Friday, October 5, 2007

SPIKE Album Review

As I wrote my honeycreeper review last week, a question kept popping into my head: what, exactly, do I expect from a Puffy album? Expectations are a dangerous thing, and I try not to have them - it's good to be surprised. Puffy have been masters at staying fresh, but even still, over the years I've definitely started subconsciously looking for certain things about them and their music with each passing album. And as time goes on, I'm realizing that the one album I look towards as my definitive Puffy reference is 2000's Spike.

Spike was actually the first Puffy album I owned, and I picked it up at the same time as Nice (which was new at the time). I initially gravitated towards the more western-oriented, melodic pop-punk of Nice; Spike is a little more difficult, maybe a little more "advanced", especially for fans in America. But ultimately, it represents everything Puffy's about in one place, and it's a really rewarding album that only gets better with age.

Spike was sort of a watershed Puffy album, coming at a time when they were at a crossroads in more ways than one. It was their first album of original material released in the US, marking the beginning of their global careers. At the same time, it was the album on which long-time producer and songwriter Tamio Okuda began pulling back, starting the process of turning over the reins to Andy Sturmer and Puffy themselves. "Puffy-mania", the pop culture fad that turned Puffy into a national phenomenon in Japan, was also beginning its inevitable fade. It seems likely that at least some amount of soul-searching went on in the making of Spike - this was both the last we'd hear of the original Puffy, and the beginning of something new.

The end result turned out to be their most varied, most experimental and really their most fun album to this day. Whatever went on behind the scenes, Puffy took the opportunity to just explore... throwing all sorts of stuff at the proverbial wall to see what stuck. Happily, almost everything on the album did. There are a number of musical genres represented on Spike - modern swing, lounge, disco, hard rock, punk, retro rock... the list goes on. And it all works. That's always been part of the genius of Puffy - moving from genre to genre just seems effortless for them, but nowhere is that more apparent than on Spike.

The album's also got a number of Puffy "essentials" - songs that they still play at concerts and that all of their fans know by heart. Here's the full track listing (US release):

1. Boogie Woogie No.5
2. Violet
3. Shut Your Mouth, Honey
4. Cosmic Wonder
5. Destruction Pancake
6. Su-i Su-i
7. Sui Sui
8. Swimming Pool
9. Green Apple
10. This Is The Song Of Sweet Sweet Season When Cherry Garcia Blossoms Bloom
11. Into The Beach
12. Puffy's Rule
13. Dec.
14. Love So Pure (bonus track)
15. Wild Girls On Circuit - [The Ready Made JBL Mix '99]

The Japanese release differs a bit in the track titles and the omission of US bonus tracks "Love So Pure" and the "Wild Girls on Circuit" remix. ("Into the Beach" is probably actually better known even in the US by its Japanese title, "Umi Eto".) It also has a different cover and insert - and I'm honestly not sure which I like better. The Japanese insert has more and larger photos, but the US cover suits the freewheeling nature of the music, which the staid Japanese cover artwork really doesn't.

There are almost too many musical highlights to list - it would really be the whole album, and I could spend paragraphs talking about the segues from one genre to another. But in addition to Puffy standards like "Into the Beach", "Boogie Woogie No. 5" (their first collaboration with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra), "Puffy's Rule" and "Sui Sui", I have to give special mention to the two solo songs from Ami and Yumi - "Destruction Pancake" and "This Is The Song Of Sweet Sweet Season When Cherry Garcia Blossoms Bloom". These are two of my favorite Puffy songs of all time, and neither of them gets the attention they deserve.

One side of the single-piece Japanese CD insert

"Destruction Pancake" is actually entirely Ami's song - she wrote both the words and music, and she even played the guitar on it live (though not on the album). If you ever wanted to know what Puffy would be if the girls themselves had full control, this is probably close to it. It's a song that honestly took me a while to warm up to - it's not one of their catchier tunes, and it's pretty noisy, with raspy guitars and Ami's voice electronically doubled in a way that purposely throws her slightly out of tune. It's one of Puffy's more experimental tracks, and now that I know it by heart, I think it just kicks ass.

"This Is The Song Of Sweet Sweet Season When Cherry Garcia Blossoms Bloom" (easily the longest-titled of any Puffy song) is more accessible but still has a lot going on. This is a pretty dense ballad that sounds like it could have come from The Beatles back wall, though Yumi's voice and lyrics firmly ground it in Puffyville. She sounds great on this track, crooning in melancholy fashion but without over-dramatizing.

Both Ami and Yumi also play a variety of instruments on Spike, something that they haven't really repeated in the years since. They took this to the extreme on the tour for the album (captured on the Spike Daisakusen DVD), with both girls playing guitar - including Ami's solo in Sui Sui - and Ami even taking a spot on drums for one track. (She's pretty good!)

I'm not sure this is the album I'd use to introduce a new American fan to Puffy. That honor would probably still go to Nice, or maybe one of their several "best of" albums. The sounds on this album - and particularly the juxtapositions - are not something that a lot of Americans are going to be used to. This is neither a pop album nor really a rock album. In fact, it's impossible to put it into any particular bucket, but that's paradoxically why I consider it so definitive. That's how I think of Puffy. But getting there takes time, and it requires an open mind. This album is telling you (among other things) that disco and punk, noise rock and pop, modern swing and lounge can all co-exist, in the same world, on the same album, at the same time. Eventually, it'll make you believe it. And that's what makes it fun, and also kind of brilliant.

Final Grades
Music: A
Performance: A
Production: A

A few videos from the album, though I don't think the singles they released quite capture what makes this album so freakin' good:

Boogie Woogie No. 5

Umi Eto

Puffy's Rule (live)


  1. I totally agree with you on that. Spike is really just so magical and my favorite song is Swimming Pool because even though I have no idea what they're singing about I always imagine it's about summertime because that's what their silky smooth voices and all the production of the horns and other drones in the background remind me of; just going to the Swimming Pool during the day and leaving at night and it's the perfect song for any summer occasion. he he. Just thought I'd add to your praise :)

  2. It's hard for me to think of this album as a whole, since I didn't buy it until after I had already played "An Illustrated History" to death! It's nice to know they weren't just letting Sturmer be a 'Phill Spector-Barry Gordy'- type. My lack of understanding the language was never a hinderance in enjoying these tracks. I'm finding that alot of bands I like are moving away from the 'experimental/novelty' side of music, so they're not alone. And though I often tell myself, 'You can't stop maturity.', I wished they would ALL reconsider. (bands like Ween, Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals, and ancient heroes, The Residents) Humore STILL belongs in music, from McCartney's "Uncle Albert" to Zappa's toilet humor, these artist should never be ashamed to make a 'funny'!

  3. Swimming Pool is also my favorite tune on the CD, followed closely by Cosmic Wonder. I love the bassline in it. Sometimes I play it on my bass just for fun.

  4. Yeah I do love Swimming Pool and Cosmic Wonder also. I thought about just going song by song for this review, but I always think reviews like that are kinda cheesy. This is one album, though, where really almost every song merits a special mention. I had to draw the line somewhere, though. But those two songs are a big part of why I love this album - they're so different than the hard stuff.

  5. I'm so glad you said that this album grows on you, because I just got it and it's my least favorite so far, but I haven't really listened to it more than like once so I'm sure I'll end up liking it more. I do love the singles though and Love So Pure.