Saturday, March 26, 2011

Album Review: Thank You

First impressions are key to any album and opening up with Country Road sets a tone and feel for Thank You that I cannot shake off. So much so I have listened though the album a dozen times, which for a Puffy album has not happened, for me, since honeycreeper.

Between the two singles released to support Thank You and the associated b-sides, slightly over a third of the album is material we have listened to. Par for the course with Puffy and j-pop as a whole. One thing that had been worming its way in my brain is that there are some similarities in sound between all six songs that were heard previously. When I read the liner notes from Thank You, lo and behold Michael S. Kawai produced the entire album. Puffy keeps production in house (so to speak) as Kawai was a percussionist on Jet, which is an effort most of us point to as one of Puffy greatest.

A single producer, maybe, explains why Dareka Ga was left off of Thank You, it had nothing to do with the effort and I think would have been out of place. Both Jeff and I previously have made comments about Puffy going the multi producer route in recent years. For Splurge the effect was astounding and also to a slightly lesser degree with honeycreeper. Bring it! was a very pedestrian effort by Puffy standards… so it was great to see an entire album helmed by one producer. Double so as I like all the songs for Thank You that I had heard over the course of the singles.

Kawai uses very definite and big layers in Thank You, guitars keyboards, bass and drums all feel very defined and shift like a chunky mosaic. For the most part this works really well and comes together nicely… Then there is Wake Up, Make Up. However one awful song does not make an album. Kawai keeps Ami and Yumi in tune and quite frankly makes them sound like… well Puffy. Though out the album are odd starts and breaks, most of the time these work just fine, the keyboards on Jet Love are a good example of this use of pacing.

Also of note there are no solo tracks by either Ami or Yumi on Thank You. I think this works, as very often these are the weakest tracks on their albums and their singing is the definition of the whole being more than the parts. One thing that is apparent to me is that Ami and Yumi share the load throughout the album, but at times it sounds like Ami is emulating Yumi’s style (as noticeable in solo parts of R.G.W.). Puffy has not sounded this vocally strong and cohesive in the nearly ten years since Sturmer produced Nice.

Ami and Yumi take a much more predominant role for lyrics in Thank You. Ami pens five tracks, though one is a shared effort. Yumi wrote four tracks. As the Puffy amalgam they contributed to one with Tamio Okuda and penned the lyrics on one entirely themselves. While there might be contractual as well as experience issues writing the music, it is nice to see an album largely written by Ami and Yumi. Tamio Okuda wrote one song (My Country Road) and worked with Puffy on another (R.G.W). The former sounds less like a Tamio song than the former, but both are great songs and he is an essential component of any Puffy album.

I bought the deluxe version of Thank You with the bonus DVD (which I have not watched yet). The jewel case is in a photo frame cardboard slip, which as you can see above is gilded and it does stand out. The insides have well executed studio shots of Ami and Yumi in the same sort of style as the cover photo. The liner notes and track information is detailed. Over all nice packaging, especially as compared to the blinding colors from the Bring it! album.

Track List:
1. My Country Road (lyrics & music: Tamio Okuda)
2. Jet Love (lyrics: Yumi Yoshimura music: Shigeo Naka)
3. R.G.W. (lyrics: Tamio Okuda & Puffy music: Tamio Okuda)
4. Hoshi Girl (lyrics: Yumi Yoshimura music: COOZi)
5. Wake Up. Make Up. (lyrics: Ami Onuki, Makoto Koshima & Yousuke Matsumoto music: Masaaki Asada)
6. Haru no Uta (lyrics: Ami Onuki music: Linus of Hollywood & Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.)
7. Koi no Yamaarashi (lyrics: Ami Onuki music: Taka Aoki)
8. Ai no Odyssey (lyrics: Yumi Yoshimura music: Shunsuke Watanabe)
9. Banzai! (lyrics: Yumi Yoshimura music: Yusuke Fujita)
10. Fish On (lyrics: Ami Onuki music: Hiroharu Kinoshita)
11. NO! (lyrics: Ami Onuki music: Makoto Ogata)
12. Yokubou (lyrics: Ami Onuki music: Yusuke Fujita)
13. Happy Birthday (lyrics: Puffy music: David Myhr & Peter Kvint)

My Country Road, penned by Tamio opens up Thank You and the album’s sound is definitely set. Kawai nearly nails the production of the song perfectly, though I would say the harmonicas might come in a bit too strong in the front half. To me it does not sound much like a typical Tamio song, but like virtually every collaboration with Puffy he does, I do like it. Puffy haev not sung this fine in a while and it is largely an entire album of that goodness to follow.

The first ten seconds of Jet Love hooked me and in a totally good way pulled me into the rest of the song. Stylistically Jet Love is all over the map, I hear 50’s beach rock, 60’s girl group and late 70’s rock. It is a fun sounding song and Puffy is a duo that not only needs happy, sometimes silly music… it is what makes them Puffy. As I will discuss later, Jet Love feels like an extension of the sound Puffy cultivated in the late 90’s and detoured around many albums in the process.

Jet Love I think is a very cohesive in effort regards singing, instruments and production. The sound comes closest to a 60's beach movie, but interspersed in the chorus is a tinge that I can only compare to the 1970's UK band The Vapors. Ami and Yumi deliver with Jet Love, but sometimes the instruments feel are tad a touch strong and ever so slightly wash out their singing.

