Who said pop-rock music can’t be cute?
There are few musical genres that bring more joy than Japanese new wave electronic rock. The creativity that spills from it is admirable, showing how interconnected pop, rock, and alternative music are. CHAI, a Japanese girl rock group, takes these influences with a blazing love for the past of new wave while still inputting experimental stylistic choices. The result is a modern sound that is distinctly their own. In their latest album, WINK, CHAI aims to create a positive, loving experience. Its tracklist remains strong throughout the album, making it impossible not to feel the contagious energy in which they poured into the work.
The opening track, “Donuts Mind If I Do,” introduces one to a groove that has a playfulness. The love ballad is translated to food. While this idea may seem childish on the surface to some, it has a musicality that makes it nearly impossible not to adore. The bridge is incredibly sentimental despite the object of affection being food. The vocal performances are magnetic, and their tremendous talent is brought to the surface. It acts as a bridge to the more experimental undercurrents that lie within the album, but the subject matter should not deceive one into not recognizing the immense complexity of their work.
“Maybe Chocolate Chips” (featuring Ric Wilson) is the first feature of the album; it does not fall into the trap where one artist dominates one another. Wilson’s verse is a polarizing addition, yet does not feel out-of-place. Rap seems to complement the more R&B style verses from CHAI. The affirming message of embracing one’s insecurities is placed against the lush instrumentals that remind one of Raveena, who takes influence from late ’90s pop. The nostalgia for this time period is coming back in full force, which makes the undeniably youthful and positive song timely—it seems to be from a bygone era of innocence.
“ACTION” is most aligned to new wave in its sound. With its sweeping electronic beats, it is kinetic. The energy of the driving bassline reminds one of the movement-promoting of early ’80s house music. Even in an at-home recording, the track seems to have the velocity of a live show. The command of “ACTION” encourages their listeners to stand up for what they believe in and to “make art/ make love.” The intrinsic hope of the song allows it to maintain its energy without the many recurring undertones of hopelessness in the music released in the past few years.
However, the versatility of the band is not only in these influences. “PING PONG!” (featuring YMCK) has dense production work, aiming to immerse the listener in the sounds of an arcade. While perhaps a rudimentary connection to the work, it personally brings back imagery to the arcades of Sailor Moon, one of the most formative shows of the Magical Girl genre. The track has all the whimsy and wonder of the arcade as it reaches a championship game of ping pong. The electronic sounds make it more modern and bring technology to mind. Dynamics of “you and me” come back to the fore, seemingly saying even games as mundane as ping pong can be cherished when shared.
From “KARAAGE” to “IN PINK” (featuring Mndsgn), the album is distinct in its aesthetics. Unabashedly optimistic, CHAI is a band that is rare to come by. The four women dynamically interact with one another throughout the record with nostalgic electronica and sweeping inspirations from punk rock and new wave. Their chemistry is undeniable, and much of their sound relies on a certain level of whimsy in its aesthetic. While to some, their songs seem shallow on the surface, they are more than capable. Their wordplay complements complex instrumentals, all while being extremely cohesive in its message.
Perhaps the most formative song of the album, one that encapsulates these themes of youthful joy, is “Nobody Knows We Are Fun.” The deep bass with dense percussion promotes the fun of the band, claiming that people do not know them. Proclaiming they are fun and smart, the girl band asserts their position in the music industry against what they describe as critical put-downs of their youthfulness. They take this as an opportunity to discuss their feelings of value, to create such a song in direct response to the criticisms of them is an affirmative statement. Truly, there is nothing more powerful than women loving and respecting their own talents.
At the heart of it, WINK is an album that proves that good music can be incredibly fun. In a bleak global climate, it is easy to be lost in the despair of modern music. While catharsis is inherently necessary in order to move past grief, there has to be room for growth, love, and happiness. There is something so intimately connective about these desires to all of humanity. It is a soaring work that promotes such radical joy in its listeners. From its new wave influence to its modern experimental edge, CHAI’s WINK is already one of the most versatile albums of the year.