Written by Travis Shosa
Since their debut in 2015, and especially since Harushi Ejima was scouted as lead guitarist Muro’s replacement in the lineup shortly after, Fukuoka’s Polkadot Stingray has been a guitar band. It was declared loud and proud on their first nationwide single “Telecaster Stripes.” Songs such as “Ichidaiji,” which saw the band’s signature blend of Two Door Cinema Club-esque brightly toned danceable rhythms and tricot-like technicality boldly disrupted by a spontaneous eruption into a fiery blues solo, only further solidified Polkadot Stingray’s position as one of Japan’s premier up-and-coming rock groups.
Over recent years, the band has slowly but steadily drifted from their noodle-y dance-punk roots towards the sounds of yakousei–or nocturnal scene–embracing more traditional pop compositions alongside elements of funk and disco. 2019’s Uchouten was transitional, while 2020’s Nanimono saw the shift pay dividends on an album that managed to capture the energy of their early work while imbuing it with greater focus and more mainstream palatability. Polkadot Stingray’s newest album, odoru yō-ni, is then strange, though not an entirely unwelcome step. Easily the most eclectic and eccentric of their four albums, it is also the furthest from guitar rock the band has ever ventured.
It’s not as though the electric guitar is no longer a prominent piece of the Polkadot Stringray puzzle. But in comparison with past efforts, Ejima often has his opportunities to take over a song cordoned off. Take opener “Shinobinai (Shizuku Kariuta Version),” which sees him lay down a solid quick-stepping hiccup of a disco riff and a shredding solo deeper into the track. Said lead riff, while nimble, is restrained when observed within the context of the band’s broader history. The use of glacial windblast synths and skittering electronics grabs more attention. For a band defined by the conversational interplay between Ejima’s chaotic lines and frontwoman Shizuku’s acrobatic vocals, the paring back of that emblematic quality is noticeable.
The stretch of “TSUKIKAGE,” “Rideau,” and “YUDACHI” towards odoru yō-ni’s back end, along with a re-recorded version of “SHORT SHORT” from 2017’s Capacity and “Diver,” carry the torch for the Polkadot Stingray of old. These still manage to incorporate interesting wrinkles: the tasteful implementation of keys on “TSUKIKAGE” lends a pretty flourish to the frenetic path it cuts, while the bridges of “Rideau” float from a brief excursion of marching drum fills into clap-along surf rock. And at least half of the album’s songs feature some wild solo. But even some more straightforward rock tracks deviate from the band’s perceived bread and butter. The noisy opening chords and occasional twinkly passage aside, “Aoi” is more analogous to their contemporaries, the peggies, than anything with its earnestly simple and light approach to power pop. “De l’Amour” is a slow burn ballad: steadily chugging along apart from a short jazzy break about a minute and a half into its runtime.
The other half of odoru yō-ni is where Polkadot Stingray looks to redefine themselves: but not as any particular thing. While the compositions of these tracks are often individually less complicated, they are conceptually scattered. It’s a a lot of fun as Shizuku and company try on an assortment of styles that fall outside of their typical wheelhouse. Still, the compelling qualities of these instances occasionally begin and end with the fact that they shake things up, struggling to establish themselves as unique outside of the band’s discography.
At their best, you get album highlight “hide and seek.” It’s the shortest song on odoru yō-ni at just a hair over two minutes: a monument to the efficiency Polkadot Stingray is capable of, packing several playful ideas into a single, tightly-written pop track. Shizuku flexes her range as a vocalist as it begins, adopting a deep cadence as she alternates between singing in English and Japanese, supported by the rhythm section. As Ejima interjects with a funky riff, Shizuku soars from her low register to a falsetto, singing “Je vole!”: “I fly” in French. “Where to? / I don’t know yet,” she continues, in coincidental admittance of her recent, more exploratory artistic approach. It momentarily breaks down in a frenzy of harsh power electronics underlying a prog metal solo before re-emerging into an intimate section of guitar and vocals, backed only by a warm crackle. Another successful endeavor, “dodemo iiyo” is built around a deftly plucked acoustic loop ornamented with horns.
Elsewhere, “dude” is an infectious, sunny slice of jazz-hop that sees Shizuku try her hand at rapping as she once again flips between languages. It’s bright, optimistic fare and well executed enough but undeniably fluffy. “SURF” is a synth-laden sugar rush replete with affectedly cutesy vocals, taking cues from Vocaloid pop. “Tokyo Mauve” is a hybridization of the two approaches, counterbalancing an adorable counting gag with coolly swinging melodies.
Oddly enough, the title track/closer sticks out as the sorest of thumbs. A cut of contemporary R&B with a rather generic trap beat, “odoru yō-ni” inspires little beyond indifference and confusion. Even as the band darts from one concept to another on the rest of odoru yō-ni, they are still ostensibly recognizable as Polkadot Stingray. Here, the band may as well not exist beyond Shizuku. It’s a flat note to end on. Still, it’s difficult to be frustrated with a group so readily willing to embrace new styles when they could quite easily rest on their laurels. Like Uchouten, odoru yō-ni may be an in-between album: messy yet bursting with potential. But for now, it’s easy to appreciate on its own merits as its experiments yield more hits than misses.
Travis Shosa is the founder and editor-in-chief of Stamens/Pistils/Parties. Formerly the runner of COUNTERZINE, he has bylines at Pitchfork, The Alternative, and Post-Trash among others.