Ever since it was announced that Aqbi superstar Kai was joining the TRASH-UP!! roster, I’ve been looking forward to hearing what she’d be doing as a solo artist. Kai of course, is no stranger to TRASH-UP!!, having been part of the oddball folk song trio Engawa, (Most often referred to in these parts as “The weird Beni/Kai thing”) and considering the close ties between my favorite idol label and Aqbi, (Including Yoneko and Mizuho connections!) it made perfect sense as career transition…
— カイ (@kai_dayo_TUR) May 17, 2019
Anyway, there’s been a bit of an anxious delay on my part because I tried to order “Moonlight Tokyo” from Amazon Japan and it was momentarily listed with a possibly two month shipping delay. (!) I don’t know if I’m correct in my theory, but I’d like to believe that’s because it was a surprisingly bigger seller than anticipated, so that’s what I’m running with. It pleases me to share that the digital version is finally online!! streaming with Spotify and Apple Music, and the latter platform is selling it via iTunes as well. For lossless purists, I keep checking on OTOTOY but no luck just yet, but don’t assume it won’t happen eventually.
— カイ公式インフォメーション (@all_kai_info) July 4, 2019
So anyway, how is Kai’s solo debut?
Well hey, glad you asked that! We already talked about the title track back when the MV for it was released and man did I dig it. City Pop has had a loyal cult of fans since the get-go, but in the last couple years its really been having a moment, with excellent top-notch reissues and call-backs springing up everywhere. And of course, the genre ultimately nurtured modern Japanese idol pop from the very beginning, even inspiring direct tributes from wonderful groups and artists like Especia, Tentenko, and Dance for Philosophy among others. All five songs on this EP have the same retro DNA as “Moonlight Tokyo”, with bright and buoyant energy that will resonate with old-school City Pop aficionados and folks whose ears are relatively new to the genre as well.
To tell you the truth, as much as I loved Bellheart and TTT’s, I don’t think that I could single out Kai’s voice in one of their songs specifically if you asked me to, so this is essentially hearing her for the first time, and she sounds great. The classic City Pop production values probably help a lot, layering her voice to sound pure and clean, but thankfully never too over-processed for my own personal tastes. There’s just the right amount of tenuous fragility in her singing to keep the humanity intact while skirting along the edge of what is usually considered a super-slick and glossy genre. Of course Kai is also perfect for this type of music style because of the delightfully detached aura that her personality projects, teasing us with bits of the real her that we love despite never feeling like we really know her. Isn’t that idol in a nutshell?
My favorite picks among the bunch: The title track really is my favorite, but Moonlight Tokyo isn’t just one good song padded with some throw-aways. Every track on this release is worth your time and will find itself into your subconscious. None of the songs drift far from the script, so the whole thing is cohesive and consistent. I think the other song on here that really got me hooked is “Pink Shadow”, which has a great 80’s dance groove complete with synthed-out back-up vocals that gives me visions of bands with teased hair, shoulder pads, drum pad kits, and keytars playing impromtu urban rooftop concerts in teen movies.
And then there’s the song “Himitsu No Tobira”, which dials back the years a little more with a 60’s pop organ groove backing the track up that I absolutely love. It’s the “lowest tech” song here and it’s just a terrific bit of songcraft that embodies what I love most in pop music. It’s even got some magical sounding xylophone-esque sound effects that wouldn’t be out of place on a SOLEIL release. It’s just some gosh-darn magnificent bubblegum goodness.
Would I criticize anything here? Nope, not one bit actually! There is truly nothing I disliked here for a single moment. I think it’s about perfect really. The only caution I might offer is that as extremely good as this is, I’m not sure if I’d want this as a dedicated sound for Kai’s follow-ups. By all means, I hope she continues with this City-Pop vibe if it’s a muse she’s into, but there’s a need to build on this accomplishment, and not just repeat the formula next time around. This five-song EP gets it exactly right, but if this were a full-length of ten songs, even if they all were this great, it might start to feel like it’s recirculating familiar motions, which is an easy trap to fall into with retro excursions. But that’s only something to consider later, not right now.
So here we have it, a release that has a place reserved on my Best-Of-The-Year list, and might very well still be at the very top by December. I don’t intend that as hyperbole, I really am in love with this EP and I encourage you to at least give it a listen. I Believe that if “Moonlight Tokyo” was released in 1981 and not last month, hardcore vinyl collectors would digging through crates everywhere to score a copy of this. And if you’re a fan of Neo-City-Pop-Idols, you really oughta drop everything and get on board cause your (cruise) ship has come in with this delight of a release.
Bonus video: Here’s Kai performing “Yuseiyoriaiwokomete” at a recent Tower in-store event…
TRASH-UP!! Records, by the way, is celebrating it’s fifth year as a label, and one of their stated goals is to make their music more assessable internationally, so I’d really encourage to spend a few bucks for this iTunes if you really like it. Hopefully we’ll be rewarded with more great releases by Kai and other great artist on the label for years to come!
Oh, and one last thing: Kai has recently formed a duo another ex-Aqbi superstar, one of her closest friends, actually. Her and the always fabulous Yoneko have created a unit called “new fashion food“! Whatever the awesome twosome is up to exactly remains to be seen, but that already feels like a double dose of good times for all of us!