Dec 07

[review] Ringo Shiina: Sanmon Gossip

3662160719_2f526d74b6You’ve got to admire Ringo Shiina’s creative choices. She might have ended up locked in a cycle of trying to top herself after 2003’s Karuki Zaamen Kurinohana, a masterfully ambitious and critically acclaimed fusion of rock, classical music, electronica and hip-hop that managed to be one of the best pop albums of the decade.

Instead, she circumvented this outcome by defying expectations and going simpler. She formed a band, Tokyo Jihen, whose jazz-rock sound relied on a smaller sonic palette than her solo music. For their third album, she didn’t compose a single song. In 2007, she collaborated with violinist Neko Saito on Heisei Fuuzoku primarily to strip KZK’s multilayered songs down to jazz standards.

Sanmon Gossip is Shiina’s first solo album since 2003, but it is still rather collaborative, featuring musicians such as Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, Mummy-D of Rhymester and Masayuki Hiizumi of Pe’z (and formerly of Tokyo Jihen). It’s a logical next step in Shiina’s recent direction, a cohesive set of hook-free light jazz and vintage pop interjected with jarring elements such as the rapping in “Ryuukou.” Expect lots of flutes and saxophones to compliment the singer’s pouty vocals.

Although Sanmon Gossip is very good, it’s also Shiina’s most inscrutable album yet. Yes, it’s intellectually satisfying to see an artist sing what she wants without worrying about commercial appeal. But unless you share Ringo’s tastes, do you really want to listen to an album she’s written for herself? Shiina’s first three albums were genius in how they balanced artistry and pop. Her eclectic ambition was matched by her accessible hooks and refreshing sense of humor—coughing at the end of the album version of “Koufukuron (Etsuraku-hen)” and dancing goofily to “Tsumiki Asobi.” Her eccentric image and nails-on-chalkboard singing were meant to shock you and get you to pay attention to find out what was the deal with this woman. By then, you were marveling at Shiina’s ability to craft songs and albums out of clashing genres and spice them up with details like symmetrical tracklists. Her music was art that most people could get into with just a bit of patience.

A month before Sanmon Gossip came out, Shiina released a red herring single. The title song, “Ariamaru Tomi,” is a warm and instantly likable pop ballad. The B-side, “SG~Superficial Gossip~,” temporarily revives the KZK eclecticism fans have been craving. At the time “SG” was new, people hoped the title’s similarity to Sanmon Gossip meant the song was a preview of the album’s sound.

A stuffy, barbershop-influenced version of Shiina classic “Marunouchi Sadistic” closes Sanmon Gossip. It’s one of the most illuminating tracks on the album—in a wrong way. Older Ringo self-covers, such as the punk remake of “Koufukuron” and Broadway ballad version of the techno-infused “Yokushitsu,” made the songs sound entirely new but on par with their originals. This version of “Marunouchi Sadistic” comes off as a boring step-down. Shiina’s nodding to her past but sticking with a musical direction that doesn’t do it justice.

Or maybe you just have to be Ringo Shiina to get it.