Issue #70: Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana by Ringo Sheena
June 19, 2017
Released On February 23, 2003
Released By Toshiba EMI / Virgin Music
Ringo Sheena is a Japanese singer-songwriter… and one of the biggest artistic influences in my life.
Sheena debuted in 1998 at the age of 19, and she has enjoyed a prolific career as a solo artist and songwriter, as well as as the former frontwoman of Japanese jazz/rock fusion band Tokyo Incidents. She’s a household name in Japan, and I would equate her stature to Sia, Lana Del Ray, or Melanie Martinez here in the US. For today’s issue of Off Your Radar, the album that I’d like to introduce to you is her third solo album titled 加爾基 精液 栗ノ花 (Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana) or in English, Kalk Samen Chestnut Flower.
To be blunt, the album title means “Chlorine, Semen, Chestnut Flower”, and it came from Sheena overhearing a discussion about whether semen smells more like chlorine or chestnut flowers. The word “Kuri” is slang for clitoris in Japanese, so “Kuri no Hana” or “chestnut flower” also holds that explicit implication. This is a bold and iconoclastic name for a 2003 release by a pop diva from a major label. I’m not positive this is true, but I once read that they had to censor the album title in Japan for TV commercials, so it was simply referred to as her “3rd album.” Luckily for us (and all the listeners who made the album sell double platinum), the intrigue of the album didn’t end with the title. The songwriting, lyrics, and production that make up the album are just as challenging and incredible as the title itself, and much more at times.
Sheena started working on the album after a taking a musical hiatus to give birth to her son. In contrast to her first two albums which have a more straight-forward “live rock band in a studio” sound, this album was put together focusing on sound and production that can only be achieved through recording. It relies on a heavy usage of sampled sounds, whether it be from daily life or from Sheena’s earlier work, as well as extremely eclectic instrumentation, with credits including sitar, lute, harpsichord, kalimba, koto, shamisen, didjeridoo, and many more traditional orchestra instruments.
Symmetry is a big part of this record too as Sheena obsessed over it in the stages of putting together the album. The run time is exactly 44 minutes and 44 seconds, and the 11 songs are symmetrical in their track names, with track six “茎” or “Stem (Kuki)” in the middle, and the songs working outwards in pairs. Symmetry is even found in the abbreviation of the album title — “KSK” (“K”alk “S”amen “K”uri-no-Hana).
Lyrically, the content is eerie, heavy, and sometimes creepy. Topics linger around laxity, deterioration, dilapidation, false cheer, disenfranchisement, lack of emotion, and death. My favorite track is the final track Sôretsu, or in English “Funeral Procession,” the lyrics for which carry a feeling similar to “Dying” by Emily Dickinson. I find the direct and dry descriptions of death and anxiety to be very powerful. In my own writing, the opening lines of “Being Human” are a homage to these moments crafted by Sheena and by Dickinson.
Recently, someone asked me in an interview if I’ve changed a lot in my writing and my artistic direction between when I started writing and now. In searching for an answer, I realized that my growth as a songwriter, lyric writer, and producer have all been fueled by trying to create something similar to this album. Right now, I finally feel like I’m on the threshold of creating a masterpiece like this.
The one unfortunate thing about this album is that it is over-compressed. This seems to be half a stylistic choice, and half a standard practice for J-Pop. If you can, I ask that you try to put that aside and give the album a few listens. This piece means a lot to me, and I’d love for more folks to hear it and enjoy it. I am submitting my own interpretation/translation of the lyrics so that anglophone listeners can follow along with the Japanese. Sheena crafted the lyrics to be very open ended with many entendres, and incorporated archaic Japanese phrases and characters that aren’t in line with modern Japanese. It’s not an easy piece to translate into English, and there could be many different interpretations of what the lyric are portraying, without even getting into the actual meaning/intent behind them. At the very least, I hope the lyrics will serve as a suggestion of mood, or a small portal into Ringo’s world and a good guide to this wonderful album.
Read English translations of Karuki Samen Kuri no Hana here.
Courtney Swain (@chourtkneey)
Quirky Architect Of Dreamy Art Rock
Japanese icon. Shinjuku-style writer-performer. Legendary musician.
That Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana by Ringo Sheena will be a journey (and a half) of an album is clear from the first track, the extraordinary “Religion (Shúkyo).” After a huge ten-second fanfare of strings, guitar, and maybe a zither, there’s twenty-five seconds of sing-song psychedelia reminiscent of the verse of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” This garden-path meander is followed by an assaultive prog-rock section, guitar shrieking over the top of bass and drums slamming through a descending chord sequence, that goes for about 30 seconds before evanescing into full-on orchestrated pop. Is this the verse, the chorus, the bridge? Does it matter? Hell no, because now programmed drums are percolating while a mandolin (or a koto?) gently weeps, until wham! — back to prog-rock, even more aggressive this time. And we’re only halfway through the song. Sections combine, crescendos have crescendos, the percolating drums return, and the song seems to finally deliquesce, but not before a quartet of Ringoes perform a little rondo of different voices that turns into a loop before fading out. “Religion (Shúkyo)” is the perfect fractal for an album that never lets your expectations get ahead of its inventions, an experience somewhere between Sgt. Pepper’s and John Zorn’s Naked City. That said, the album is remarkably consistent in quality and only on “Poltergeists (Porutāgaisuto)” does Ringo’s hyperactivity slip into circus mode and bleed out of my pleasure zone. But that’s a small trade-off for the big fun of tracks like the bouncy “Doppelgänger (Dopperugengā),” the funked up “Over Anxiety (Torikoshi Kurō),” or the almost breezy “Consciousness (Ishiki).” While this record may have been somewhat of a left-turn for Ringo, it also seems to make the best use of her wildly eclectic tastes and talents. The other stuff of hers I’ve heard seems to skitter over styles in a show-offy way that defends against emotional involvement rather than invite it. Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana, on the other hand, is a triumph of intuition over cerebration — and that’s something to celebrate.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
There is a time and place for chill music with relatively few changes, but what really makes my heart skip a beat is a song full of dynamics. It has quiet parts and loud parts. It builds to a climax, and along the way, the singer changes his or her vocal style. Afterwards, you feel like you have been taken on a journey. One of my favorite contemporary performers who masterfully uses dynamics is Mitski — you think “Townie” is going to be a relaxed little song, but once she sings “A change is gonna come but / When when when,” it completely blows its top. Even though Mitski has one foot in the indie world, her interest in (and understanding of) other types of music makes her an extraordinarily gifted pop songwriter. Another talented performer/arranger/orchestrator, Ringo Sheena, clearly also appreciates many genres of music and understands how to craft music to be dynamic and fascinating. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana — probably electropop, of which there is some, I guess (“Doppelgänger (Dopperugengā)” is a good example, as it almost sounds like a late ’90s Ladytron remix). This record is everything. Truly. And it contains everything, too — moody pop (the dark “Stem (Kuki),” which has an amazing build and release), skits, sound effects, hints of movie soundtracks (“Rush Job (Yattsuke Shigoto)”), Blonde Redhead-esque rock (kick ass opener “Religion (Shúkyo)“), 60s psych pop — more than I can remember, even as I listen to it for the umpteenth time this week. No Hana does not feel overstuffed or like it’s taking on too much, which is proof of Sheena’s skill. Find this record. Use whatever means necessary. Do not be put off that the lyrics are not in English — you will get to go on an incredible musical adventure in only 45 minutes thanks to Ringo Sheena.