Tamio delivers a rocking song with what I believe are elfin boot stompin rockabilly riffs. The back 40 seconds of the R.G.W. sort of gets a little lost, think padding as opposed to wrapping up a present during holy Christmas time. The lyrics tilt a little to the listing of colors, and listing of stuff has worked better in other songs* (Oriental Diamond or Beginnings come to mind). Also Ami and Yumi's voices feel slightly over processed. End result is I am a tough sell for a holiday song but I liked R.G.W.

Taking a turn to 90's rock, Hoshi Girl is a very listenable track, but I would not call it outstanding. The production of Hoshi Girl is really outstanding, Kawai assembles a very balanced effort. The back up singing might be punched up just a notch too much.

Had I the choice to not talk about Wake Up, Make Up, Wake Up I would. This is easily the worst song that Puffy has ever released and that is counting the much aligned (by others) Sunrise. It is an inorganic morass of autotuned vocals and largely synthesized instruments melded together with ham handed production. Wake Up, Make Up makes All Because of You look brilliant by comparison. It is still better than anything by The Black Eye’d Peas, from which it gets virtually all its inspiration, but unlike any member of the later, Ami and Yumi can sing. All the more sinful that they used an autotuner to do it. Added on top of this it took three people to pen the lyrics, but then again that was the least of problems for Wake Up, Make Up.

Tilting heavily to an easy listening style with a country tinge, Haru no Uta is not an outstanding track. It is delivered well, but it doesn't have any sort of hook to make me seek out the track. I don't skip over it, so my feelings are largely benevolent.

I appreciated the heavy 70's guitar sound in Koi no Yamaarashi but I felt there were some issues in regards to instruments either being over powered or too quiet. There is a weird hiccup or change of pace at the three minute mark, not certain what Kawai was trying to do. It is almost like the song was short so they bolted on an extra minute which was also a slight issue of mine for the R.G.W. track. Cristicisms aside I do really like this track.

I can almost smell the hairspray from the 80’s hair metal homage that is Ai no Odyssey. I will say it generally tilts to that genre towards a sound I was not all that fond of then, but revamped by Puffy I find it to be a reasonable track. Some of Kawai’s engineering gaffs hit here, particularly the keyboard (or sample) effect that permeates the track. Sometimes his laying of sound feels too thick and awkward and this does detract slightly from Ai no Odyssey, it is not a track on Thank You I am overwhelmed by (it is still miles better than Wake Up, Make Up).

Banzai! is sort of a honky-tonk come do wop come poppy ditty. It is a fun song and one of those tracks where Puffy being all over the place stylistically works so well.

I cannot put my thumb on what Fish On sounds like, but it is a really well sung effort by Ami and Yumi and catchy. Japanese fans likely heard more as it was in the film Greedy Planet, but it was worth the wait from the snippet I (think I) heard.

No! is a song that originates somewhere in the 80’s, but less metal than Ai no Odessey and more straight up rock. Of these two harder songs I prefer this one.

Yokubu to me sort of sounds like Puffy singing like Glay, it is a rocking track and is a song I like quite a bit. The production is slightly more muted and more reflective of the past few albums.

Happy Birthday closes out Thank You and in spectacular fashion. Like My Country Road, where Kawai gets the layers of sound right… the effect is spectacular. Some of this might be due to the songs that Myhr and Kvint of the Merrymakers write and in turn Ami and Yumi deliver a nice sounding set of vocals wrapped in a birthday package of power pop.

What makes Thank You a Puffy album more than anything else is the fact that it touches back to albums like Jet or Fever*Fever in that there is no one style across the album or in most songs for that matter. In songs like Jet Love or Koi no Yamaarashi there are genres mixed together, which is part of Puffy’s charm. Thank You sounds like an extension of what I thought would follow Fever*Fever at some point, I did not count on having so many albums detoured to get to this point as few songs from the album between act as a stepping stone to Thank You.

Ami and Yumi’s vocals throughout are kept, I will not say restrained, but deliver a more mature and professional sound that is a natural extension of their vocal deliveries from the late 1990’s. Yumi’s voice comes through in a lot of songs and she seems to have more emphasis in the harmonies. That said, as I heard in R.G.W. Ami is singing very much like Yumi throughout. The only way to tell at points in Thank You is that Ami can ululate her vocals. Yumi has a distinct sound though, however Ami can sing virtually any way she wants… which adds to the sting of having to use an autotuner in Wake Up, Make Up.

Puffy sings with their current band line-up throughout the album and I think this helps with Thank You's consistent sound. What makes Puffy stand out it they are gracious and give their support band plenty of room to perform and help drive the album. Really good effort by the guys here, I cannot say that enough.

The sound quality of Thank You is clear and generally well executed. Kawai gets a bit heavy handed at times, but most of the time he is moving layers of sound back and forth in ways that please me to no end. Ami and Yumi I think benefitted greatly in their vocal performance as Kawai keeps their singing clear and powerful but overwrought to the point they warble (which is cute too, don’t get me wrong).

Thank You is the Puffy album I have been waiting for... and for longer than I thought.

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

P.S. Puffy topped out at 25th in the Oricon charts which is a disappointment, but Oricon also does not track all sales, just physical cd’s. Looking at Amazon Japan’s metrics it remains in 4th and 11th, so I suspect the Oricon charts do not tell the complete story (as mp3 sales are not included for example)

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