That’s My Jam is a weekly feature where one person from the Selective Hearing staff goes to wax poetic about music that is pivotal to their musical tastes. Whether that would be an album, a song, or anything in-between. We all had to start somewhere.
Release date: November 25th, 2004
Ringo no Uta
Genjitsu ni Oite
Genjitsu wo Warau
Yume no Ato
Back in the early 2000s, I had already known about the punk-pop superstar Shiina Ringo through her solo releases and had already liked what I heard, but in 2003 Shiina announced she’d be starting a new project called Tokyo Jihen with the four members she had used as her live backup band on her 2003 solo tour and it would be more of a collaborative project instead of just her overseeing the music writing and production by herself. Little did I know at the time that the collaboration with these other amazing musicians would yield some of my favorite music of all time in the form of Tokyo Jihen.
When the group released their first single, “Gunjyo Biyori,” in late 2004, I was absolutely floored by what I heard. The usual hard-edged Shiina rock sound that I loved from her early days was present, but was so perfectly complimented by the additions of Kameda Seiji’s booming and jazzy basslines, HZM’s poppy, jazzy, and yet classically-trained embellishments on the keyboard, Hata Toshiki’s eclectic and lively drumming, and Hirama Mikio’s unique lead guitar work.
All the instruments seemed to take on a life of their own within Tokyo Jihen’s sound, yet still felt like a cohesive product where they all worked together. You could feel the influence that each individual member brought to the project instead of just being a one-woman show like Shiina’s solo work.
After hearing this single, I was ecstatic to hear more, and soon after, they released their 2nd single, “Sounan” which sounded almost like a completely different band. The sound was so different from what “Gunjyo Biyori” and it’s b-side had shown us of the project so far, and this already tipped me off that the group had great things ahead of them, once I sensed how diverse their spectrum of music might be as they released more material.
After loving the 2nd single, I was even more excited to see what else the band could do, and just after the 2nd single was released, it was announced that a full album would be released just one month after, titled “Kyouiku,” which translates to “Education” in English.
This is what I had been waiting for; a chance to fully see what the band could do when given the landscape of an entire album to work with, and when I heard it, I knew this project was really something special. The diversity and complexity of the music contained on the album as well as the audible cooperation between all the members was something I hadn’t really heard before to such a degree. You could almost feel the personality of the person playing the instrument just by listening to the recording.
Most of the album’s songwriting was still done largely by Shiina herself, with HZM taking full writing credits for a few of the songs, but even if Shiina wrote the base ideas for all of the songs, the end products were very obviously (and admittedly, by Shiina herself) improved upon and fleshed-out by the other band members after the original writing.
The range of emotions packed into this album range from extremely dark and melancholy to vibrant, upbeat, and happy songs, often going through a few different feelings in the course of one song, and as always, Shiina’s voice portrays every one of those feelings clearly and accordingly to what the music is saying.
Besides starting the album off with a rocked-out re-working of Shiina’s final pre-Jihen solo single “Ringo no Uta,” the album later brought back some of the other sounds from her later solo releases, where her music became a spattering of musical show-tunes, jazz, rock, and lavish orchestrations straight out of a French ballet. “Bokoku Joushou” sounds like a song straight out of a Broadway musical.
There’s also piano-driven tracks from the mind of HZM like “Gunjyo Biyori,” “Ekimae,” “Yume no Ato,” and “Genjitsu ni Oite” with the latter being a purely instrumental piano track.
Songs like “Jusui Negai” and “Genjitsu wo Warau” are closer to something you might hear in a dimly-lit jazz club, with a dark, bass-driven sound with a tinge of anger, sadness, and frustration in the writing and delivery of the tracks.
The album also has tracks like “Crawl” and “Service” that reached back into Shiina’s early solo career sound, with loud, in-your-face rock instrumentals and screaming vocals that you can’t help but feel are coming from deep down in the core of Shiina’s existence.
Aside from the main tracks released with the album, there were a few great cover songs recorded in the same recording session, but released with the accompanying DVD for the album. These other tracks were a fun compliment to the main album, one being a cover of the classic show-tune “The Lady is a Tramp,” a cover of Brenda Lee’s “Dynamite,” and a jazzy cover of Hibari Misori’s staple enka song, “Kurumaya-san.” Here’s the PV for “Kurumaya-san”:
Though I may have ended up enjoying the group’s 2007 effort “Variety” slightly more than “Kyouiku,” this album still stands as one of my earliest indications of how interesting the Japanese music scene could be outside of what I had heard up to that point, since Tokyo Jihen combined so many elements of different music styles that I love all into one cohesive project that was bursting at the seams with character.
I suggest anyone who likes diverse, jazzy pop music to give this album a listen and check out their other releases as well. Tokyo Jihen disbanded in late 2012 and I feel like a great rift was left in the Japanese music industry, but thankfully, HZM is still performing with his main band, PE’Z, and Shiina is back to her awesome solo activities. Even so, the group will always live on through the eight years of music they made while together and will always be pretty important to me for encouraging me to look further into the Japanese music scene outside of idols and radio pop.