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Tonight, I sat down to listen to Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana and I feel like I’ve just had my heart sucked out through my ears. Now, I may not know any Japanese but I what I do know is that Ringo brought it to my kitchen table tonight. What exactly is it you ask? All the fuzz from the 1980s, a bassist that must have been born with cool guy sunglasses permanently grafted to their head, the manic pixie dream girl of my sexiest nightmares, and so much more. No instrument can hide for long in Ringo’s mixes. Every element in her songs has it’s time to shine as they all flow together to a solid and at times, abrupt end. This album is like a roller coaster dynamically plunging its listener in and out of emotions, complete with hard panning sound effects and ethereal keys that seem to continuously buzz around your ears for good measure. On tracks like “Camouflage (Meisai),” Ringo is reminiscent of French singer Zaz as her vocals pour over the microphone with a growl that could make a soldier shake. I love the way both singers flirt effortlessly with their listeners despite language barriers. With Zaz, I expect to hear some steamy jazz, but with Ringo it was a nice surprise. Another standout track is “Over Anxiety (Torikoshi Kurō),” where Ringo is playfully accompanied by a bassline performed completely a cappella which immediately brought a smile to my face. Playful and sassy as ever, this song is so full of movement, a true testament to Ringo’s dynamic range. I will warn you though, when the band kicks in on this track it doesn’t just kick in — it breaks down the door and gets in your face. I could continue to list the reasons why you should listen to this album, but we’d be here all day so just do yourself a favour and get weird at your kitchen table tonight with Ringo Sheena.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
There’s something to be said about well-designed album covers. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I’m here to tell you that you absolutely should — sometimes. If you were handed a record with a terrible or uninteresting cover, let’s be real, it wouldn’t be giving you the incentive to listen to it immediately. Maybe it would take up residence in your desk drawer for a few days before you remember it was left there in the first place. We’re visual creatures. Everything that is of interest to us is meant to be visually stimulating at least on the surface level until we dig in and figure out if we like said ‘thing’ or not. I ramble about this because I had a gut feeling that this Ringo Sheena record would be fascinating just solely based on the album cover. I can throw together a list of records I fell in love with because, at first glance, I initially fell in love with the album cover. Call me shallow, but my taste is refined (if I do say so myself). The design is sleek and minimal — nothing busy about it. That might be the best way to describe the sound of the record as well. From the first notes, Ringo Sheena wraps listeners in a wall of sound that isn’t tied down by dogma, status, or aesthetics; it is simply working its own way through paths. These paths change in explosive emotion rapidly, ranging from ambient soundscapes to blasting drum beats and subdued vocals. The journey on this album is a rough one. You will not hear anything quite like this again. I admit my claim is bold, but it is true. Ringo Sheena is unapologetically dense and dark, but equally as uniquely sonic and unmatched. Having a great album cover is just the cherry on top of the cake.
Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band
Quirky. Miscellaneous. A bag of instrumental potpourri. These are words I would use to describe Ringo Sheena; the artist of note whose music Bent Knee’s Courtney Swain has decided to place in the spotlight of this week’s newsletter. “Doppelgänger (Dopperugengā)” embodies my sentiments with force, as less than a minute and a half into the track, everything from delicate and twinkly toned bells, to mildly wobbly organ, flute, harpsichord, digitized cymbal crashes, and bassoon — among a confetti storm of other effects — rains down at a brisk tempo that easily matches the high quantity of Japanese syllables uttered by Sheena in just as many seconds. Though this uncommon amalgamation initially hit my ears like a cold splash of water first thing in the morning, the melodic and rhythmic variety on Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana is honestly, just straight up cool once you get used to it. That point aside, finding some stable footing on this pick is somewhat difficult. The manner in which each track literally has sounds jumping around, and in no fashion similar to the track before of after it, makes grasping onto consistency seem about as easy as asking a person to find two identically shaped petals in a bag of potpourri. Everything in the bag is similar and perhaps shares the same shade of colors and a common scent but the individual character of the pieces that makes the bag itself are pretty much impossible to place together as identical. The commonality to Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana comes from its overall aesthetic of the unusual, more so than giving the impression of some grand scheme or conceptual direction that in dependent upon every song being experienced in direct context with the others. The “tl;dr” version of this would probably be to say, that this feels like an album full of distinct individual tracks, which all happen to be in Japanese. Standout aspects include the bass on “Stem (Kuki),” the solid a capella beatboxing in “Over Anxiety (Torikoshi Kurō),” and the lovely blend of major 7th chord induced jazz flavor played out on “Consciousness (Ishiki)” paired with the flute and a healthy dash of minor seconds in the pre-chorus.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
