Review Summary: All-knowing, all-capable: all excitement!
Polkadot Stingray are a hit coming into full swing at this point. With tens of millions of YouTube views, domestic stardom and a moderate but loyal international following under their belt, they’re one of the freshest hits to emerge from Japan in the last few years. Its easy to pinpoint the source of their popularity: on the one hand, they have a knack for unashamedly accessible pop-rock bangers that, uh, rock and pop in equal measure; on the other hand, their frontwoman Shizuku is the perfect storm when it comes to factors disposed towards mainstream success. She’s charming, confident, unpretentious, attractive and extremely talented, acting (if I understand it correctly) as the band’s principal creative force in both songwriting and its music videos in addition to her duties as its vocalist and rhythm guitarist. The other members are all excellent musicians and such distinct presences in each song that I wouldn’t quite call Polkadot Stingray her
band, but suffice to say that she emanates the kind of authentic star factor many young groups would kill for, both on and off record.
While not as innovative or streamlined as its follow-up album Uchōten, Polkadot Stingray’s debut album made the band’s calibre enormously clear; it’s less of a ‘potential’ debut and more a ‘musical statement’ debut. Zenchi Zennou (which I believe translates as All-Knowing, All-Capable) shows exactly what Polkadot are all about
: an energetic and enlivening brand of rock backed by watertight musicianship with its roots split evenly between pop, funk and blues camps. Everything characteristic of their sound is on display here and played to its best, yet as quick as I (a familiar listener) was to identify this, the album didn’t initially leave quite as huge an impression as I expected from something so well-crafted, fun and catchy. Although only a couple of tracks stood out on first listen, I assumed that this was due to inattentiveness on my part, or an ambivalent reflection of a consistent album; I realised as I picked Zenchi Zennou apart and listened to songs on shuffle and in isolation that there are some huge
highlights, and there are a lot of them! The band’s signature song Telecaster Stripe
kicks things off with a powerhouse of funk bombast that put initially put them on the map for all the right reasons; Ningyo
is an indecently catchy crash-course in blues rock, quickly followed up by its slicker, sexier counterpart in Fleming
, while Yoake no Orange
and Kao mi Oboetenai
are somewhat more intense rockers that also play off each other well in their back-to-back sequencing; finally, my personal favourite Short Short
is a four-minute burst of pop rock glory that kicks off with an irresistible riff and plays out like a sweeter take on the sound Hop Along were looking at circa Painted Shut (seriously, queue this one up after Waitress
on your power pop playlists and tell me you don’t feel the jaded sunshine).
However, the way I initially glazed over most of the album goes further than a lazy attitude during a first listen. The problem here is that the highlight tracks suffer from being stacked alongside otherwise reasonable tracks that are, when it boils down to it, slightly worse versions of the same thing. There isn’t an obvious lowlight to be found here (even my least favourite track, Jet Lag
, is a fairly decent offering), but the album’s fairly narrow stylistic range puts every song on a plain and creates the illusion that it has parity of quality as well of style, which in turn hampers the best tracks’ full force. Take single Electric Public
, which plays out like a marginally more chilled out take on Telecaster Strap
’s exuberance and comes across like a palatable but unremarkable dose of a familiar high, or Surrender
, a swing-rock number so by-numbers that it could have been on Hi Tokoro Izuru and you would never have noticed. Jet Lag
is a neat enough power pop track but is left in the dust by the time the album gets around to Short Short
, and BLUE
feels more like a fun trailer for any of the album’s funkier moments than its own entity. Because these tracks are pulled off so competently, they give Zenchi Zennou a ‘more-of-the-same’ feeling because there isn’t that
much to distinguish its best tracks from its middle-of-the-road fare. On many great albums, the standout tracks either sound great by contrast of quality or (preferably) by contrast of style; Shizuku and the boys seem to have clocked this because Uchōten is a textbook outing in how pull off a range of distinct highlights that succeed through the latter approach.
In this context, Zenchi Zennou is case of the band mastering the basics of their craft with resounding success but hesitating to spread their wings. This is interesting because there are a few less overt flaws here that Uchōten did not necessarily comb out and are worth looking out for in their future work. My impartiality hat is off at this point, so this comes firmly from the realm of personal preference - but since Polkadot Stingray’s sound is so warmly and overtly directed towards listener gratification, maybe this is their fault for seeming to validate such indulgences in the first place. Who knows… In any case, my main misgiving is that they’re a rock band who don’t always feel like they rock
to their full potential. This is less to do with the songwriting and the mammoth amount of energy and excitement in each track, and more to do with their style of performance, the word for which is ‘clean.’ Everything about this band never sounds anything less than polished and proficient, and while they certainly bring a great deal of evident passion to the table, there are points at which I wonder if it wouldn’t hurt them to let loose once in a while. This in part thanks to the one point at which they do so: Kao mo Oboetenai
has a showstopper of a messy spoken word section complete with throwaway moments of verbatim harsh vocals, which makes for a rare, well-placed change of tone. It’s not groundbreakingly original, but it does show up how closely the rest of the album plays things by the book. One of the reasons I love Short Short
so much its pop-rock simplicity brings a carefree attitude that the razor-sharp blues/funk chops that define most of the album do not, and I can’t help but imagine what a Polkadot Stingray album would sound like if they balanced their myriad strong hooks and unwavering rhythmic precision with a little more rock ’n’ roll abandon.
A lot of this sense of ‘cleanness’ has to do with one of the band’s most obvious strengths: Shizuku’s voice. Her vocal style is charismatic but clean to the point that a little extra grit would be well placed icing on the cake of her performance. She does take a raspier tone for on a couple of notes in Ningyo
and Uchōten’s Dai Dassou
, and the power of these inflections speaks volumes for how great it would be to hear them used just a pinch more liberally in other Polkadot songs. Other complaints I have for this album include how the flashy and constantly busy lead guitar parts very occasionally encroach on indulgent territory (fixed on Uchōten), occasional exhibitions of awkward Engrish (fixed on Uchōten, and not all that relevant compared to the number of English lines that Shizuku absolutely nails here), a few minor production- and dynamic-related issues that cramp some songs out a little in their trade-off from verse to chorus (fixed on Uchōten),
I hope this nitpicking hasn’t detracted too much from the core point here, which is that Polkadot Stingray are awesome. They’re cool, fun and fresh, and you should listen to them. None of these things have been in question at any point, and I hope my criticism hasn’t had this effect; it’s more a happy case of liking an album enough to be confident in tearing it apart without ruin its charm; Zenchi Zennou has easily withstood this, and its strengths are just as impressive as ever. The band deserve the success they’ve had so far and I hope their future is even brighter (and perhaps a tad more internationally inclined). They’re certainly ones to watch, and both this album and Uchōten are both full of enough gleeful catchiness to be great places to start.