Our heroine Shiina Ringo would like to see her new band Tokyo Jihen as something larger than a solo project, but we must fill in the bubble “C” — the correct answer is:Shiina Ringo:Tokyo Jihen::John Lennon:Plastic Ono Band.
Kyouiku (“Education”) has some good songs towards the front and the band manages to extract vaguely experimental sounds from their very traditional instruments, but the album is just another showcase of standard Ringo operating procedures: The rock version of a previously-released quiet song (“Ringo no Uta”), extended flat melodies with the hook coming at the end of the phrase (“Sounan”), throw-away songs drenched in vocal distortion (“Crawl”), Showa-era melodies (“Ekimae”), carnival songs (“Bokoku Jousho”), and quiet piano-ballads descending into fierce rock explosion (“Yume no Ato”). And unlike the previous Shiina Ringo albums, I do not have the pleasure of getting lost in the multicolored ether of sounds, textures, and melodic fragments. With this “rock band” roadmap in hand, I know exactly when everything will erupt into chaos and where I’m supposed to clap.
I get a sense that facing the wide range of production possibilities available in a “producer album” like Karuiki Zaamen Kuri no Hana (KZK) opened up Ringo’s songwriting skills, and subsequently, the wish to be merely “a good rock band” has forced our protagonist into a box — trapped to create melodies replicable and comprehensible within the live setting.
“Gunjou Biyori” is the album’s most compelling moment, and she’s not the one who wrote it. The reach for Rockist authenticity and shrugging of full responsibility just plays to her weaknesses. Shiina Ringo is a terribly creative melodic songwriter and overflowing volcano of ideas. Why put her into a jazzy trad rock prison?
Having said that, she still provides some of J-Pop’s most interesting melodies, and the arrangements are certainly interesting. The band members seem to throw out little licks and promptly retreat as not to step on the other instruments’ toes. Shiina’s voice sounds great, especially on “Gunjou Biyori.” Kyouiku is not a bad album, but it’s hardly the work to redeem Japanese popular music in a year of absolute blandness.
I am sure the guys at Toshiba-EMI all filled with insane glee the moment they heard the master — she’s come back to planet Earth! They might as well have called this album “Re-education” in the sense of its retreat into normalcy. I can enjoy these letters penned in the rock gulag for the time being, but I hope she finds it in her interest to stage a jailbreak in the near future.