Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hiyori Hime Single Review

Well, finally - I've managed to work around my region 2 DVD playing issues temporarily, though not without some inconvenience. So I can now bring you my review of PUFFY's latest single, written and produced by the iconic Shiina Ringo.

The CD
Track listing:
1. Hiyori Hime
3. My Story (variation by agraph)

Here it is in a nutshell: the mix is wrong. I realize I'm starting to sound like a broken record with this - I've had the same reaction to several of their recent singles. It may seem strange to damn a song because of the mix, but it's like a film that's poorly edited or a meal that's badly seasoned. It's not something a lot of people consciously think about, but it can ruin a song.

I've listened to "Hiyori Hime" a bunch of times now, and I really don't think it's badly composed or even badly performed. It doesn't sound like a prototypical PUFFY song, but with Shiina Ringo writing and producing, I doubt many people expected it to. It sounds like it could be a legitimate Shiina Ringo track on one of her own albums, if you imagine her voice and a different mix.

But it just sounds weak, in a way that Shiina Ringo's own songs don't - at least not her solo stuff, and not the songs I've heard. I don't think she's at fault here even given her producer credit. Her songs are often constructed in such a way that there's barely a thread holding them together, but they do hold. In "Hiyori Hime", that thread is missing, and it's not only Shiina Ringo's voice. The guitars are buried and thin in tone, there is no analog overdrive, no rawness, no nastiness. And that's what a song like this needs. (And yeah, part of it may be the vocals too - I'm not sure their vocal style really fits.)

I think the first time I brought up the mix on a PUFFY release was in my review of "Kuchibiru Motion", which I thought was a little too vocal-heavy and also a little weak. The DVD that ships with the limited edition "Hiyori Hime" CD has the first live performance I've seen of "Kuchibiru Motion", and it is much harder in exactly the way that I had thought the recorded version should be. Somebody somewhere in PUFFY-ville these days seems to be neutering their singles, probably in a misguided attempt at mass market appeal. (I say misguided because such cold calculation rarely works outside of straight pop music.) If you start with the premise that a rock band is in its natural state in a live setting (and I think anybody who has seen PUFFY live would agree with this), then these songs are just not being mixed properly in the studio given how much better they sound played live.

I'm probably at risk of sounding like I'm just taking them too seriously. But when I have a problem with anything they do, it's almost always because I think they - meaning the girls and really all of the musicians they've ever worked with - are a lot more talented than they're given credit for by their record label and management. Part of this is no doubt Japan's patriarchal society, although Shiina Ringo managed to overcome that to some degree. But PUFFY are not a disposable pop band, as 13 years of longevity should have proven by now. They should be taken seriously, and they still often aren't. And I'm annoyed when I feel like that's the case even within their own organization. It's a disservice to both the girls and their fans.

Ah, as for the B-sides... they're both just kind of ridiculous. I understand that "DOKI DOKI" is meant to be cute, and again at the risk of sounding like a guy without any sense of humor, I just don't think this is really where they are right now musically. Their voices have both matured from those early years when a song like this might have been a better fit. It comes off sounding more like children's music than kitsch, which is probably more what it would have sounded like 10 years ago (think "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N").

The remix of "My Story" really doesn't even bear much mention. This is one of those "remixes" where it's like the instrumentals were written for a completely different song, then put together with a melody in hopes of achieving a "you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!" moment. Didn't happen here.

The PV for Hiyori Hime once more - love the video, but judge for yourself about the song.

Track listing:
1. Kuchibiru Motion
2. Hataraku Otoko
3. Jet Police
4. Asia no Junshin

This is more like it. I'm still addicted to PUFFY live. Honestly, I was never a bigger fan of theirs than I was right after seeing them in person in 2005. (And the longer they stay away, the more I unfortunately forget that feeling.) Their records, while usually really good, just can't compare to their live performances. On stage is where they belong. They are performers.

This is volume 3 of the 2007 show at Shibuya AX, the previous two of course being included with the "All Because of You" and "My Story" limited edition singles. The four songs they perform are not really my favorites - two newish ones that I'm not a huge fan of on the CD's, including one cover, and two old songs that are necessary staples of any of their concerts but which I've just seen countless times already. Still, I can't help but crack a smile as soon as they launch into "Kuchibiru Motion", and it doesn't leave my face until the end of the encore.

As I mentioned, "Kuchibiru Motion" is actually more than passable live. I like it. The heavier guitars make all the difference. "Hataraku Otoko" also sounds better here than I've ever heard them sing it. This is one of those songs where I've suspected auto-tune use on the studio recording, because they can never quite hold those notes in the chorus properly when singing it live. But they do here.

