CHAI redefines its maximalist sound with ‘Wink’

Photo of Chai record
Sub Pop Records/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Time and time again, the dance pop group CHAI has declared one main objective for its music: to redefine kawaii. With two previous records, titled Pink and Punk, CHAI is now moving gracefully into its next phase, one that doesn’t chant “We are so cute nice face,” such as on 2017’s “N.E.O.,” but instead “Be the change that you want to see,” as proclaimed on its newest record.

From Nagoya, Japan, CHAI consists of Yuuki, Yuna and twin sisters Mana and Kana, all bringing a bubbly aesthetic to the world of riot grrrl mischief. Wink, released May 21 as the band’s third studio album, is the first record CHAI has produced since signing with Sub Pop Records last October. This album is a major departure from the band’s past work, leaning away from its punk rock roots into more soft bedroom rock territory. Every song on Wink excels in percussion, making the toned down lo-fi tracks the compilation allstars. 

The airy synthesizer, swift guitar strokes and pleasantly hollow percussion layered on “Donuts Mind If I Do” feel like the transition weeks at spring’s end. This track is not upbeat enough to be considered a stereotypical summertime anthem, yet it massages a particularly soothing chord in the attic just in time for the dawn of sun-basking season. 

Initially released as a single in October, “Donuts Mind If I Do” is a hook at the front of the tracklist. The deep vocals are drizzled across bright, sustained instrumentals like warm chocolate on vanilla ice cream — it’s particularly difficult to visualize this album without imagining the sweet confectioneries sprinkled in its lyrics.

The sugary theme is upheld by “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” a more sensual ode to skin and beauty marks’ cocoa hues. Here, lead singer Mana’s vocals are breathy and intimate. Chicago hip-hop artist Ric Wilson carries the song’s main verse with romantic lines criticizing societal beauty standards and uplifting originality. CHAI’s members claim the original phrase “neo-kawaii” as somewhat of a mission statement to reshape what cute really means. 

But Wink takes a turn after its unhurried opening with “Action,” a track that introduces a more club-friendly, runway-ready angle to an otherwise dancy, dream pop-riddled record. Quick, syncopated beats recall the energy found on the group’s first two releases, a familiar yet sometimes misplaced addition to the album. 

This goes to say that Wink is still far from boring; the pace switches consistently between lackadaisical picnic tunes and supersonic byte races. The more energetic tracks are unfortunately not the album’s strong suit — bouncing, video game-inspired tones on “Ping Pong!” can be more overwhelming than interesting, but would probably make your house cleaning playlist a lot more lively.

The only time CHAI’s low-energy sound appears to dawdle is on “Nobody Knows We Are Fun.” Lyrics that lament the feeling of anonymity make attempts at flirtation, yet mostly come off as grumbling. It’s a personal issue approached with some sarcastic relief, but the mumbly delivery feels as though the group is intentionally hiding from the listener, almost embarrassed to be sharing these thoughts in the first place. The song could have been better served had it maintained the more emotive energy found on the ending bridge. 

Toward the end of the tracklist, “Wish Upon a Star” follows a more traditional Japanese vocal style: high notes galore with more subdued backing synths. Every song through this point brings a unique flair to the record, but in all, Wink remains cohesive in theme and sound even if the energy tends to bounce around aimlessly. The last song on the album is an analogue closer with just the right amount of dreaminess to wrap up this listening vacation. Titled “Salty,” it’s a short but still-sweet cap on almost 35 minutes of pure, unadulterated fun listening.  

Donut mind if we do.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.