I tried to give "All Because of You" a chance. I really did. I tried not to comment on it (much) after posting a link to the video, and I've now listened to it repeatedly on CD. But it just sounds wrong, in a way that's hard to put my finger on, or maybe in several small ways that add up to a song that actually feels kind of icky. Maybe writing it out stream-of-consciousness style will help pinpoint the issues.
1. All Because of You (words & music: Butch Walker/Avril Lavigne)
2. Frontier no Pioneer (words & music: Tamio Okuda)
3. Closet Full of Love (Ryukyudisko mix)
There's been a lot of talk about what PUFFY are trying to accomplish with a track written by Avril Lavigne. Well, first, judging by the similarity between this track and previous Butch Walker tracks, I think it's obvious that Walker actually did most of the work - as he probably does with his songs for Avril herself. The lyrics, though, are clearly written from a teenage girl's point of view, so that was probably Avril's contribution. (She's older than that, but doesn't act or write like it very often.) It's being marketed as a track written by Avril Lavigne, obviously because of her popularity - and she's actually more popular in Japan than she is here.
I think that it's pretty likely that this track is intended to boost sales in Japan, and not necessarily the United States. And it does seem to be succeeding in getting them more TV and radio attention than they have been with their recent singles. So more power to them on that front, I guess. But I feel like they sold a bit of their souls to get there.
It's a catchy tune, I'll give it that... in a way that a lot of advertising jingles are. I can see this being sung in a shampoo commercial, or maybe laundry detergent, as a smiling housewife (or househusband!) waggles her finger at a stain on a shirt and sings "it's all because of you!" before tossing it in the washing machine and dumping a cup full of Tide onto it. It's a song that sounds overly calculated, completely inorganic, created by computer and designed to be a hit. A lot of PUFFY's songs have been hits - maybe not so much lately - but they've never sounded like they were trying so hard at it. They just were. PUFFY have always been a pop band, but they've never been this kind of pop band. I mean, there's the Foo Fighters and then there's Britney Spears, you know? (Ok, that's a little extreme on both ends, but you get the point.)
Part of it is the production, which is probably Butch Walker's first big miss with PUFFY, and in such a way that it's actually forced me to re-evaluate his earlier work with the group. The biggest problem from a technical standpoint is the vocals, which are heavily manipulated in that "Believe" by Cher sort of way - probably not the song that PUFFY were hoping to be compared to. ProTools is becoming the sonic equivalent of Photoshop, and it can be used for good or evil. In this case, I think the processing shows a lack of confidence in the girls' vocals, which is a sin considering that singing is what they're getting paid to do and what their fans want to hear.
I also don't hear Yumi at all on the track - this may as well be Ami solo (if Yumi's there, she's pretty far down in the mix). No surprise, really, as it's consistent with their other English songs, but I'm not convinced Ami didn't get some "extra help" on the track too. Her pronunciation of certain words ("you", for example) is very sort of American emo singer-sounding, and she doesn't pronounce them that way when singing the song live. I still think it's possible there is a backing track beneath her vocals, and I do hear another voice during the chorus that doesn't sound like either of them. Is it Avril? The credits in the liner notes are pretty basic, so we'll probably never know.
A few people have said the song just doesn't sound very much like PUFFY, and while I'd agree with that, I don't think that's necessarily the problem. PUFFY have changed a lot over the years and still, almost everything they've done has been great. It's not the fact that this song is different that bothers me; it's that it's almost cynical. It's one of those songs that seems to have been written by formula, produced in such a way that sucks all the humanity out, with trite lyrics about a teen romance that don't really seem appropriate for thirty-something women to be singing, and where the artists themselves are barely even recognizable in the song.
The ironic thing is that it's paired with "Frontier no Pioneer", a vastly superior song that also does happen to sound like PUFFY, obviously having been written by Tamio Okuda (long-time PUFFY producer and etc. etc. etc.). It really would have been the A-side to the single if there was any justice in the world. "Frontier no Pioneer" is not a new song, and it's technically a cover as Okuda recorded it himself, but then what is and isn't a "cover" between PUFFY and Tamio is always kind of a grey area. At a certain point, they're just songs that he's written and that both of them have recorded. Sometimes he goes first, sometimes PUFFY does.
