Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tour! PUFFY! Tour! 10 Final DVD Review

PUFFY obviously have little trouble drawing in American fans to their live shows here. Unfortunately, we've only ever seen a fraction of their music catalog released in the States, and not a single one of their many concert DVD's. That trend looks set to continue with their latest DVD, a live recording of their special May 2006 10th anniversary concert held in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. Consider this, then, a somewhat biased review of the import region 2 DVD release of TOUR! PUFFY! TOUR! 10 FINAL.

A sort of retrospective on their careers to this point, this concert was the culmination of PUFFY's 10th anniversary tour through Japan. It took place at the Hibiya Yagai Ongakudou venue on the exact date that the duo was formed. It's apparently been a long-held dream of theirs to play this particular venue on their 10th anniversary - something they themselves originally gave little chance of happening. Lucky for them and for us as fans, they were proven wrong - dreams do sometimes come true.

I've been fortunate enough to see PUFFY twice in the United States (see my show reports here and here). While they can sometimes be raw and their singing uneven, Ami and Yumi are thoroughly capable of putting on an almost shockingly good live show. Two untrained singers backed by a motley crew of rotating session and tour musicians, they're more likely than not to completely blow away your expectations. There's a lot more substance to PUFFY than many people realize - their music rocks hard in a live setting, and the girls themselves are absolute naturals on stage. Some people were just destined for the limelight.

Yumi's a bit better than Ami at hamming it up for the crowd, but each complements the other in style and both have mastered making that personal connection with the audience.

This DVD showcases a side of PUFFY that American fans rarely see - the spectacle of an arena-style concert. PUFFY's fan base in the USA will only support a small club tour, a less formal style that suits them well and that they've embraced wholeheartedly. They "dress down" for the more intimate American shows, their stage and light setups are quite basic, they talk directly to the audience at various points and even physically (and literally) reach out to them when the mood strikes. In Japan, though, they can still fill large arenas, with giant lighted signs straight out of a KISS stage show and even occasional choreography complete with backup dancers. This all puts a bit more literal and metaphorical distance between them and the audience, but it also brings a level of spit-n-polish to the proceedings that will probably feel new to a lot of American fans.

The DVD begins with Ami and Yumi literally hurled into the air from below the stage. It's surprising and actually kind of scary to watch, but it's an ode to tours past - not the first time they've made such an entrance. It's pouring rain in the outdoor venue, but the arena is still packed - each member of the crowd with his or her own PUFFY-provided clear plastic parka. It's kind of an odd sight - like a uniform required for entry. The stage itself is covered, but open in front - various camera angles are consistently covered by rain, and it's obvious that the girls catch some drops themselves as the night goes on.

They never let it bother them, though, and neither does the audience - it's the original Woodstock all over again, minus the peace signs.

They open with "Tokusuru Karada", appropriately a hard and heavy track from their first album AmiYumi, and a choice that sets the tone for the evening. Ami and Yumi seem nervous at first, almost tentative. Maybe understandable given how special the night is to them. The feeling continues through their second song "Kore ga Watashi no Ikirumichi" ("That's the Way It Is"), another early track that remains one of their most popular. But by the initial beats of the disco-inspired "Electric Beach Fever", they're loosening up, as are the crowd along with them. Now the real fun begins.

The show continues as a mashup of early hit singles ("MOTHER", Ai no Shirushi"), perennial crowd-pleasers ("Jet Police", "Umi Eto") and recent tracks ("Tokyo I'm On My Way", "Hi Hi") before segueing into an actual, honest-to-god medley in the retrospective tradition. To my knowledge, PUFFY has never played a medley on tour before, and I admit it does sound slightly off hearing their songs chopped up, sliced, diced, and minced, then slammed back together in unnatural ways, but then again, these are songs that they otherwise never play at all. When was the last time anyone can recall hearing PUFFY play "Honey" or "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N" (two solo songs) live? It's been a while. Seeing some of these songs performed in a new live set brought a smile to my face, even if they weren't the full compositions.

The post-medley portion of the show reads like a second act, and taken up a few notches - now the backup dancers appear and the choreography kicks in full gear for "Hurricane".

The giant PUFFY sign gets lit up and animated as they push on into "Moguralike", and several members of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra join Ami and Yumi in a lively rendition of "Boogie Woogie No. 5". The regular set closes with "Wild Girls on Circuit", an older song that's been resurrected in recent shows with a harder edge and heavier guitars.

With some close editing, the girls reappear almost immediately for the first set of encores - and they're pretty special. First up is "Tomodachi" ("Friends"), which they sing to a series of photos projected onto the stage screens showing Ami and Yumi together through the years. It's obvious how close they still are. Next is the big spoiler of the evening, as PUFFY's musical mentor Tamio Okuda joins them on stage to one of the biggest ovations of the evening. Looking playfully uncomfortable, he sits down behind the keyboard to help out on the song that started it all, "Ajia no Junshin".

It would have been poetic for the show to close on that note, so it's unclear to me if the second encore was planned or not. In any case, the girls do return again after a clumsy and obvious bit of editing for "Puffy's Rule" - a difficult song to perform live and not one that they ever seem to manage to sing cleanly, but the energy always comes through. The sentiment of the song - that they share everything equally (that is "Puffy's rule") - helps explain their longevity in Japan, so notorious for chewing up and spitting out both pop and rock stars on a revolving basis, and especially female divas. PUFFY are not divas.

