I'll level with you right away; I think Shiina Ringo, the front-woman of Tokyo Jihen, is a genius. After just five proper albums, I'm ready to put her into my own personal upper echelon with the likes of David Bowie, Mike Patton, Brian Eno, the collective brain of Sonic Youth, and Stephen Malkmus. In spirit, she is probably closest to Bowie, sucking in a world of influences and spitting out perfectly crafted pop, employing everything taken without sounding too much like any of it.
Her preceding two albums, in my mind, are perfect 5/5 albums according to the world-renowned TMT scale. Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana, her last solo album, is every bit as worthy of the tag "avant-pop masterpiece" as any other album that has earned the same description. Following that, her first album with Tokyo Jihen, Kyouiku sounds like she began with sugary (not saccharine, mind you) J-Pop melodies, fleshed things out with jazzy arrangements, and then rounded up an ace band that could execute things with all the fury of Fugazi.
So, why all the pre-praise? Frankly, Adult is a slight step down from these last two albums, but I want to make it clear that a step down from perfection is still very, very great.
The primary sonic difference may or may not lie in the fact that Ukigumo and Izawa Ichiyou have taken the place of Hirama Mikio and H Zeddo M on guitar and keyboard, respectively. Though the change in the keys isn't that obvious, gone are all the fierce layers of distorted guitar, replaced with more textured, jazzy, repeated guitar patterns. It should be noted, though, that Shiina is a maestro on the guitar herself, so the change in guitar sound is as likely due to her as Ukigumo.
Adult has much more of an uninhibited, lounge-jazz-y feel than Kyouiku — uninhibited in the sense that the band doesn't sound as though it is constantly in overdrive mode. I don't think such a straightforward lounge tune as "Keshou Naoshi" could have fit on Kyouiku, but it sounds great on Adult. I must confess, though, like most things I later love, I was initially put off by this stylistic turn, but of course, after a couple of spins, the songs buried beneath all that graceful Shiina pizzazz won me over. And as for the pizzazz, though she has changed its character, it still makes her one of the most interesting songwriters/arrangers around.
If there is a problem that warrants the half point off, it is that the two ballads, "Super Star" and "Tegami," are not quite up to snuff. Don't get me wrong, they are fine tunes, with fine melodies and plenty of pathos. It is more that the songs seem a bit boxed-in by the instrumentation that Tokyo Jihen has to offer. Absolutely killer ballads from Shiina like "Stem" and "Koko De Kiss Shite" are as amazing for their unusual arrangements as they are for their melodies. Taking Shiina's past triumphs into account, it seems as if these two tracks are hurt by the limitations of the band's guitar-bass-drum-keys setup and could have used some of the curveball arrangements she is famous for.
Don't let those two tracks bring you down, though; Adult is great, almost perfect in fact. Shiina Ringo continues to amaze and, for me, is probably the most exciting artist to keep an eye on.
1. Himitsu [Secret]
2. Kenka Joutou [First-Class Brawl]
3. Keshou Naoshi [Fixing Make-up]
5. Shuraba (Adult Version) [Scene of Carnage]
6. Yukiguni [Land of Snow]
9. Tasogare Naki [Twilight Lament]
10. Toumei Ningen [Invisible Man]
11. Tegami [Letter]