I've heard Tamio sing "Frontier no Pioneer", and it is a great, great rock song - sort of laid back and mid-tempo in the way that most of his own songs are, and based completely around the electric guitar as he plays it. PUFFY's version is arranged a little differently, and in a different key to match the girls' higher voices. The electric guitars are replaced with acoustics and piano, and there's a little bit of synthesizer in the background that's mostly unobtrusive but was probably still unnecessary. PUFFY's version is different, but still recognizable, it's still got a great sound and melody, and it's still a rock song - just a little less heavy. And unlike "All Because of You", there's no obvious vocal manipulation going on in the production. The whole thing is as organic and natural as "All Because of You" isn't. They're polar opposites.
Well, c'est la vie. Maybe at this stage of PUFFY's career, we've got to accept a certain number of All Because of Yous if it gets us a few more Frontier no Pioneers. I realize the band needs to remain financially viable.
Rounding out the CD is Ryukyudisko's remix of "Closet Full of Love", which as far as I know was previously only available as a download through Sony's web site for a limited number of people. It's fine as remixes go - at the very least, it doesn't completely destroy the original song as some remixes can. It's still basically "Closet Full of Love", just with a dance beat and lots of breakdowns. There's no real staying power, though, and as with most remixes, it really just makes me want to hear the actual song.
Included with the Special Edition single that I got, and that I suspect most of you would be interested in, is a DVD containing four songs from PUFFY's performance at Shibuya AX last December - the last performance of their Honeysweeper tour. This is a great extra, and easily worth the couple hundred extra yen it costs on top of the standard version of the single (which does not come with a DVD). Here's the track listing:
1. boom boom beat
2. Tokyo I'm on My Way
3. Kimi to Autobike
4. Circuit no Musume
I'm not a huge fan of "boom boom beat" but I have to admit, it rocks pretty hard in a live setting. I've seen them perform it on TV, but you know, Japanese music TV shows are picking up some bad habits from America - most of the time these days, it seems like the band isn't really playing, and there are always at least various pre-recorded bits. So this is the first time I've heard it really live, and it makes a huge difference to the song.
The big highlight for me, though, is "Kimi to Autobike", which is probably my favorite track from honeycreeper (it is, in fact, my current cell phone ringtone), and it's a really powerful, heavy song live. I gotta say I have no idea what the song's actually about, but it's got a pretty dark sound, and it's a different sort of feel from most PUFFY songs in concert. They're not jumping around like they usually do while playing it (not even a bunny hop at the end!), and they both sing it just as earnestly as they do on honeycreeper. It's all very serious, but with the tempo of the song and the driving rhythm, the tension really builds over the course of the song. And they sound great vocally - that exaggerated vibrato and everything. I can't wait to see them play this live in person someday.
The other two tracks are pretty known quantities - "Circuit no Musume" is a staple of all their concerts, and "Tokyo I'm on My Way" has been for the last couple years. They play them as well as ever, but it's hard for me to get as excited about them as I used to. ("Tokyo I'm on My Way" is not old, but it's not my favorite song of theirs.)
Here are a few screen grabs:
Think maybe it's time for a haircut?
This is apparently Volume 1 of 3, according to the official web site. A few thoughts on that:
1. I think they may end up doing the full concert by the time they're done - it was obviously a major production. It's 16:9 enhanced and seems to have been shot in HD from a dozen or more cameras (obvious by the fact that certain close-in shots were not shot in HD, and the difference is clear). I doubt they'd have gone to the trouble to only release a portion of the show. It looks like a real concert DVD.
2. There will be 1 or 2 more singles in the coming months, which means...
3. There will be a new album fairly shortly. Ami supposedly alluded to this in a blog post a while back, but this is just more evidence. A one-off single doesn't usually mean anything, but a run of singles generally precedes an album release in Japan. That would be the perfect way to close out the video extras, too - you need to buy the album to have the "complete" Shibuya AX show DVD collection.
Really hard to assign any final grades when the quality here varies so widely. The single as a whole would be fine if "All Because of You" were simply left off of it. But it's the A-side, so as it is I have to weigh it more heavily than the rest. Regardless of the grades I'm giving, this single is worth buying both for "Frontier no Pioneer" and for "Kimi to Autobike" live.
Lowest grades I've given a PUFFY release. Sorry, girls - it's not your fault.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008