A band who begin their new record with a love song to donuts are probably doing things right. From sweet treats to karaage (fried chicken) and salted rice balls, Chai have food on the brain – even more so than fellow Japanese group Cibo Matto. But though they remain hungry, on third album ‘WINK’ the Nagoya girl band turn their infamous zeal down to a simmer.
Chai’s previous album ‘PUNK’ never stopped for breath: yes yes yes, more more more, it proclaimed, with poppy aerodynamics that left any notions of grubby noise trailing in the dust. Chai are often incorrectly referred to as a punk band – really, they embrace everything between rock, pop, dance, and more recently, hip-hop – but punk’s rebellious, creative streak definitely helps propel their ethos.
Fed up of being confined by Japan’s impossibly narrow beauty standards, the band push against traditional expectations of women in rock. For all the success of genres like J-pop, K-pop, and kawaii metal, there remains a customary sense of ‘cuteness’ that Chai dispense with altogether.
They deliver their message of empowerment through chirpy self-love lyrics, but also via the simple fact that they write and play their own songs. And they bin any hint of self-consciousness. Onstage they’re formidably tight, occasionally breaking into ABBA-style synchronised moves. During the band’s unofficial theme tune ‘THIS IS CHAI’ (which found an unlikely new faction of fans after featuring in an episode of ‘Better Call Saul’), they perform a dance segment that wouldn’t look out of place at a Pet Shop Boys show.
But ‘WINK’ whisks the band’s energy off the stage and into the kitchen, lounge, and bedroom. Recorded entirely at home during quarantine, the new album redeploys Chai’s oomph via looped hip-hop, funk, disco, and floating synth worlds, with all the hubbub of a Super Mario game – though one that lingers in the underwater levels. The second half of the album tends to float in lounge pop (‘IN PINK’) and lullaby (‘Wish Upon A Star’).
Before that though, there’s the sticky allure of opener ‘Donuts Mind If I Do’, the addictive retro hip-hop ‘END’, new-wavy ‘Nobody Knows We Are Fun’ (Chai, everybody knows you are fun), and a protest song – sort of. Chai wrote ‘ACTION’ in bright response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, an affirming electro groove with a moreish bass drop. “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s going to be ok,” the band sing. “Action is more than words / A-C-T-I-O-N.”
Quarantine album this may be, but Chai have never sounded so welded to the dancefloor, whether Hi-NRG or beachside chill. It’s also the first time they’ve involved external collaborators, from California producer Mndsgn to Chicago rapper Ric Wilson. His stint on ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’, however, feels phoned in – if only because the song’s delivery of body-positivity is so uniquely Chai that anything extra is unnecessary.
Japanese electro-pop group YMCK, on the other hand, help construct a video arcade orchestra on ‘PING PONG!’, an irresistibly bonkers, get-thee-to-a-dancefloor high point – before the record rebounds into aforementioned underwater Mario lull.
Nevertheless, ‘WINK’ proves that not even a pandemic can dampen Chai’s enthusiasm. The band remain full of gusto – and not just for donuts.