MATCHA CHA, MECHA
So begins CHAI’s fourth album in a chant of technicolor enthusiasm. For the initiated, it’s a familiarly infectious vibe that’s led to the quartet securing Sub Pop record deals and collaborating with the likes of Gorillaz. For the newbie, it’s as good a place as any to enter the world of CHAI.
Formed in 2012 by twin sisters Mana and Kana alongside high school/college buds Yuuki and Yana, the band has spent the past decade marrying homegrown influences with experimental pop, punk, and hip-hop rhythms. It’s proved a winning formula, the group reclaiming Japan’s ‘Kawaii’ (cute) aesthetics to create ‘Neo-kawaii,’ a more inclusive and feminist slant that embraces imperfections. Imagine candy-colored riot girl over some seriously groovy synths, and you’re halfway there.
The band’s latest self-titled offering follows 2021’s fabulous ‘WINK,’ an album that rightfully ended on a few ‘best of’ lists. While this last full-length leaned more into foreright dance territory and contemporary collabs, this latest ten-track sees the outfit embrace and update 80s city pop. While this Japanized version of lounge music is truly of their parents’ era, the once-maligned genre has had an unexpected revival thanks to boutique labels, Youtube, and TikTok. The soundtrack of Japan’s tech boom, this once-disposable genre always had a knack for creating the kind of bass lines Daft Punk would happily build worlds from. By merging this effortlessly smooth blueprint with their own punk lyrics and ethos, CHAI has created an album that’s warmly inviting yet still exciting.
An excellent example of this blend is ‘GAME,’ which marries Prince’s ‘Controversy’ with the vibe of a Yuzo Koshiro Mega Drive soundtrack to great effect. It’s part pop jam, part house number, and 100% addictive. Elsewhere, ‘1992’ has the band breezily embrace aging over chaotic drum loops and vintage synth sounds. It proves a highlight and captures the spirit of 90s console culture for anyone lucky enough to have lived it. Still, this being a CHAI record, there are more immediate moments, namely the rallying ‘We The Female!,’ a nu-rave sounding track led by Yuna’s tight machine gun drumming.
Another highlight is ‘LIKE, I NEED,’ a sultry pop-banger that discusses the dangers of social media reliance despite the track’s catchiness. The chorus’ punchy multitracked vocals over Yuuki’s dreamy basslines are glorious and showcase the great synergy between the band and producer Ryu Takahashi. Teaming up with Takahashi once more was a wise choice, the whole album sounding perfectly balanced while including more subtleties than seen in their previous work on ‘WINK.’
This sense of contained chaos is far from the straight indie dance production featured on their first two albums. These two opposing forces are perfectly captured on the album’s brilliant artwork – the girls are captured in black and white, grimacing with backcombed hair and smeared lipstick as a blast of pink rays and stars is doing its best to blow them away. It’s both subdued and retro while ready to explode at any moment – just like the record. If you’re looking for an album to brighten your day, come enter the world of CHAI.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart