Shiina Ringo is no longer Japan’s answer to Courtney Love, as E!Online stated back in 2000.
No. She’s now Japan’s answer to the Flaming Lips.
On first listen, it’s easy to be blown away by the magnitude of Shiina’s fourth album, Karuki Zaamen Kurinohana. Everything is fair game — traditional Japanese instruments, found sounds, strings and lots of distortion.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling there’s something familiar about it, something precedented about the way Ringö-chan weaves dreamy symphonies with rumbling rock beats.
And it has been done before — with the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin back in 1999 and again in 2001 with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (And again this year with The Delgados’ Hate and at any time with any number of Mercury Rev albums.)
But Shiina isn’t merely following in Dave Fridmann’s footsteps — she’s upping the fucking ante.
Karuki Zaamen Kurinohana goes far beyond weaving orchestral textures into pop songs. The rock band becomes the orchestra.
Shiina has always possessed a penchant for heaping layers upon layers of sound in her music. This album is no different, but the sonic pallete from which she draws is far broader.
In the opening track “Shuukyoo” alone, listeners can expect to hear a full-size orchestra, a complement of Japanese koto, tortured guitars, sitar, mandolin, drum samples and a thundering drum kit.
“Doppelganger” starts off with the minimal textures of Björk’s Vespertine-era work, only to be disrupted midway by a manic double-time beat.
“Yattsuke Shigoto”, which appeared as a rocker on the single box set Zechoshuu, turns into movie musical number complete with a disco beat. Meanwhile, the human beat box on “Torikoshi Kuroo” gets an intermitent rude awakening by a full band.
The album loses steam when it ventures into more standard arrangements. “Okonomi de” and “Ishiki” may have set out to ground Karuki Zaamen Kurinohana from its more indulgent moments, but instead, they deflate the momentum established in the first half of the album.
Thankfully, Shiina reclaims her eclecticism on the concluding track, “Sooretsu”, perhaps the best song to sum up the album. It starts off with a nice, rhythmic feel but concludes with a grandiose organ straight off the Akira Symphonic Suite.
It’s difficult not to put Karuki Zaamen Kurinohana on repeat. The album offers so much sonically, it would take all year to digest it. The heap of accolades rained on the likes of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel seem pretty pale by comparrison.
Dave Fridmann and Wayne Coyne — take note. (And get your buddies in Number Girl to hook you up.)