Friday, August 14, 2009

Album Review: Bring it!


Puffy’s first album in nearly two years, Bring it! mostly delivers an album I like… but as Jeff reviewed previously it is an album that I have to put a few qualifications and come to some similar conclusions, albeit via a different route.

Overall Bring it! is definitely structured more as a pop album (re a mishmash of musical stylings, ergo pop as in popular) rather than leaning towards rock which I would categorize honeycreeper and Splurge without hesitation.

While structured like earlier Puffy albums and after listening to Bring it! I am not convinced that Puffy can (or should) snap back to 1999. There are a lot of reasons for this, be it simply their voices changing over the years, song selection, change of musical support or simply whatever Ami and Yumi are interested in doing musically is now different.

One serious absence is any song by Tamio Okuda, whom I think writes the best Puffy songs and more importantly his songs get the best out of Ami and Yumi as performers. The synergy between the three is remarkable and only one song on Bring it! matches that kind of synergy.


For reference, here is the track list for Bring it! (also please note my Japanese is awful as I am not a speaker of the language, so generally speaking I judge lyrics often by sound and feel…)

1. I Don't Wanna (Lyrics & Music: Butch Walker & Avril Lavigne)
2. My Story (Lyrics: PUFFY Music: Anders Hellgren & David Myhr)
3. Bye Bye (Lyrics & Music: Masahiko Shimura)
4. My Hero! (Lyrics & Music: Roger Joseph Manning Jr.)
5. Shuen no Onna (Lyrics & Music: Sheena Ringo)
6. DOKI DOKI (Lyrics & Music: Masahiko Shimura)
7. Twilight Shooting Star! (Lyrics & Music: Sawao Yamanaka)
8. Hare Onna (Lyrics & Music: Kazuyoshi Saito)
9. All Because Of You (Lyrics & Music: Butch Walker & Avril Lavigne)
10. Anata to Watashi (Lyrics: PUFFY Music: Yuta Saito)
11. Hiyori Hime (Lyrics & Music: Sheena Ringo)
12. Bring it on (Lyrics: Ami Onuki  Music: Takeshi Hosomi)
13. Wedding Bell (Lyrics & Music: Yoshiaki Furuta)

My Story is flat out the best song on Bring it! and I cannot get enough of it. Ami and Yumi both deliver on the vocals and the instruments and engineering are tight. If there is one song that will survive the binges and purges of my mp3 rotation, this is the one. In some ways My Story captures the singing style of Puffy that I enjoy, when they harmonize and sing together. It may not sound like anything from Fever Fever, but it feels like it and more importantly brings it. (pardon the pun)

Of the two offerings by Butch Walker and Avril Lavinge, I Don’t Wanna is the better of the two. It is listenable but I would not call it a great song. All Because Of You on the other hand is really, really not a good song. I find it painful and soul crushing to listen to. From a Japanese perspective there are probably good reasons why a couple tracks credited to Avril Levinge would have popular and marketing appeal for Bring it!, but as an American music fan it makes me shake my head in disappointment. That said, my niece in Singapore loves Avril Lavigne and maybe I am being a grumpy old man telling Lavigne to get off my musical lawn…

The pair of songs by Sheena Ringo (however she chooses to spell it) Shuen no Onna and Hiyori Hime are decidedly better than the Walker and Levigne offerings. Shuen no Onna, to me, has a jazz and fifties vibe to it that I find pleasant and a nice change of pace song. Hiyori Hime is a song that took a while for me to enjoy, but to my surprise I have come to feel that way about it. I think there is still something missing and a it is a bit sloppy in the instruments, specifically the drumming and guitar work and the keyboards are a touch overwrought. Yet Hiyori Hime has a great flow to it with some very good up and down tempos. Jeff is spot on in that this probably is more Puffy performing a Sheena Ringo song rather than Sheena Ringo writing a Puffy song.

A song that feels out of place is Anata to Watashi and looking at the contributing artists for instruments… I have to wonder if this is a song that Puffy needed to clear off the shelves and fill out Bring it!... either way it is a bad song and mimics a sound by Puffy that is not amongst my favorites to begin with.

