Thursday, December 30, 2010

Album Review: Nice.

There has been a sequence I had in mind when I started my album review project for Amiyumidas. The goal was to work the ends and meet in the middle. Nice and Spike were intended to be my last album reviews... but some things don't go according to plan and it was requested I do a review for Nice.

I am going with the American release of the Nice for this review. This is likely the version readers here are most likely to own... but if you are a completist like me you own both! The key differences are that the Japanese version has Red Swing but does not have Planet Tokyo and includes Brand New Days and Friends. The American version has Urei, Red Swing and the Teen Titans Theme as the bonus tracks. The cover of Nice is an homage to the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono photo from 1969.

My theory is that with the relatively high number English language tracks that Nice was positioned as the album for which Ami and Yumi were to break into the American mainstream. It did not really work out that way, but that isn't a discredit of the album either.

Andy Sturmer produced the entirety of Nice and also credited with the lyrics or music on every track. Tamio Okuda contributes on one track and Ami and Yumi on seven tracks. While I generally feel a little Sturmer goes a long way (but that might be the off kilter 59 mini album affecting me...). When he is on point, Sturmer's collaborations with Puffy are great, but an entire album of helmed by him is worth exploring. Generally speaking Sturmer brings a precision to Nice's production that may never have been seen on previous Puffy albums and he keeps Ami and Yumi in key for the duration. Also of note is that neither Ami or Yumi have solo tracks on the album.

Nice was an album that I listened to a lot as I was still getting into Puffy and my back catalog of them has some holes (my how that has changed...). I maybe over listened to it, which might explain why it is not an album that hits my media player when I crave a full Puffy album. This makes for a great exercise in my Puffy album review project.

Here is the track list for Nice:

1. Planet Tokyo (words & music: Andy Sturmer)
2. Tokyo Nights (lyrics: Pierre Taki / music: Andy Sturmer)
3. Angel Of Love (lyrics: Shoko Suzuki / music: Andy Sturmer)
4. Sayonara (lyrics: YO-KING music: Andy Sturmer)
5. Invisible Tomorrow (lyrics: Puffy / music: Andy Sturmer)
6. Thank You (lyrics: Yumi Yoshimura / music: Andy Sturmer)
7. Long Beach Nightmare (lyrics: Ami Onuki / music: Andy Sturmer)
8. Your Love Is A Drug (words & music: Andy Sturmer)
9. K2G (lyrics: Puffy / music: Andy Sturmer)
10. Shiawase (Happiness) (lyrics: Tamio Okuda / music: Andy Sturmer)
11. Urei (lyrics: Puffy / music: Andy Sturmer)
12. Teen Titans Theme (words & music: Andy Sturmer)
13. Red Swing (lyrics: Puffy / music: Andy Sturmer)

Planet Tokyo is a rocking first track for Nice and sets the tone. It is guitar driven and the keyboards are all but swallowed up. Ami and Yumi deliver vocally. Like most of the tracks on the album, it has a tight production than fans of Puffy might be turned off by, but on the plus side Sturmer makes the girls sing in tune. A side note Australian teen stars Sophie and Kia covered Planet Tokyo (I am convinced that the only difference is the vocal tracks were swapped) and while not as good of a result it is still a fun take and a sign of a good song is if other people can sing it in an entertaining fashion.

Cross fading from Planet Tokyo comes Tokyo Nights, which is a slower rock effort, where guitars swallowed keyboards previously... it is the other way about on this track. It is a good counter balance to the opening track and delivers a thumping good song. Ami and Yumi are a little washed out at points as the instruments at points take the front, which takes a little away from the song.

Angel of Love is a slower poppy song that tilts towards a 60's girl group sound. It is a song that has a feeling of open space. It never quite works for me, it doesn't have a hook to reel me in.

Sayonara is another slower pop/rock track that is really excellently layered and Ami and Yumi's vocals do hook me. Musically it is a balanced effort guitars, drums and keyboards are all great and none particularly take the front... which as that is where Ami and Yumi.

Invisible Tomorrow is my favorite of the iterations of this song. It's music track has been used on two other songs So Long Zero and Friends Forever. Of the three versions this one I like best, but So Long Zero has some merit as it is not a traditionally happy Puffy song. Friends Forever... not so much. Ami and Yumi deliver powerful vocals here and while it is mainly a straight up rock song there are some fun syth laden vocal samples that twist the song in interesting ways.

Tilting towards a standard J-Pop track, Thank You was penned by Yumi. So far as the music goes a=on a compositional level it is nothing special, however the layers of Ami and Yumi's vocals is nifty. The musical arrangement for the song is also noteworthy as a lot of effects and instruments are used. Overall it might be a more interesting than great track.

Ami penned the lyrics for Long Beach Nightmare and it is a poppy and guitar driven, I want to say it has a 60's sound... but I am not entirely sure that is accurate. Unfortunately it is a track that I do not care for, as it tilts to a sappiness that I cannot rectify.

Maybe it is a function of listening to power poppy Your Love Is A Drug a lot when Nice came out... it is not one that has stuck with me over the years. So far as production and music goes it is the best put together track on the album. There are lots and lots of layers and everything feels balanced. I don't feel it is the best sung track on Nice, Ami and Yumi's vocals feel a tad washed out and maybe notch over engineered.

K2G is another guitar heavy track, that to me sounds like it has Caribbean tones, but also is the mix are horns which is a nice change. It is a fun track and one I like... simple as that.

Shiawase is a slower track with an acoustic bent and Tamio Okuda's single contribution to the album. I also think it is one of the better tracks so far as Ami and Yumi's vocal deliveries go. It might be a touch over engineered on the musical side but it is still as pleasant change-of-pace track, yet not one of the better Tamio collaborations with Puffy.

Urei starts off very slow, maybe too slow... it soon reveals itself as a barn-burner of a song. It is a great song by its own right and a fine example of when Sturmer is on point with Puffy the results are fantastic. I think this might be the one time we in the US got something very nice (pun intended) before Japanese fans as it appeared a year later on the Sunrise EP.

Teen Titans Theme... I literally cannot hit the next button fast enough... I guess it is fun, but it feels like it was bolted onto Nice as a marketing move.

Red Swing is the Japanese rendition of Planet Tokyo (or vice versa)... lyrically a different song, but I am glad this was thrown onto the US release of Nice. Of the two versions I think this is the better. Ami and Yumi deliver much tighter vocals and again when a Sturmer song is good... it is really good.

Nice represents the last cohesive album by Puffy as Sturmer produced the entire album. Overall the album is tight though in some ways it feels inorganic as compared to other Puffy albums... Sometimes Ami and Yumi being a nudge off works out better.

An interesting comparison of Nice is to the album Spike, which was Puffy's first true multi-producer album. Neither are my favorite albums but I am uncertain which album I would like more. Nice delivers a steady sound, where Spike offers a diversity of songs. This might also have something to do with Sturmer, amazingly, playing the lion's share of instruments on the album. Sturmer more than earned his duckets on Nice.

The end result is Nice has a lot going for it, I believe it benefited from having a single producer at the helm, but on a track by track basis it probably had too much of Sturmer's direct involvement.

Overall Grades:
Singing: A-
Instrumentation: B
Production: A

h/t to puffyamiyumiworld for track information

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