Tuesday, February 28, 2012

JAM DESHO: Favorite Tokyo Jihen Tracks

By Steve Jones.

Tokyo Jihen have dissolved.  Technically, that will happen tomorrow, February 29th, but it's always already the future in the Japan.

Tokyo Jihen were a jazz-influenced rock band fronted by pop star Shiina Ringo.  Shiina Ringo, by the by, is one of my all-time favorite artists.  She emerged in the late '90s and produced a string of highly successful high concept pop albums.  After the release of the record I consider to be her magnum opus, Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana, she turned away from a solo career and formed a band, called Tokyo Jihen (trans: Tokyo Incidents).  Even though I became a huge Shiina Ringo fan immediately after hearing KZK, it took me a much longer time to warm up to Tokyo Jihen.  The wonderful strangeness of her solo material seemed diluted or lost in this more traditional five-person-band setup.  But the more I listened, the more I came around.  And I think the more Tokyo Jihen played together, the more they really grew into a creative force which turned many things I had once considered restraints into their advantages.

So, in memorium, I want to highlight some of my favorite tracks from Tokyo Jihen's discography in order of their release.  I hope I can find places for you, dear reader, to listen to them too.

1) "Ekimae" ("A Station") from KYOUIKU

This track from their debut begins beautifully with just Shiina's voice and a piano.  As somebody who was enamored with Shiina's solo material first, this introduction stood out to me.  Also, there's a hint of Bartók, I want to say, in the mysterious sound of the melody.  But as the other players gradually take their places in the arrangement, the song appropriately builds tension until it erupts into a satisfyingly loud conflagration.

You can hear an excellent live version here:

2) "Kenka Joutou" ("Active Fighting") from ADULT

Tokyo Jihen's sophomore effort Adult was my favorite for a long time.  After the departure and addition of some members, it introduced what would be the line-up of Tokyo Jihen until their dissolution.  But I think it also struck the best balance between its jazz, rock, and pop influences, and managed to use all of them in inventive ways layered over inherently catchy tunes.  "Kenka Joutou" is a good example, from the antique-sounding introduction to the way it then incorporates that melody into the fast paced song proper.  Also, gotta love the inclusion of scat-singing and a refrain that says, "I am really sick so sick so sick of you and I hate you."  It's short, but very sweet.

Hear the track in okay quality here:

3) "Tegami" ("A Letter") from ADULT

The closing track for Adult shamelessly exploits my weakness for strings.  More generally, it exploits the listener's weakness for emotions.  Shiina's delivery and the arrangement both drip with melancholy until the final cathartic moments.  This is balladry at its finest.

This live version unfortunately lacks the strings of the studio version, but still manages to be gorgeous:

4) "OSCA" from VARIETY

Variety is the black sheep of the Tokyo Jihen discography.  It features no songs written by Shiina Ringo, and intentionally so, but the rest of the band don't reveal themselves here to be nearly as competent songwriters as Shiina.  Admittedly, it is my least-listened-to Tokyo Jihen album too, but it does contain a few gems.  My favorite track is this one penned by guitarist Ukigumo, who writes a darned energetic and catchy rock tune.  I love the bass in it, as well as when it goes double-time in its last minute.

You can check out the song and its video this time!

5) "Ikiru" ("Living") from SPORTS

Sports became and remains my favorite Tokyo Jihen album.  And it goes strong starting with its opening track, "Ikiru," which begins with over two minutes of multi-tracked a cappella.  That might sound boring, but the harmonies and chord progressions are downright succulent.  Then the entire band comes in and melts your face off.  And that's BEFORE it does one of my favorite things and has a little false cocktease of an ending before erupting into a 30 second cacophony of noise and THEN ends.

Why not watch a figure skating ensemble's routine for the song? (music starts at ~1:15):

6) "Nōdōteki Sanpunkan" ("Active 3 min.") from SPORTS

It's difficult for me not to feature every track from this album, but this one deserves it.  Nothing else sounds quite like it, it was a tribute to Michael Jackson, and it has a great PV featuring all bandmembers moonwalking.

Plus, it's exactly 3 minutes long.  Cool, huh?

7) "Denki no nai toshi" ("City Without Electricity") from DAIHAKKEN

This track from their final album is one of their saddest.  Appropriately, I believe it was written in part about the disastrous earthquakes and aftermath which struck Japan just under a year ago.  Shiina's voice is particularly expressive here.

Well, I guess that's enough songs.  I've probably stretched this post too far anyway.  My take away message would be that Tokyo Jihen were a great band, and I think they have wide appeal, even if Japanese music isn't your "thing."  Their fusion of jazz, rock, and pop made for a lot of memorable music, and I hope you heard something here that you liked.


BONUS TRACK: "Kimaru" ("Dying") from SPORTS

Okay, I had to squeeze just one more in.  If there is one thing that tops the way Sports begins, it is how it ends.  "Kimaru" is a perfect example of a closing track, slowly transforming from a demented carnival song to a chilling assault of noise.  You'll notice how I keep complimenting these songs on the way they progress from start to finish, and the praise is well-deserved, let me assure you.

Listen to it here.  It's a great swan song.

(Steve Jones looks forward to what Shiina Ringo has in store next. If you want to look forward to what Steve has in store next, follow his Twitter.)

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