Thursday, July 20, 2006

SPLURGE Album Review

HEY YOU: This post originally appeared on my personal blog, so the context in parts may seem a little unnecessary. Just bear in mind that if anything sounds weird given where you are, this originally was not on a Puffy-dedicated blog.

I'll start by stating the obvious: this is a great rock album. You expected something different?

Now for the details.

Immediate superstars in Japan from their 1996 debut megahit "True Asia", Puffy made sort of an awkward jump across the Pacific in 2001. Initially taking on an indie band persona with their "Rolling Debut Revue" tour and their college-rock heavy albums Spike and An Illustrated History, they later morphed into the kid-friendly cartoon characters of "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi" in the hopes of increasing their overseas audience. It's a move that looks like it may have been a mistake in hindsight. Maybe a result of their split attention between Japan and the US, "Puffy-mania" in their home country has dwindled with time, while US audiences haven't always taken them as seriously as they deserve. With Splurge, they seek to reinvent themselves once again, re-establishing their indie street cred in the States while perhaps forging a new bond with their homegrown fans in Japan.

For the truly uninitiated, Puffy (as they are still known in Japan) are Yumi Yoshimura and Ami Onuki. In 1995, they were two regular twentysomething girls from different parts of Japan answering newspaper ads looking for the next Japanese superstar - it was an improvised twist of marketing genius that would later pair them together. Tamio Okuda, Japanese rock star and all-around musical genius, would serve as their songwriter and mentor for their initial chart forays before slipping back into his own solo career. It was these early albums and corresponding tours that captured so much of the public's attention in Japan - the unique combination of Okuda's Japanese rock and roll compositions combined with the girls' charisma, rawness and unique fashion sense drew a broad audience that gave the entire music industry a serious kick in the pants. It's not too far out of bounds to compare their effect on Japanese pop music to that of Nirvana or the Sex Pistols in the west. They were like nothing anyone had ever seen or heard in that country before.

Now in their thirties, Ami and Yumi have slowly taken more control over their own musical destinies while hedging against the almost inevitable calming of Japanese Puffy-mania. Splurge is a culmination of their ten years making music, an anniversary album combining both Japanese and American compositions from a variety of well-known songwriters and musicians (including Jon Spencer, Dexter Holland, Andy Sturmer, Butch Walker and the return of Tamio Okuda). The US release features more English lyrics than they've ever sung before, some of which were written by Puffy themselves. Stylistically, Splurge is as varied as the names involved would suggest - though Puffy's vocals and harmonies always manage to tie everything together.

Beginning with Butch Walker's "Call Me What You Like (if you like rock and roll)", the album starts off with a rebellious tribute to rock music from the 1970's through today - sampling Def Leppard and the Offspring, and with a riff that pays homage to The Knack's "My Sharona". When the girls sing "we ain't no harajuku girls" in an obvious dig at Gwen Stefani, they're making a statement on both their music and their status as Japanese icons - or at least western stereotypes of the styles they helped create.

Progressing through indie rock, neo-punk, folk-rock and retro 50's and 60's beach rock, about the only genre absent from their usual repertoire is disco. Yes, disco. While ostensibly a rock act, Puffy has always been about fun as much as anything, and some of their most famous and popular songs could have easily sprung from the drum machine of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. "Electric Beach Fever", "Tokyo Nights", and even their original hit "True Asia" were obvious nods to the disco era. Perhaps they've dropped this bit in an effort to court the more serious western crowd, but Splurge is wall-to-wall guitars in one form or another. Don't misunderstand - Puffy's trademark up-tempo party tracks still take a bow in "Nice Buddy", "Beginnings" and "Tokyo I'm On My Way", but there's nary a drum machine to be heard, and synthesized strings are reserved for the 1950's-inspired slow-dance "Missing You Baby".

Highlights are almost too many to mention, but new fans in America will probably immediately take to the aforementioned "Call Me What You Like" as well as the second Butch Walker composition, the powerful cover of Marvelous 3's wail against corporate rock "Radio Tokyo". Both Ami and Yumi have solo songs on this album (something they haven't done in a while), Yumi's "Cameland" being a slow, traditional-sounding Japanese folk song and Ami's "Security Blanket" a punky but heartfelt dedication to her three-year-old daughter (with surprisingly poetic English lyrics written by her). Both are among the best songs this year, let alone on this album, and both show a depth to Puffy that is both new and a little surprising. These aren't college kids anymore - this is a 33-year old new mom and a 31-year old divorcee singing about real life (and death).

Really, though, with the exception of Dexter Holland's "Tokyo I'm On My Way" and Jon Spencer's "Go Baby Power Now" (both of which sound like bad imitations of their composers' real bands as interpreted by the PowerPuff Girls on speed), this album is balls to the wall - as immediately fun, catchy and listenable as any of their past albums, but with more nuance and experience behind the singing and the songwriting. While they may have been musical novices when Puffy was formed, at this stage of their careers, these girls know exactly what they're doing. And if Japan no longer cares, that's their loss. Puffy is everything we've forgotten pop music could be in this country, and if only they could break through here as Nirvana and the Sex Pistols did years before. Our music industry could use another good kick in the pants.

Note: this review refers to the US version of Splurge. The Japanese version is missing the two US bonus tracks but instead includes Puffy's cover of Green Day's "Basket Case". It also includes Japanese-language versions of "Call Me What You Like" (titled "Shall We Dance?") and "Go Baby Power Now", and features a different track order. "Radio Tokyo" leads the Japanese release.

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