I’ve been sensing a change in how I listen to music, not in what I like so much as why I would like something in the first place. I’m not sure if my brother-in-law Brian is the cause or if his example is useful in terms of clarification, but I realized a few years back that we listened to music in totally different ways. We’d be at a record store, and he’d ridicule an album at the same time he was walking to the counter to buy it, citing specific sounds or production techniques he liked as rationale for his purchase. It didn’t make sense. In my mind, the quality of the whole was the important thing, not the parts. But more and more, I see where he’s coming from, and albums are becoming favorites because of the way they were made and the sounds they bring to the table. And this Ringo Sheena album, y’all — talk about bringing sounds to the table. It’s off the charts. Stylistic diversity is one thing, but Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana ventures into the realm of curation, like deciding which beautifully framed portraits to place next to one another in a museum. Moments of savvy juxtaposition are everywhere, but my favorite might be the chorus of “Stem (Kuki),” which luxuriates via strings and a graceful, fluid melody that might have accompanied Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, with a downward turn at the very end of the melody that jumps ahead sixty years to how Aaliyah might have embellished it. I love that she put those two thoughts in my brain consecutively. Most impressive is that Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana pleases whether you’re zoomed in or zoomed out; all the moments of juxtaposition and brilliance add up to something bigger, something omnivorous and awe-inspiring.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Ringo Sheena’s Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana was an interesting experience. I was warned ahead of time that this would be a challenging record so I was mentally prepared to expect the unexpected. As it turns out, the only challenge I had listening to this record is that I don’t understand Japanese. Certainly, the music deviates from what’s considered the “norm” in Western pop music, but as someone who has partaken in a bit of musical exploration over the years, I found Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana to be a charming record — even if I have no idea what the songs are about. [Disclosure: I was given a loose translation of the lyrics after I wrote this sentence.] In a weird way, a decade plus of listening to albums like Double Nickels On The Dime, Addicted To Bad Ideas, Lover, The Lord Has Left Us, and even the Alone compilation series have all prepared me for this kind of record. Right off the bat, album opener “Religion (Shúkyo)” has a lo-fi recording quality to the vocals, and Ringo Sheena’s inflection that immediately brought Rivers Cuomo’s home demos to mind — specifically those that came from the Songs From The Black Hole sessions. Moving right along, the abrupt sonic shifts near the end of track 2, “Doppelgänger (Dopperugengā),” aren’t too different from how the Minutemen challenged my younger self to consider if there even is such a thing as a “proper” song structure. And the jazz/swing beat of “Camouflage (Meisai)” brings me back to listening to Red Eyed Soul and Addicted To Bad Ideas in my college dorm, while the lively showtune-like elements of “Rush Job (Yattesuke Shigoto)” heavily reminds me of the frenetic live showmanship of Jack Terricloth or even, dare I say it, Panic! At the Disco. There is a lot happening from track-to-track here, and it’s a lot to take in even if you are prepared for it. Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana may not be conventional by American pop music standards, but it’s a journey, and anyone who considers themselves an adventurous fan of music owes it to themselves to listen to this album.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
As serious as this record gets, it is the playfulness and eccentricity of the music that is profoundly captivating.
