s you can clearly see, J-Pop Will Eat Itself is back. Francis Henville (the original author), however, is not. That would be where I come in.
Like my predecessor, I turned to the confectionary tunes of the East (not to mention their films), after growing bored with what most English-speaking musicians had to offer. As far as I can tell, I also more or less share Henville’s objective: shining a small spotlight onto the J-Pop scene, with hopes of acquainting the unacquainted.
It was about a year ago when I first heard of Shiina Ringo. A friend recommended her music, describing it as “avant-garde.” However vague a term that may be, I was expecting her songs to be pieced-together, art-damaged, achingly hip—and nine minutes long each. What I found instead, were obscenely distracted melodies that ranged from distorto-rock to off-putting hybrids of ska and lounge jazz, starring Ringo’s ever-present pitchy, rolling vocals. Right away—literally, after about 20 seconds of each track in iTunes—I decided to switch to something safer.
I can’t recall when, but eventually these songs popped up again in my playlist. Sometimes I’d be too lazy to change them. Other times, I suppose I didn’t notice it. After a couple of weeks, I was getting strange, near-subliminal urges to find more Ringo. Those songs—their catchiness—had lodged themselves firmly into some part of my brain. I even found myself humming (and, in some unfortunate cases, singing—I don’t even speak Japanese) along whether the songs were actually playing, or I was just in the shower. I had to have more. Within a few days, I’d managed to amass nearly her complete discography (excluding most of her time as frontwoman of the band Tokyo Jihen, where Ringo spends her time these days). With her solo career currently inactive, I thought it would be nice to take a look back at her unique sound and cultural influence over the course of six years and four albums. Shall we?
Shiina Ringo is a rarity in the Japanese pop music scene—she’s a female artist who not only pens her own lyrics, plays instruments, and makes relatively uncommercial music, but she also doesn’t shill products or have back-up dancers. Hers is a fame that no one (least of all her) would have expected.
The first thing you’re likely to notice when tuning into Shiina’s music is the impressively organic (not an electronic sound in sight… or rather, in ear-range) song composition. These are melodies that will hook you—maybe after several listens, maybe right away—whether you like it or not. It’s a talent that, by all accounts, comes naturally to her—and one she’s sustained throughout her entire musical career. This, in itself, is more than enough reason to give Shiina her props—which makes it all the more sweet to find out, for those of us who need English translations, that she is every bit as strong lyrically.
Shiina’s first album was the subversive Muzai Moratorium. It’s a strong set of tracks in which our heroine croons about (amongst other things) life as a struggling artist in the hectic city of Tokyo. This girl-with-big-dreams-in-the-city subject matter is most assuredly nothing we haven’t heard before. Yet somehow—between declarations of love to her guitar amp (“It's so rough / I get off on the smell of the Marshall”), and resentful, mother-directed predictions of her own success (“From tonight onward in this town / I, once the queen's daughter, am now queen”)—she makes them utterly fresh and compelling.
With her follow-up disc, Shousou Strip, Shiina segued into an ever so slightly more upbeat, rock/pop style. This would be my personal favorite of her (album) efforts. The standouts, “Byoushou Public” and “Benkai Debussy” are layered with vocal distortion, guitar flangers, and tricky bass lines. It’s basically Shiina letting her hair down and rocking the pants off anyone who will listen. Granted, neither of those became singles—the main attraction (as far as marketing goes) on Shousou Strip was “Honnou.” The PV for said single saw Shiina performing in a nurse’s outfit and making out with a female patient. Naturally, this image—Ringo, the hot and edgy nurse—became downright iconic. Oh, and it helped that the song was pretty good too.
After a two-disc set of covers (called Utaite Myoli), she released her last solo album, the atmospheric and contemplative Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana. It’s apparent from the lyrics that Shiina is at peace, and ready to move on to better things. A casual listener might guess she’d found love and happiness. An avid fan who’s looked into her personal life would know it to be true. “Souretsu” (“Funeral Concession”) proves that she’s not resting on her laurels, however. It’s an ode to the creative process, and a lament of frustration toward unfinished projects—with abortion as the obvious metaphor. “The courage to give birth, and then scrap something / A knife cutting through thin air,” she sings. “My remains have already been completely disposed of.” As the last song on the album, it’s a fitting, if solemn, epitaph to her solo career.
Lucky for us, there’s still Tokyo Jihen.
By: Teresa Nieman
Published on: 2006-04-03