had no idea Tokyo Jihen could produce something like this prior to hearing it.
The rest of the album is filled with catchy, jazzy, and poppy rock tunes. I really like "シーズンサヨナラ," with its relentless upbeatedness, harmonics in the backing vocals, and awesome piano. "能動的三分間" begins with a very cool industrial-esque electronic beat, and overall is a particularly strong single, clocking in, as the title suggests, at exactly three minutes. Tokyo Jihen get very smooth on "FAIR," and very sweet on "スイートスポット." Impressively, every song here is distinctive, yet they all manage to cohere into a very satisfying experience as a whole.
I was not expecting to like this album as much as I did, and perhaps some of that surprise factor is why I still am listening to it fairly often into the end of this year. I think it is Tokyo Jihen's most consistent album yet, showcasing the always impressive songwriting chops of front woman Shiina Ringo, as well as the writing capabilities of the other band members. This is an unconventional rock album that knows how to feel novel and unfamiliar in all of the right places.