Shinjuku Zulu: Various Chimeras

[3 October 2006]

By Nate Dorr

The band is called Shinjuku Zulu. Yes, that’s a Tokyo neighborhood and an African tribe. So if the album’s borderless global pastiche seems a little forced and kitschy, well, it is.  That’s apparently the point: to compile and reimagine the cultural products and discards from as many places, eras, and contexts as possible, for original pop and dance songs that often resemble especially ambitious trans-continental mash-ups. As such, the press sheets gleefully cite the 60-year age gap between youngest and oldest guest vocalist and choose to illustrate songs with ven diagrams.

Taking the entire world as a palette for international club music purposes is hardly a new concept.  There’s been an entire genre, “worldbeat,” devoted to precisely this for well over a decade.  But whereas that sort of thing often most resembled standard trance and house formats, we’re now in an era of grime and baile funk, a post-M.I.A. era, and as such many of the tracks on Various Chimeras take on a rawer, more aggressive sound (often carried by the voice of singer Shankhini).  At the same time, there are plenty lower-key affairs more informed by ambient dub to balance out the tracklist (naturally combined with diverse components, from old jazz to Simon and Garfunkel).  And in contrast to worldbeat’s typically heavy reliance on ethnic-themed sampling, Shinjuku Zulu borrows recognizable motifs, but recreates rather than simply samples them.

Various Chimeras ends up being exactly the sum of its diverse parts. Project mastermind and Toronto-resident Kirby Anderson (who also releases as K.I.A.) is a competent dance music producer, and he melds his components elegantly into compositions that sound surprisingly natural, wherever they’re pulled from. The vocalists—rappers, pop singers, old country singers—never seem out of place, even when they’re being mixed and matched, in a manner similar to Gorillaz’s Demon Days, another album where apparent samples frequently turned out to be original performances.  At the same time though, there’s really nothing more beyond that: the songs are almost entirely occupied by their own multi-national scope, and almost never get around to doing much of anything else.  This narcissism is best exemplified by “Shanghai Masai” and “Da Riddim Griffin”, two of the catchiest club numbers, in which the singers spend most of their time name-checking geography and lobbing eye-roll-inducing phrases like “urban turban.”

Still, there are some great moments, like the sequence where the blunt (but by now standard) sexuality of “Make Me Shake” (key lyric: “Gotta have lust, lust / Love, love / Is not enough, ‘nough”) leaps from synth-shamisen-encrusted grime-pop to reggae to tango, all the while alternating singers.  “Dirty Liar”, the surprisingly listenable country-electro-hip-hop number (“Chemical Brothers, Dust Brothers, O Brother” quips the song’s ven diagram), astonishes when it slides seamlessly all the way into banjo-driven folk, aside from continuing punctuations from MC General.  Later, “Massive Ballerina” manages to dodge effortlessly from spacey computer-narrated-ambiance to rolling techno-rock. Only “One Come We” seems relatively gimmick-free in its pretty simplicity. While other songs, especially the dubbier later tracks, can be rather dull, only a reverb-drenched cover of “Scarborough Fair” ever feels glaringly wrong.

Various Chimeras is a decent pop album, with stick-in-your-head melodies and enough stylistic ADD to stay fresh longer than most. It’s also nearly one-dimensional, failing to turn its surplus of clever-structuring and influences to any purposes beyond themselves. Of course such concerns, where pop music is concerned, are perhaps insignificant compared to larger questions of “Is it catchy?” and “Is it fun?”.  And enough of the tracklist here answers “yes” to both of those questions to grant Various Chimeras’ sound, already familiar despite its atypical non-reliance on samples, solid footing in the current mash-up-informed, pop cultural petri-dish.

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