"Jet Police" is of course always their opportunity to switch sides and give the audience a tiny bit of solo love at their shows. It's always fun to watch, and especially here as they bump into each other.

And as is customary now, they close the show with "Asia no Junshin" (while wearing their tour shirts), which they've performed so many times over the years now that it's down to a science. When I saw them in 2005, the entire building was jumping during the chorus of this song, even without much of the audience knowing its history in PUFFY lore. I can only imagine what it must be like being in a Japanese crowd.

I'll say one thing too: their band on this tour absolutely rocks. It was a new band for them, and not a permanent one, but these guys are balls out. I'm not sure anymore who they played with on the "All Because of Live" tour in 2008, but this is honestly no step down from the band they had through most of their history, and I hope they play with them again.

I do hope we get the gaps filled in at some point and get the other songs we're missing from this show on another DVD (list at that link). Even if they released it as a separate purchase, I'd buy the whole thing again.

Final grades:

Music: C+
Performance: B
Production: D

Music: B+
Performance: A
Production: A


  1. I haven't received my copy yet, so I can't comment on the single...
    But I've found the song really good

    Almost all PUFFY songs sound much better and exciting live than in studio, especially the older songs

    When I watched some live performances of theirs for the first time, for me the studio version of those songs seemed just dumb compared to the live ones XD

  2. Thanks for the review, Jeff. I still don't have my copy... although I ordered it in December, I've kept adding to the original order each time something new was announced (rather than make up a new order). EVENTUALLY I'll be glad I saved some shipping, but right now... Anyway, I can't comment on the single, but I've been anxious to hear others' views. (Btw, I should mention that that order now also includes Meiji Chelsea no Uta, which seemed to be out of print when someone here recommended it as containing "60 seconds of PUFFY sweetness in a commercial jingle". It's available again.)

    Maybe Puffy should put their raw tracks out on the Web and have a contest to see who comes up with the best mix. Didn't they solicit fans for remixes at one point? One of the PRMX discs, I think... And they asked for input on
    the Hit & Fun song selection. I'm starting to think Sony could use some help here. (Actually, most music mixed for iPods sounds bad to me these days, but I take it your criticism goes beyond that.)

    Doki Doki... I knew it would be hard to extrapolate from the brief excerpt heard in the MOW ice cream commercials, but I wasn't expecting Freddy Cannon's Palisades Park. Cute, but I think I was hearing something with a little more bite.

    What I'm really fired up about right now, though, is the live performances on those three bonus DVDs. I'd managed to see a couple of the earliest ones on YouTube, but they're all now -- however briefly -- public, and I'm completely knocked out. This IS a terrific band. (Has anyone besides Puffy so consistently fronted a twin guitar attack over the past decade?)

    This is easily my favorite Circuit no Musume (out of several good ones), but everything is great here. As you say, Jet Keisatsu is always fun (the guitarists' circling dance is an unexpected highlight), although I think my favorite is still the one on the Fever*Fever DVD. Ami is just completely nuts on that version (let me rephrase that... she seems to be enjoying herself to an unusually large degree).

    Didn't think another Asia no Junshin was really needed by now, but this is a very good one. I'd always thought, btw, that it was the changing hairstyles that made Ami and Yumi look so different from one appearance to the next, so I was surprised when they merely switched into their tour shirts for this song. Does Ami, in particular, suddenly look a lot more like a younger version of herself? Maybe I'm just seeing things...

    Good luck with the store!

  3. I would love it if they'd put their raw files out there, though I don't know what that would look like. I'd take a stab at it if the files were in a format that could be read by one of the apps I have. But I think that would be a pretty advanced "contest". I don't remember the remix thing you mention, although if I were doing a contest like that for the general public, I probably wouldn't just dump the raw unmixed files out there but would instead take some snippets of the various tracks and put them out for rearranging. It would just be more user-friendly. I've never heard of a band really putting their raw files out, although maybe Radiohead or somebody like that has. (They're about the only band I could see doing it.)

    I should make it clear that it's not like I listened to this song and immediately said "what a terrible mix!" It's subconscious at first; I just didn't much like the song and I was trying to figure out why. It sounds like a Shiina Ringo song, which should be a good thing. It's not particularly melodic but it's still catchy - it still runs through my head (no matter how hard I try to get it out). But I just didn't like it. And I eventually decided it must be the way the song *sounds*, as opposed to the song itself.