Wedding Bell was song that surprised me on Bring it!. After listening to the original I was concerned that this was not going to be a cover by Puffy I would particularly enjoy. I was wrong. As Jeff noted in his review, it does have a snap back to 1999 feel and an effortless one at that. Tempo wise, it would not have been a song that would have leapt out at me under most circumstances, but for whatever reason Wedding Bell works for me.

Boiling down the rest of Bring it!... My Hero is a decent but it is not a distinguishing effort. Twilight Shooting Star is a song I liked well enough, but I think the singing effort comes off a bit more rough than I would have liked. Doki Doki is another song that probably slides under the radar for many listeners it is a mish-mash sort of effort that I could see people not liking but to me it is different and sometimes I like an offbeat song. Bring it on is another mish-mash song with pop, rock and punk influences that I think is a fun listen but it does not exactly stick in my brain either. Hare Onna also has a snap back feel, but it is a song that feel is unpolished and incomplete, particularly in the chorus which to me is very muddled.

The cover for Bring it!, is not one I especially care for. I can see what the idea was, but I generally do not like heavily altered pictures... they creep me out. I am not sure what cover might have tied the album together, but this is not it. My wife’s comment after looking at the cover and flipping through the liner notes was they are trying too hard to look young. So far as the liner notes go, they had the usual information with imagery I did not care for.

Bring it! is an album that is listenable and on the balance I enjoyed it, but it is not a distinctive effort by Ami and Yumi either. Ami and Yumi both sing well on the album regardless of the song, but behind them the effort seems mixed. There might be a reason for that, but that is another blog.

For fans of Puffy, Bring it! is worth picking up, but it is not an album by I would suggest someone new to Ami and Yumi start with either. There are some very good songs on the album, and regardless of there being a few subpar tracks that cause that split distinction.


Final Grades

Music: B-
Production: C
Performance: B-

As a note, I will review the bonus concert DVD separately as I have not had a chance to watch it beyond a cursory viewing.


24 comments:

  1. Yeah, everybody agrees with the synergy between Puffy and Okuda. Puffy's success owes him a lot. With Bring it! I feel the momentum got lost forever which had been still alive with Splurge. Instead, it seems like they are trying to boost CD sales just by using big names such as Ringo Shiina, Butch Walker and Avril Lavigne, and famous old song " Wedding Bell ".

    From the Japanese point of view, Shiina's " Shuen no Onna and Hiyori Hime " are hardly better than the Walker and Lavigne offerings. I am disappointed in the similar way like yours with those songs. But I don't find " All Because Of You " that bad (The lyrics are mess, though.) and I like " I Don't Wanna ".

    " My Hero " and " Doki Doki " are probably a few I may like of other songs. From the first listening I didn't like " My Story ". One reason is because I understand its cheap lyrics and it all sounds so bad to me. As for the DVD, they are quite enjoyable and only make Bring it! worth buying.

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  2. Boosting album sales is not a bad thing, that is their job. :) But yeah I do know what you mean.

    I did track down some Shiina Ringo songs in an effort to see what the big deal about her was... they were not my cup of tea, but plugging Puffy into her songs worked well enough for me.

    I was doing some thinking while driving around yesterday and it hit me the American they need to combine with is Dick Valentine of Electric Six. Pretty much nobody does songs that are about nothing better and liek Okuda he has an appreciation of music that is many fold. Pipedream to be sure but it seemed like nifty idea at the time.

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  3. As per Okuda and Puffy, it was an obvious sort of comment... but his absence of Bring it! is palpable. Some of this may be due to Unicorn reuniting and other work.

    I would not say Bring it! loses momentum for Puffy so much as it was a side step that might leave fans wondering what is going on with them musically.

    I have a theory on that, but that is a blog for a rainy day. :/

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  4. I don't know if it's just a reflection of how fast time passes when you aren't looking or what, but it's hard for me to remember just how long it's been since Puffy worked closely with Tamio Okuda. He produced their Hit Parade album nearly eight years ago, which seems to have been their last major collaboration. Since then, Okuda's name has only appeared as the author (or co-author) on a handful of new Puffy songs, and several of those were actually covers of old Unicorn recordings, I believe:

    Shiawase
    Mogura-Like
    Sunday In the Park
    Hataraku Otoko
    Oriental Diamond
    Kenkou
    Frontier no Pioneer

    He also produced several of these, along with Can-Nana Fever from the Guitar Wolf tribute.

