Tokyo Jihen: Sports

Tokyo Jihen has something of a perception problem.

Shiina Ringo said she was ending her solo career to focus on the band back in 2004, giving the impression that solo Ringo and the group would be creatively independent. But with Shiina taking on the lion share’s of the songwriting — and of course, serving as front woman — it’s tough not to think of Tokyo Jihen in terms of its origin: a touring support band.

Then there’s Shiina’s solo work with which to contend. How could a band live up to the towering legacy of one of its members? Otona was nice and all, but it was no Shouso Strip.

What, then, can Tokyo Jihen do to escape the shadow of Shiina Ringo? Sports offers a pretty good answer: Nothing. Just keep doing what they do best.

If nothing else, Tokyo Jihen is a team of powerhouse players. The rhythm section of bassist Kameda Seiji and drummer Hata Toshiki indulge Shiina’s disco tendencies, while providing a foundation for the manic playing of keyboardist Ichiyou Izawa and guitarist Ukigumo.

The band’s recordings have always sounded thin compared to Shiina’s heavy productions because that playing has always been the focus.

Sports, in this case, is an apt title — everyone puts on their A-game. Ichiyou’s dissonant chords on "FOUL" propel the insane drive of the song. The band has never played hotter than they do on "Denpa Tsuushin", the catchiest tune on the album.

The sleek rhythms of "Noudoteki Sanpunkan" make it Tokyo Jihen’s finest single since "Shuraba". ("OSCA" is still their best, mostly for its sheer WTF-ness.)

The team aspect of Sports extends into the writing, on which Shiina once again lets the guys do the heavy lifting. Goraku (Variety) was definitely a practice run for this album — this time, Ukigumo, Ichiyou and Kameda sound indistinguishable from Shiina, who provides music on only three tracks. She still does most of the lyrics.

Izawa is the most prolific contributor, hitting home runs with "Ikiru", "Denpa Tsuushin" and "Zettai Zetsumei". Ukigumo’s "Kimaru", however, ranks up with "Souretsu" as a poignant end track.

Sports is, no doubt, Tokyo Jihen’s best album thus far, but I can place part of my awe for it at the feet of Shiina’s previous solo album, Sanmon Gossip. I called that album the one I wished Tokyo Jihen recorded. In a weird twist, Sports is the album I wish Shiina Ringo made instead of Sanmon Gossip.

Despite the fact it’s written mostly by the band members, Sports sounds more Shiina Ringo than, well, Shiina Ringo. Obviously, Shiina has coached these guys good. Well played, Tokyo Jihen, well played.