    I saw that the live videos are up for now, although I didn't link to them purposely because a) they will be taken down soon (they've been up before, for short periods), and b) as long as the limited CD/DVD is still on sale, I want to encourage people to see the videos that way. I have no problem with people searching for the videos and finding them if somebody else puts them up on YouTube, I just don't want to actively encourage it in public. I'd rather encourage buying the DVD. (I know you did and are just waiting, but not everybody has.) Better quality anyway.

    If they're still up when the limited CD/DVD is sold out, then I'll probably link to one or more of them (as I did with Kimi to O-tobai after ABOY was sold out, which I thought was pretty amazing live).

  4. Oh! This remix contest was for PRMX Turbo, and the winner remix was "Love So Pure (djcomp & one string perc mix)"

    But I can't see PUFFY put out raw files for people to remix them...

  5. I too have had multiple listening sessions for Hiyori Hime and it probably would be a great song... for someone else. Maybe Shiina Ringo, though I am not a big fan of her material. It really is missing quality guitar work...

    Though I am not a big fan of the drumming either... it feels muted. To me there is one drummer for them and that is Takashi Furuta

    Vocals, Ami and Yumi come off sounding a little to nasal-y... This can work for some singers (liz Phair for example...) But not them. Or it was mixed a little too high.

    I would rate the single:
    Music: C
    Performance: C-
    Production: D

    I have not watched the DVD yet, but I liked Kuchibiru Motion quite a bit on the original album, I could see where some might not, but to me it seemed right. Now more rocking... well that is never bad?

  6. If you look at what their albums have sold, it has been a long slide... I can not blame them or Sony for maybe making a move to a single with broad appeal... but this is not a homerun shot.

    Anyone have any idea what the Japanese critics are saying?

  7. It's not only been a long slide, it's been a sharp one. According the the sales numbers Jeff posted a while ago, if you go back to Asia no Junshin and Kore ga Watashi no Ikirumichi, every PAIR of singles after that sold about half of what the preceding pair had - and this geometrical progression continued for about ten years! That's a spectacular dropoff. And the albums followed a similar curve.

    I don't know enough about the realities of the Japanese music business to know what's going on, but I'm very thankful to SOMEONE for continuing to support Puffy while they became better and better at their art. (It pains me to be grateful to Sony, but if I must, so be it.)

    And the fans... yes, buy those Puffy CDs and DVDs! That's the support Ami and Yumi really need and deserve.

  8. "It's not only been a long slide, it's been a sharp one."

    Law of diminishing returns... not to mention an economy that has been in recession for a long, long time.

    Ultimately music is a business, they are still with Sony because they ultimately make Sony money. But this slide certainly makes me wonder where that monetary Mendoza line is for them.

  9. They don't survive strictly by their music these days, though. It's been interesting watching them morph from raw but charismatic kids into legitimate and somewhat counterculture musicians and now into more general mainstream celebrities. I'm not completely happy about their latest direction but I guess they're doing whatever it takes to survive in the entertainment business. Their music sometimes seems like an afterthought these days, something they do to justify their existence in all the ads and other things they do to actually make money.

    But you can see all the areas where their budget has been cut even over the past few years. Basically zero US promotion anymore, they seem to have totally given up on that. Smaller Japanese tours, and less frequent too. More entries into multi-band events and festivals - fewer of their own shows. Less frequent full-length original albums - a lot more recycled material. A heavier reliance on singles.

    There's probably no point at which they wouldn't be profitable, it's just a question of constantly adjusting so their organization is the right size and they're doing the right things to make money.

    I just wish the "right things" still included putting out more original music working with regular producers, and touring more outside of Japan.

  10. Generally speaking Asia celebrities work a lot harder than their counter parts. Be it relentless self marketing or simply bringing in more direct money. It indeed has been great to see Ami and Yumi branching out... really since the beginning. Their breadth of work is impressive, if not maybe what we fans always want.

    My opinion on singles is I think the music industry as a whole might shift that way... the web has enabled music to really be released alacarte. While I prefer albums, being reliant on singles is not bad thing it keeps the gears of the Puffy machine lubricated with cash.

    I agree there probably is no point where they will go away unless Puffy wants that. They have been around this long in an industry that routinely chews up and spits out talent.

    But the right things... I could not agree more. It is a shame that they have given up on the US market. It seems like when they made their push here was when they were starting to slide in Japan. About the time Spike was released... I suppose.

    Anyways this latest release seems more like a stop gap album... lets hope the next real album will be great. FWIW Honeycreeper and Splurge are in my top 5... so their later material I think has been great.