    I'm not seeing much support for an eventual reunion, much as I'd like to see it happen.

    Still, I have to wonder if the reason Hare Onna and Anata to Watashi appeal to me is less a reflection of their own strengths than the fact that they remind me of Okuda songs. Or is it just a 1960s-1970s vibe?

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  5. Bonsaipark, that would be two handfuls, or more than one... :)

    A good breakdown of Okuda's involvement with Puffy, I do not necessarily think he should be the fulcrum for every Puffy album, but not even having one song on Bring it! was a disappointment... it would be nice to see him keep his hand in the game...

    There might be good reasons for his lack of involvement, he too has a career to think of and sometimes schedules do not mesh (as seen in Def Leppard and Robert Lange over the years), but regardless of circumstance... I don;t like it.

    Andy Sturmer seems to be out... which I have less strong emotions about and will cover in my review of Nice. Whenever I get around to writing it!

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  6. > Bonsaipark, that would be two handfuls, or more than one... :)

    I don't know... I have pretty big hands and can easily hold seven songs at one time. Maybe even eight (but not nine!)

    Anyway, "handful" is intentionally meant to be a little vague. If I'd meant "five", I'd have written "five". LOL

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  7. Tamio Okuda also played guitar and sang backing vocals on "Koi no Etude" (from Splurge), though he didn't write the song.

    I think Bring It! shows the potential problems with the multi-producer forumla Ami and Yumi have been using since Splurge -- a "too many cooks" kind of deal, where things just don't gel quite right. Splurge worked really well in spite of the multi-producer approach (as did honeycreeper, albeit to a slightly lesser degree), but outside of the remix projects and certain compilations, Bring It! strikes me as Puffy's weakest album.

    That's not to say it's horrible -- I can listen to the whole album easily. But it's definitely a weaker effort from Ami and Yumi.

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  8. Anthony: I think there is a greater risk and reward for multi producer albums and you noting Splurge versus Bring it! is a great observation. On Splurge it felt like the direction of the album on a whole was known, where as Bring it! feels somewhat thrown together.

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  10. I think the variety guarantees that Bring It! will remain enjoyable, but it worries me more and more that there's really nothing on the album that I'd like to see Puffy follow up on next time. I don't want to suggest that it's a dead end, but it certainly is a curious album, suffering just a bit from multiple personality disorder or something.

    Maybe it's all of the producers, as Anthony and Wes suggest, but it seems to me that Ami and Yumi really need to find a direction that fires them up again. Apparently they don't have as much control over things as they deserve to at this stage of their career, but maybe they could do more writing together (especially if Tamio Okuda remains out of the picture). The two songs here that Ami and Yumi wrote together include Wes's favorite and one of my top two. That's a hopeful sign.

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  11. They wrote the lyrics to those songs, not the music. I have it on pretty good authority that their contract actually does not allow them to write music. Obviously there have been exceptions, but not many. And the Spike era was kind of experimental in a lot of ways - I don't think they've done it since then.

    This is probably why Yumi has CQA, although she obviously doesn't have a lot of time to put into it. But she seems to need some kind of other outlet. I don't see why she'd need a side band if she felt she could really express herself through Puffy.

    If anything, since I wrote my review I actually like Bring It! less. There's just something about it that's not quite right, even beyond some of the individual songs I don't like. I'm sure I've listened to it less than any other Puffy album, including 59. There's just nothing that's really grabbed me, except maybe "I don't wanna", but that doesn't really sound like Puffy to me. (It didn't help that most of the songs I do really like, I'd already heard a bunch of times on the singles.)

    I do think they've probably taken this current model as far as they can go. In fact I think they'd probably done that three years ago - I think the multi-producer thing was good for a one-off album and that's it. I agree they need to get themselves latched onto a producer who's interested in doing the kind of stuff they're interested in doing.

