CHAI have been spreading their playful brand of disco meets punk since they released their debut ‘Pink’ back in 2017. They kept that frenetic momentum going with 2019’s ’Punk’, just before taking a quick turn from their rock propensities, leaning into comfortable pop on 2021’s ‘Wink’. Now, with their fourth album and second on Sub Pop, the Japanese foursome return to their roots, with lead vocalist Mana sharing in the album bio that “everything reflected in the lyrics expresses our experience as Japanese women”. The self-titled LP is tied tightly to the band’s adopted battle cry, the phrase “Neo Kawaii” they often scream into the mic to the delight of fans at shows, a phrase they see as a rallying cry against oppressive societally prescribed beauty standards not only in Japan but across the globe.
The band’s latest offering is an intentional ode to city pop, a Tokyo-born genre from the ’70s and ’80s which mixes jazz, boogie, yacht rock and funk, all with the goal of digging into their heritage and identity filtered through a Western sonic lens. The result isn’t at all dated go, as the quartet revel in modern beats, swirling soulful ’90s arrangements under lyrics they associate with nostalgia. Opening track ‘Matcha’ does this well, as they harmonize over wide-spanning bridges, comparing the meditative process of making the green-hued tea to their own desire to understand themselves better.
In the album’s lead single, ‘Para Para’ the band again pay homage to Japan, this time with a track about the popular two-step dance that took over Japan in the ’90s. The funky, brisk track drills in on having a good time, with CHAI showing off R&B registers as they beckon listeners to “party into the night”. The groove-heavy track embodies the overall ethos of the album well, a message of optimism that’s also present in the band’s track ‘Game’. In the new wave track, the band sings over synth keys and trickling percussion, all with the goal of urging listeners to move forward in life with joy and passion, winking, “you haven’t seen the best of me yet” before a funky instrumental break.
CHAI doesn’t just live in the past. In the bubbling, ‘Driving22’, where the band slows down their tempo over glittery synth keys, they sing about driving around foreign cities on tour, singing lovingly about imperfect sing-alongs and fans from around the world. Even when they sing directly about touring or dance moves, the real message of the album, one of arriving at your destination no matter what, shines through. With little allegiance to one particular sound, expansive love for their heritage and bold statements in each track, ‘Chai’ is a bright declaration from a band forging their own sonic path forward all while acknowledging where they came from.
- Release date: September 22, 2023
- Record label: Sub Pop