Ringo Sheena’s adventurous, omnivorous album Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana is a veritable buffet of musical content. And by that I mean Sheena rarely stays in a single genre even for the duration of a single song. There’s “Doppelgänger (Dopperugengā),” a song that splits the difference between Sufjan Stevens Age Of Adz-esque electro-classical and J-pop and it actually totally works? And yet, she can also pull off a simple piano ballad in “Please Take Care (Odaiji ni),” which is starkly beautiful and uses an “announcement” and an electric guitar to just the right abrasive effect. The disco show tune “Rush Job (Yattsuke Shigoto)” is probably the greatest accomplishment here, a modern take on a classic musical sound (think La La Land but ten years ahead of that curve), beginning with a theatrically appropriate channel-changing TV intro before busting into the kind of bouncy groove that just makes you smile. It’s got an infectious electric bass line, flourishes of woodwinds, brass, and strings, harpsichord solos, xylophone and glockenspiel—truly a smorgasbord of a song that leaves you utterly satisfied. Even after all that, nothing can prepare you for the jaw-dropping closer, “Funeral Procession (Sôretsu)” (and I mean that literally, my mouth was wide open for the whole duration of the first listen), which starts out with sitar-and-hand drums and somehow ends with a balls to the wall high drama organ and drum set manic explosion of sound. It’s absolute insanity and pure genius. Shout out to Toshiyuki Mori for his orchestrations and arrangements on many of the tracks, which are whimsical and dynamic throughout. I could fill pages trying to describe everything that goes on in this album, but it needs to be experienced to be believed. Bravo Ringo Sheena, and thank you. This is the kind of music that makes you dream of possibility. P.S. Ringo Sheena recently provided guest vocals on the wonderful duet “Nijikan Dake No Vacance” for Japanese superstar Utada Hikaru’s 2016 comeback album Fantôme, which you should also definitely check out, it’s really good.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Wow. After finishing Ringo Sheena’s incredible Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana, I felt like I just stepped off of a private jet on an international flight from Japan; wearing a three piece suit; with a couple models on my arm. This is the album that 2017 Austin Powers plays when it’s time to get a little randy. The undeniable charm of “Rush Job (Yattsuke Shigoto)” is absolutely infectious. It’s a number reminiscent of game show/sit-com themes from the ’50s and ’60s. The string arrangements here are just stunning, and I really admire the meshing of the older instrumentation with modern rhythmic elements. The entire experience is, in a word, swirling. Sheena then follows up with the sober, yet haunting “Stem (Kuki).” Again, the production shines here, complete with rich string arrangements which somehow end up taking a backseat to Sheena’s inspired vocal performance to close out the record. As I have said for a handful of records we’ve reviewed here on OYR, my enjoyment is usually tied to how much “sample-able” material is in a given record. Well, this one just joined the club. Great pick!
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
It took forty seconds for this album to destroy any preconceptions I might have had, though I must confess I didn’t know what I was getting into when I hit play. But sometimes your brain starts making guesses based on minimal information. Each time the musical structure changed, as it most notably did on “Camouflage (Meisai),” “Please Take Care (Odaji Ni),” “Rush Job (Yattsuke Shigoto),” my face would light up the way it does after a well-crafted joke or well-executed magic trick (the changes feel like a little of both). I think my favorite moment on this fantastic album is on “Please Take Care (Odaji Ni).” The song goes along for a minute, a very sweet piano piece with what sounds like a PA or subway announcer playing in the background, and then this amazing guitar comes in and the whole song takes on an entirely different feel. It’s wonderful. I sometimes wonder about the appeal of pop acts playing in country where the language they’re performing in isn’t the native language of most of the attendees. It’s silly, but lyrics are so important to me that it feels like “Why even go if you can’t understand the singer?” This album is an earth-shattering rebuttal. I would go see Ringo Sheena perform these songs in concert in a heartbeat, no matter what language.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Over-ambitious doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana. It’s a record so dense, so extravagant that listing out all the styles, instruments, techniques, and motifs seems… well, useless. For every style or instrument you can identify, there are dozens that fly by virtually unnoticed, all of which help strengthen the core that Ringo Sheena wildly pendulates around. Reading that could make you think this record is a treasure trove of sonic Easter eggs just waiting to be discovered, but it’s so much more than that. These aren’t pieces haphazardly added to an already sturdy piece of art so as to enhance its image with a niche audience. No, every moving piece adds to that foundation, almost like individual nails in a large stage supporting Ringo Sheena’s colossal sound. Each is meticulously placed, giving support at the precise spot so Sheena is free to oscillate around the sonic spectrum as boldly as she wants. But this isn’t an exercise in self-indulgence either. All these moving parts, this sturdy foundation, it helps her to enhance, and also contrast, the lyrical themes and messages she is conveying. This whirlwind of sounds offer a shroud to bleak setbacks and an overhead light to the exuberant realizations, many of which go both ways as the grim subject matter often brings out profound statements. Every song feels like this with each bar of music overflowing with emotion that’s been spread out to a hundred areas. It would be exhausting to listen to if not for how invigorating, fascinating, and cathartic she’s made it, even to people removed from her language and culture. As I said, over-ambitious doesn’t begin to scratch the surface… and I’ll add that neither does brilliant.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Rehearsing My Choir by The Fiery Furnaces
Chosen By Melissa Koch