    I've always wished they had more freedom, as I think they are a lot more talented than given credit for (maybe not in technical singing ability, but in songwriting, in taste, in authenticity, etc.). But they are still basically just cogs in a big industry machine. Maybe some of that is even them, I don't know; maybe they don't care, they just want the money. It's hard to really know at this point.

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  12. Probably the most realistic problem for Puffy is that their loyal fanbase hasn't been sufficiently big enough. In general, each top artist in Japan has at least 100,000 fans who buy any single CD, DVD, book,etc available. I guess Puffy have at most just 4000 loyal fans according to CD sales. Therefore their activities are likely to be forced to focus on songs tie-in (like Naruto theme song), TV AD (like Doki Doki), J-Drama theme song (like Wedding bell ) to finance themselves. Actually Ami and Yumi have more exposures as TV personalities or TV commercials than as singers, which however is their strength as well. And that has possibly resulted in that their last three albums (including a cover album) have characteristics of random collection of tie-in songs and singles cut.

    Of course it's better when a single person (Okuda or someone) produces Puffy who takes good consideration of them( like their limited technical singing ability). Puffy have their own loose music style and it's obvious not every pop song fits in them. One thing which surprises us in Japan is that Ami and Yumi still have a kind of " We happened to have become Pop Duo Puffy singers " attitude. I'm sure they think they could become different professions for some good reason. For example, Ami can be an illustrator and Yumi an actress. Apparently it seems like they can't be very serious for self-produce of their own music even if they have more freedom.

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  13. I agree that a single producer who knows Puffy's style would be best, but who would they get? I think we'll be getting albums-by-committee for at least the foreseeable future.

    It would be nice for them to take a more active role in their music again (even the earliest records had Ami and Yumi contributing at least a tiny bit instrumentally, in addition to their lyrics), but for whatever reason they've lost interest in doing so lately.

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  14. I think it is an interesting point that technical singing has been brought, I am not sure it really means that much. Look at American Idol, that show is jammed packed with singers that are good technically (well good at singing Whitney Houston songs at any rate) but how many of these singers are good singers?

    I think technical skill is probably over rated in music. To me it is an issue of applying the talents someone has into music that agrees with that talent... and that might be some of what I see with Bring it! now that I think of it. Also it really explains why Puffy has had a great career too...

    Jeff may be spot on to Ami and Yumi being constrained by Sony, recording contracts are every bit of a golden cage at times... but in their case they probably need the resources as a lot of that work they may not be able to do themselves.

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  15. tofuunion, I think Ami od Yumi are talented and experienced enough at this point that they probably could be fair solo artists... I think the issue might be that they do not have the skill sets to fully self produce, but as Jeff said they may not contractually have a choice either...

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  16. I think they could easily self produce, but they may not want to. One thing that always drives me crazy about Japanese artists is that they never actually reveal their feelings about anything. They may talk a lot or write a lot, but what they actually say is usually really superficial. American artists, by contrast, always seem to have their hearts on their sleeves. If they're unhappy about something, they say so. If they don't want to do something, they say so. If they don't like their record label, they say so. Doesn't happen in Japan.

    So I can't really tell if they actually feel constrained or not. I just feel like they have talent and a lot of it's being wasted. Whose choice that really is at this point I don't know.

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  17. And not only talent, but they have a lot of experience now too - more than a lot of actual producers!

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  18. Amen Jeff! There is a big question mark when it comes to skills, desire or circumstance. But how that is impacting the quality of albums especially after Bring it! is being telegraphed.

    I think there is success or at least a career to be had, look at Shonen Knife... Naoko pretty much does it all...

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  19. This talk of Ami and Yumi possibly striking out on their own is reminding me of when The Monkees did the exact same thing.

    The four of them were being awarded gold records from Don Kirshner (their music supervisor) and his lawyer. At the meeting, Mike Nesmith demanded the Monkees be able to perform and produce their own music (as is well known, the Monkees didn't do much beyond sing on their first two records). Kirshner's lawyer took out Nesmith's contract and told him he had to adhere to it -- Nesmith responded by putting his fist through a plaster wall and saying "Well, that could have been your face." Kirshner was quickly fired from his position, and the Monkees were in the recording studio making their own record within weeks.

