Anyone who’s spent even the briefest amount of time watching Top Chef or any program on the Food Network has seen just how complicated cooking can be. Foods that you never thought could be jellied suddenly become gelatinous, others are turned into foams and those that escape the molecular gastronomy treatment are just heaped together into unlikely combinations.
Often, though, the best meals are those made simply and carefully with well-chosen ingredients. The same holds true for music at times—though hyperpop, noise rock and other saturated genres are glorious in their own rights. But it takes a lot of skill to leave behind the bells and whistles and still turn out a good record. Case in point: Japanese outfit CHAI’s third album, WINK, which abandons their bombastic approach to production but still makes you smile at every turn. Their previous releases PINK (2018) and PUNK fly in the face of anyone who claims less is more. The two records defy genre, skipping from hip-hop to synth-pop to bubblegum punk and buzzing with frenetic energy. More than anything, though, they are delightful in the purest sense of the word, overflowing with humor and optimism.
The four-piece change tack with WINK, intentionally stripping back their sound (relative to their previous work, that is; don’t expect anything that sparse) to emulate the type of music they typically listen to at home. Much of their punk or power-pop influences are put aside for a more R&B-inflected sonic palette. Just compare the laid-back, Tame Impala-esque vibes of opener “Donuts Mind If I Do” with the first track of PUNK, “CHOOSE GO!”—an exuberant song that feels as all-caps as its title. But even with their energy tempered slightly, CHAI make every moment feel like a treat.
Take that literally, too—the homey-ness of the record is exacerbated by the food imagery woven into it. While this isn’t necessarily new for the band (see: “Horechatta” on PINK), lyricist (and bassist) Yuuki brings her songwriting to the next level. “Donuts Mind If I Do” is just as sweet as the titular dessert, feeling light and airy on the chorus as their voices soar. It’s lens flare music, meant for summertime consumption. Smooth and sultry “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” featuring Chicago rapper Ric Wilson, sounds like an old-school makeout track, but is actually about self-love as Yuuki compares her moles to chocolate morsels. It’s part goofy fun (“I won’t let the dog lick my chocolate chips,” she jokes) and part creative reclamation.
“It’s Vitamin C” isn’t the most memorable song on the album—a few tracks near the end blend together—but its message about the relativity of what feels healthy for particular people is refreshing. “Yummy kiwi fruit / Yummy orange juice,” Mana (lead vocals and keys) sings in praise of getting your five-a-day, but then later reminds us: “I’ll choose my life for me, for me / You’ll choose your life for you.” Fleshed out by dreamy chimes and sunny guitar, “KARAAGE” compares love to a meal you need to either eat while it’s hot, or wrap up and preserve lovingly. The unusual but endearing comparison is whisper-sung: “Please eat before I cool down / Don’t put too much chili sauce.” Album closer “Salty,” penned by Mana, recognizes the innate ties between food and memory—“Salmon rice ball / Salty / Nostalgic / Like now”—and its intimate production fosters that sense of rose-colored reflection.
Luckily for fans of old CHAI, not all the tracks are chilled-out. “ACTION,” inspired in part by the swell of Black Lives Matter activism in the summer of 2020, throbs with neon synth and persistent drum machine. The dance- beat breakdown sounds oddly reminiscent of Shakira’s “She Wolf,” and is likewise bound to get your hips moving. CHAI teamed up with Japanese chiptune band YMCK on “PING PONG!”—an ode to their favorite post-hot springs activity—for a song packed with sunbursts of 8-bit synth. The tune makes you feel like you’re trapped in a computer (in a good way!) and features one of the best beat-drops of the album. Even when they want to hold back, the four-piece are always ready to party.
If listening to CHAI’s music is half as fun as its creation, then they’re one lucky band. WINK is a filling, nutritious meal: good for the soul and brimming with flavor.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.