Mixed signals

When Shiina Ringo released 2003’s Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana, she said she wanted to make an album reflective more on Shiina Yumiko (her real name) than her persona, Shiina Ringo.

Since her debut in 1999, Shiina has done nothing but top herself, which is a pretty mean feat given the quality of her writing.

New listeners may think her singing sounds like a squirrel in heat, but albums as complex and rich as Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana and Shooso Strip could teach the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne a thing or two about eclecticism.

All that to say Shiina Ringo deserves a break.

And she gives herself one with Tokyo Jihen. Although she writes all the band’s songs and is the band’s voice, Shiina insists Tokyo Jihen is a real band.

That said, Kyooiku, Tokyo Jihen’s debut album, pales by comparrison to Shiina’s solo albums.

Not since her solo debut Muzai Moratorium has Shiina thrown a bunch of individual songs together to make an album. Everything else, including her cover album Utaite Myoori, was threaded by concept.

With Kyooiku, Shiina writes to the talents of her players, which results in some incredibly dynamic performances.

Pe’z keyboardist Hiizami Masayuki — billed as H-Zeto-M — is perhaps the most distinctive voice in the band. His organ work on “Crawl” and “Gunjyoo Biyoori” can chartibly be described as manic, while his piano on “Ekimae” grounds the song.

Of course producer Kameda Seiji, now bassist for the group, gives Kyooiku the cluttered, ordered chaos trademark of Shiina’s recordings. It’s no surprise to find guitarist Hirama Mikio dominating the songs.

Kyooiku puts Tokyo Jihen’s dynamism on full display. When they get noisy — as they do on “Crawl”, “Service” and “Soonan” — it’s impressive.

And yet there’s a sense Tokyo Jihen may not have been the best vessel for this particular set of songs.

Closer inspection of Shiina’s songs reveals she’s an incredible jazz writer. Her sense of harmony and melody is closer to the standards sung by Frank Sinatra than to the screaming guitars her recordings otherwise indicate.

How would “Ekimae” have sounded, for instance, done with a chamber orchestra? What if a wind band accompanied Shiina on the carnival-like “Bokoku Jyoshoo”? What if the Latin rhythms of “Gomatsuri Sawagi” were more pronounced?

What if she unplugged and totally went acoustic with this album?

It would not have showcased the chemistry of Tokyo Jihen, but it would have probably made for a very interesting listening experience.

Shiina Ringo sounds terrific when she rocks out, of course, and while Kyooiku doesn’t have songs as memorable as “Gips” or “Koofukuron”, it’s still a dazzling performance.

But it’s an interesting conundrum Shiina creates for herself on this album — it doesn’t seem intended to be ambitious as her solo work, and yet it still is.

And it creates some mixed signals.