Punk can often feel exclusionary. More than 20 years ago, Jawbreaker asked, “who’s punk, what’s the score?,” and it can still feel like a big old game, where it’s impossible to measure up to some platonic ideal of purity. The idea of what punk is has, of course, expanded with time. It’s had a ton of hyphenates attached to it, so now we’re at the point where punk can encompass pretty much everything. As it should! But if you think we’ve moved past that mode of punk as gatekeeper, look no further than the comment section on this very site where, from time to time, a band is described as punk and some random comes through and cries, “What? Surely not them.”
CHAI don’t make punk music in the most puritanical sense of the word, but their sophomore album PUNK is named that for a reason. It’s part of the Japanese band’s concerted effort to break down barriers of entry, poke holes in words as institutions and morph them into communities that are open to everyone.
When CHAI crossed over Stateside last year, they launched their platform with a dismantling of what it means to be cute. They called their revolution “neo-kawaii,” a rehaul of the cutesy aesthetic that has permeated Japanese culture for the past couple decades — a tendency to make everything brighter, precious, more compact. CHAI want to take up space — they want to make music that blasts outward and is impossible to ignore, and they want to do it on their terms.
The band has been around in some form or another since 2012, though they’ve really taken off in the last few years. Its four members — twin sisters Mana and Kana (lead singer/keyboardist and guitarist, respectively), Yuki (bassist), and Yuna (drummer) — broke through by competing in some local battle of the bands-style competitions, and you can hear that in their constant energy, aiming to please and captivate at every turn, like they have their eyes on the prize. The band’s name, CHAI, is intentionally short, a subversion of Japanese trends to have lengthy band names that are then shortened by fans. The name is meant to be brief, emphatic, like one of the many exclamations in their songs. It rolls off the tongue like a yell, an involuntary shout.
Their debut album, PINK — which was released by Sony Music in Japan two years ago and reissued by Burger Records in the US last fall — is a dizzying chaotic rush, sugary hooks with sour turns and pulsating beats and cheerleader chants all mangled up into a giant Frankenstein of undeniable force. Their sophomore album, PUNK, expands on all of that tenfold, but the band wield a greater sense of control that makes it all the more impressive. PINK would occasionally fly off-the-rails a bit before finding its footing again — there are no such moments on PUNK, but it holds onto that tension, that it might ricochet apart at any moment.
It’s a tired-out trope to say that something sounds like nothing else, but in CHAI’s case that’s almost true. The second you hone in on one thread in their songs, they’re already onto the next. They’re hard to pin down — on PUNK there are songs that sound like girl-group shimmers and songs that sound like shuffling pop scuzz and songs that sound like neon lights. There are all these songs that sound like all sorts of disparate things, but the band brings them together under one roof through sheer force of personality and will. Their brand of kitchen-sink rebellion is infectious.
“I always want to stay moving!” their drummer, Yuki, said in an interview. “We strive to make music that makes people want to dance. Even if the concept of the song isn’t necessarily all positive, we want everyone to have fun, to enjoy themselves.”
Packaged in their frenetic hooks is a clear message, a subversion of traditional expectations about how you’re supposed to feel and act. The band engage in powerful self-affirmation. On “I’m Me,” they exclaim: “Everybody’s wonderful! All right!” They stay true to the positivity and pink-hued, candy-coated aesthetic of their “neo-kawaii” by constantly reminding their listeners that that’s not the only way to be. On “Fashionista,” they rail against modern beauty standards, which require a lot of products to achieve “perfection.” They chant: “Someone’s trend, it’s a shame/ Someone’s rules, it’s a shame!”
Their songs are constantly bubbling over, spilling out like bleeding glitter-paint. There’s no subtlety to these songs, but that’s the point: It’s a glorious, unfettered explosion of inclusive celebration, tightly controlled by four people who know exactly what they want to say and how best to deliver it. PUNK’s closing track is one of their best: “Yes! We don’t stop!” Mana shouts. “So nothing is stopping me! We have dreams! We have a lot of friends!” All those exclamation marks, all the time. “This is just my future! This song, about us forever! Are you ready?” It’s forceful enough to convince you that they might just change the world.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Karen O And Danger Mouse’s 11-years-in-the-making Lux Prima
• Stephen Malkmus’ electronic solo spin Groove Denied
• The Faint’s first new album in five years, Egowerk
• Matmos’ all-plastic Plastic Anniversary
• Angel Du$t’s giddy, freewheeling Pretty Buff
• Nanami Ozone’s fuzzy rocker NO
• Low Life’s new-wavey Downer Edn
• Huntly minimal, conversational Low Grade Buzz
• Noisem’s noisy Cease To Exist
• Oozing Wound’s nightmarish High Anxiety
• Beach Slang’s MPLS EP