CHAI 2021
Photo: Yoshio Nakaiso / Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

CHAI Embrace Full-body Synthpop Bliss on ‘Wink’

Japan’s CHAI tend toward high energy and irrepressible positivity, all with a satisfying rock edge. Wink opens not with a bang but with full-body synthpop bliss.

Sub Pop
21 May 2021

Pop and punk are constantly in motion in the uniquely exuberant sounds of CHAI. Professing an inclusive doctrine of neo-kawaii in their visual and sonic aesthetics, the Nagoya-based four-piece band tend toward high energy and irrepressible positivity, all with a satisfying rock edge. It’s a little bit of a surprise, then, when the new album Wink opens not with a bang but with full-body synthpop bliss. “Donuts Mind If I Do” is slow, warm, and sweet (“Everybody fall in love with something / Sometime / Somehow,” sings lead vocalist and keyboardist Mana), with sharp hits from guitarist Kana adding height to the subtle cool of Yuuki’s subtle bassline and Yuna’s crisp drumbeats.

The more plugged-in direction the group signal with this refreshing first track makes for a dynamic album that runs the gamut from electrosoul to chiptune as CHAI tackle issues like narrow beauty standards and social injustice. “Maybe Chocolate Chips” is an R&B ode to moles that features Ric Wilson with a verse on beauty in imperfection. “Action” sees the group shout out in support of anti-police violence protests with buoyant urgency. Messages of friendship, anti-bullying, and self-determination all take heartfelt form in CHAI’s collectively capable hands, and they have the knack for good music to back them up with dulcet tones.

Touches of the nostalgic only make it easier to keep listening. Drum and bass track “End” is ferociously empowering and bridges the gap between CHAI’s past rock band work and their more electrified present. YMCK adds 8-bit jubilance to fast-paced “Ping Pong!” which the group quickly counter by slowing down to a simmer with “Nobody” Knows We Are Fun”. They command attention by singing their well-earned praises: “Nobody is aware of this / This is the real truth / We are some smart girls” over sensual beats.” “It’s Vitamin C” brings the energy up once more over smooth piano chords, a perfect lead-in to Mndsgn’s cameo on “In Pink”, a mellow jam with hope for an open-hearted future. From this last guest spot, the album tapers to a gentle close. Swaying “Karaage” flows into summery “Miracle”, followed by wistfully simple “Wish Upon a Star” and airy epilogue “Salty”.

CHAI’s members wear pink; they have said it’s because none of them feel it suits them in a conventional sense. Making the color part of their performance uniform is an act of iconoclasm, a challenge to being put in palatable packages. Wink comes from that same impulse, a combination of rebellion and joy that yields music that, simply put, feels good. Even at its furthest removed from the spiky rock sounds of Pink and Punk, the music of Wink is powered by that same spirit that has made CHAI so captivating to watch.

Just as bubbly and sincere as any of the group’s grittier work, Wink is unashamedly both fun and vulnerable, calls to self-love and social understanding embedded in peak pop musicianship and some of the year’s catchiest melodies so far. Implicit in it all is a promise that CHAI contains musical multitudes: no matter what box you think the group falls in, there’s more to them than that. If Wink is any indication, they should have no qualms about shaking up their vibes – they know what shades suit them best.

RATING 7 / 10