    Somehow, though, I can't see Ami or Yumi doing that with their Sony overlords...

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  20. Wes: It definitely is amazing how Naoko pretty much keeps Shonen Knife going (especially now that Atsuko and Michie are no longer in the group). Not only does she write and produce everything, but I believe her husband is the band's manager, and they put out all their records through their own company (well, licensed through an independent distributor).

    I'm not sure if I can see Ami or Yumi doing that, though. Like has been brought up by you and Jeff, we don't really know what their feelings are on the matter.

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  21. anthony, I had the privilege to meet Naoko and Atsuko very briefly at a meet and greet when they played in Denver about a year and a half ago. A couple things surprised me, first Naoko is not the shortest person in Shonen Knife. :)

    I was bowled over how really nice they were.

    Also they put on one humdinger of a show... I regret and not regret forgetting about ear plugs. They figuratively pealed paint off the walls.

    Shonen Knife keeps plaugging along courtesy of Naoko's many, many talents... and drive. She has a skill set other musicians on either side of the pacrim could take notes from. Atsuko was a really good drummer in her own right (maybe more precise than passionate) and I was disappointed to see her shift to bass. To me, Michie was the heart of the band and while I still deeply enjoy Shonen Knife Noako could never quite fill in the hole Michie left with her bowing out.

    Sorry about the tangeancy and blog within a blog folks!

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  22. Wes: At the risk of incurring Jeff's wrath, I agree with you about Shonen Knife. Michie brought a pop sensibility to the band that Naoko sometimes lacks (that's not to say she can't write great pop songs, but more often her songs have more of a heavy rock/punk feel than Michie's did). I think Atsuko developed into a very good drummer (and bass player, though I think Michie is a fabulous bassist and doesn't get enough credit for that). It's a pipe dream of mine that Ritsuko, the new bassist, will write some songs for SK in the future, because she has a very poppy songwriting style as well (she was the primary songwriter in her old band, Denki Candy).

    I saw Shonen Knife on their 2007 tour as well, and got to speak with Naoko and Atsuko (and Etsuko as well, but she doesn't speak English, so it's probably more correct to say I spoke AT Etsuko). They all signed my "Genki Shock!" CD and chatted for a minute (Naoko thought she recognized me from the previous night's concert). They were definitely very cordial and awesome -- I'm hoping to see them when they come back in October. Hopefully I'll get a similar spot by the stage -- last time, I was literally up against the stage, but the guy next to me took Atsuko's set list before I could!

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  23. Wes and Anthony: ditto on SK minus Michie. Their albums have gradually become rather one-dimensional without Michie's pop sensibilities (although the live CD shows they can still play the early material very well indeed). I love Naoko, but I think she may be making a mistake in keeping the name "Shonen Knife" going (Roger McGuinn has often said he regrets keeping The Byrds name alive, with only himself as an original member).

    After suggesting that Ami and Yumi get more involved in songwriting, I have to back off and say that I don't think self-producing is the answer. There are more cases where a radical change in producers has worked magic for a singer or group musician. Someone who can respect the uniqueness of the artist but bring a new and unexpected dimension from their own experience (one favorite example is Emmylou Harris's work with Daniel Lanois, if anyone here is familiar with the Wrecking Ball album). Resurrecting the Jet or Fever*Fever era Puffy probably isn't an option, but what if there was someone who could reveal a Puffy that no one had even suspected was there?

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  24. wes, It's actually not what I think Ami and Yumi aren't talented nor experienced enough to be solo artists. That's pretty much what Ami and Yumi occasionally spoke about themselves in their Vlog or in Interviews : At the early stage of their career they were told again and again as trainees by their musical mentor Tamio Okuda, " Do not think, as you are amateurs. Obey only what I order." or " Try again. You didn't reached the professional level." etc... As the result Puffy say they never would trust their musical ability to date, no matter how much the other people or fans praised them. I don't know if it's true or a kind of joke. But it's probably most likely the way they feel and it can explain why they often appear less passionate.

    And I understand the question is not about their vocal skill, but the selection and the arrangement of the song they are going to perform, which has much to do with the producing matter. We know there are lots of singers who have strong vocals and don't sell at all.

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