In the years since CHAI’s second album PUNK, the cute aesthetic known as Kawaii in Japan – and fetishisation thereof – has gone from being a growing subculture to providing the cogs of the commercial mainstream across continents. While J- and K-pop superstar idol groups and so-termed cute-metal fusion bands like Babymetal and Ladybaby have tugged an interesting sonic sphere from pop’s occasional paralysis, it’s sickly sweet. The wide-eyed, hapless and submissive crumble they’ve built their cheesecake on has got to be eaten, think CHAI.
With their Sub Pop label debut, the Nagoya-by-Tokyo four-piece go evangelical. From their mostly Japanese-language disco-punk beginnings, WINK brings in external producers for the first time in Mndsgn and YMCK, and offers more than the occasional phrase for English ears. They even enlist Chicago-based rapper Ric Wilson for ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’, a song about their bassist Yuuki growing to love her moles. His verse isn’t forced, but “Your moles are what make you whole, right from your back to your nose” is the textbook example of writing to a brief, even for such a disciple of feel-good hip-hop. The mission of CHAI and their “neo-Kawaii” is for people to embrace themselves. Imagining moles as chocolate chips, you know, it’s still pretty cute, but it’s not yet been packaged with hearts for your local ice cream vendor.
Looking beyond the cake factory-sheen and unreservedly hook-heavy, Caroline Rose-like pop (‘Donut Mind If I Do’, ‘Vitamin C’), CHAI’s politics are the heavy focus of WINK. ‘ACTION’ is the mental chronology of imagination to activism, a house-pop mantra inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement with an easy spelt-out refrain, while ‘END’ sounds like Beshken freestyling over a garage punk cover of Run-DMC’s ‘It’s Like That’. Amid the frequent sonic chaos and bubblegum pop, the mellow moments of the album stand out as real highlights for a band associated with explosive joy. From the gentle late night prog-funk and Balearic waves of ‘IN PINK’ and slowed-down yippy acid-house of ‘Nobody Knows We Are Fun’, to the closing track diving into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nostalgia of eating salted rice balls, CHAI delicately explore dance music’s more meditative terrains.
It’s hard to think of many albums that sound compatible with Calvin Harris and Bikini Kill within minutes. WINK is endearing, but it’s not Kawaii; it’s all analogue R&B and garage punk with a rap verse. It’s a bold move forward in their movement, which candidly champions people on their own terms.
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