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Music Picks

She Sings Like a House On Fire

And Shiina Ringo doesn't look too bad, either. Not that it matters.

By Thom Wong 18 Jun 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Thom Wong writes regularly about music for The Tyee. He can also be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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Shiina Ringo originally rose to fame on the short-lived 'Tokyo Laugh-In'.

A few months ago, Susan Boyle shocked the world by being able to sing. The 47-year old volunteer church worker overcame the most blatantly contrived set-up in television history, and the cartoon super-villainy of Simon Cowell, to deliver a pretty good rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream". The fact that she wasn't remotely better than your average Broadway singer was lost in the euphoria people felt over this plain, dowdy woman who could actually perform with a modicum of skill. Was this the most inspiring story of the year? The producers of the show treated Miss Boyle like she was a street dog they had found who could play dead better than all your fancy, college-educated purebreeds. I don't know about you, but the whole incident made me feel kind of sick.

Yet I must confess that when I first came across Tokyo Jihen and their highly photogenic lead singer Shiina Ringo, with the claim that they should handle the next Bond theme, I was more than a little skeptical. Call it the anti-Boyle bias -- sure she might sound good, but would someone that pretty sound at all interesting?

Shiina is a bit of a sensation in her native Japan; that she remains almost unknown over here tells me either the Internet or our influx of exchange students aren't working properly. Her solo work, what I could find on Youtube at least, while refreshing in places, is a little too pop idol for my taste. But when she formally joined her longtime touring band as Tokyo Jihen (Tokyo Incidents), things started getting interesting.

In "Honnou", Shiina sings like a house on fire, wearing, at least in this video, a giant bird's nest of a hat with matching megaphone. Tokyo Jihen's sound cannot be easily categorized and changes from album to album, the only constant being Shiina's electric voice. While definitely pop rock, they throw in healthy amounts of ska, jazz, and disco, and aren't afraid of some excessive orchestration. The resulting mix is part No Doubt, part funk, and part uniquely Shiina. All of these factors see their culmination in the song and video for "Osca". The bass snakes its way in and out of a campy, 60's French caper soundtrack, before crashing into a chorus of straight ahead rock.

Unfortunately we live in a world where music is treated more secretively than the nuclear launch codes, so YouTube remains your best bet to listen to them or any Japanese band. They haven't released an album since 2007's Variety, and Shiina has a solo album out on June 24, leading to some speculation that the band was never meant to be permanent. You can stream her new single, "The Invaluable", which sounds disturbingly like regular, acoustic guitar pop, from here.

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