Musically, this is probably the best I have ever heard PUFFY in a live setting, either recorded or in person. They sound so good here that I occasionally had to watch their lips to confirm there was no backing track (there wasn't) - almost every song is performed to near perfection, the girls' vocals matching precisely. But there's more to putting on a great show than vocal precision. They weren't this perfect during their August 2005 NYC show and that remains one of the best concerts I've ever seen. While they did seem initially tentative on this DVD, they relaxed as the show progressed, and as always, they maintained their high energy level throughout. I personally still prefer a more intimate setting, but PUFFY connected with the crowd here as well as anyone can in a large arena like this.

Highlights from the show would probably have to be the songs they rarely ever otherwise perform anymore - "MOTHER", "Hurricane" and "Honey" being examples. Tamio Okuda's entrance and performance during "Ajia no Junshin" was another high point that'll please any PUFFY fan. And then there are the little unplanned moments that make any show memorable - like Yumi unexpectedly handing the microphone to Ami during "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N" and Ami flubbing the next line. (The look on Ami's face when Yumi sings the same line back at her is priceless.)

The DVD also includes a backstage documentary of the 10th year tour - culminating with the catapult shot onto the stage in Hibiya - and a funny and interesting interview with a full and probably slightly drunk Ami and Yumi at a Tokyo restaurant. These will be pretty impenetrable to most US fans, but they're still fun anyway.

Yumi's always got a beer in hand. (Ami's favored drink appears to be iced tea.)

At around $50 for the import, the price of entry here is steep. But this is really a must-have for any PUFFY fan, serious or not. Until we have a proper American DVD, this is really about the best introduction to PUFFY live as you'll find, with a set list that reaches deep into their back catalog. Those who have seen them live here will also get to see a different side - a more dressed-up, more polished and more slickly-produced PUFFY show than we'll probably ever have here. You may prefer a more stripped-down persona (as I do), but there's nothing wrong with variety. And PUFFY's genius is in mastering both the genres and conventions of arena rock *and* indie rock - it's all part of the package, and it's all PUFFY.

The DVD itself is widescreen-enhanced (perhaps a first for them) with the exception of the documentary and restaurant scene. As you can probably tell by my screen captures, the live footage is not encoded progressively, although oddly enough the doc and interview are.

For those that are interested, here's the full translated and/or romanized set list:

Tokusuru Karada
Kore ga Watashi no Ikirumichi (That's the Way It Is)
Electric Beach Fever
Tokyo I'm On My Way
Jet Police
Nice Buddy
Ai no Shirushi
Hi Hi
Umi Eto (Into the Beach)

Teen Titans Theme I
Sunday Girls
Yume no Tameni
Puffy no Hey! Mountain
Nehorinahahorina (Neholina)
Puffy de Rumba
Teen Titans Theme II

Hajimari no Uta
Akai Buranko
Boogie Woogie No. 5
Wild Girls on Circuit

Ajia no Junshin
Puffy's Rule

Tour! Puffy! Tour! 10 documentary
Reflections at a Tokyo restaurant

Thursday, July 20, 2006

SPLURGE Album Review

HEY YOU: This post originally appeared on my personal blog, so the context in parts may seem a little unnecessary. Just bear in mind that if anything sounds weird given where you are, this originally was not on a Puffy-dedicated blog.

I'll start by stating the obvious: this is a great rock album. You expected something different?

Now for the details.

Immediate superstars in Japan from their 1996 debut megahit "True Asia", Puffy made sort of an awkward jump across the Pacific in 2001. Initially taking on an indie band persona with their "Rolling Debut Revue" tour and their college-rock heavy albums Spike and An Illustrated History, they later morphed into the kid-friendly cartoon characters of "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi" in the hopes of increasing their overseas audience. It's a move that looks like it may have been a mistake in hindsight. Maybe a result of their split attention between Japan and the US, "Puffy-mania" in their home country has dwindled with time, while US audiences haven't always taken them as seriously as they deserve. With Splurge, they seek to reinvent themselves once again, re-establishing their indie street cred in the States while perhaps forging a new bond with their homegrown fans in Japan.

For the truly uninitiated, Puffy (as they are still known in Japan) are Yumi Yoshimura and Ami Onuki. In 1995, they were two regular twentysomething girls from different parts of Japan answering newspaper ads looking for the next Japanese superstar - it was an improvised twist of marketing genius that would later pair them together. Tamio Okuda, Japanese rock star and all-around musical genius, would serve as their songwriter and mentor for their initial chart forays before slipping back into his own solo career. It was these early albums and corresponding tours that captured so much of the public's attention in Japan - the unique combination of Okuda's Japanese rock and roll compositions combined with the girls' charisma, rawness and unique fashion sense drew a broad audience that gave the entire music industry a serious kick in the pants. It's not too far out of bounds to compare their effect on Japanese pop music to that of Nirvana or the Sex Pistols in the west. They were like nothing anyone had ever seen or heard in that country before.

Now in their thirties, Ami and Yumi have slowly taken more control over their own musical destinies while hedging against the almost inevitable calming of Japanese Puffy-mania. Splurge is a culmination of their ten years making music, an anniversary album combining both Japanese and American compositions from a variety of well-known songwriters and musicians (including Jon Spencer, Dexter Holland, Andy Sturmer, Butch Walker and the return of Tamio Okuda). The US release features more English lyrics than they've ever sung before, some of which were written by Puffy themselves. Stylistically, Splurge is as varied as the names involved would suggest - though Puffy's vocals and harmonies always manage to tie everything together.

Beginning with Butch Walker's "Call Me What You Like (if you like rock and roll)", the album starts off with a rebellious tribute to rock music from the 1970's through today - sampling Def Leppard and the Offspring, and with a riff that pays homage to The Knack's "My Sharona". When the girls sing "we ain't no harajuku girls" in an obvious dig at Gwen Stefani, they're making a statement on both their music and their status as Japanese icons - or at least western stereotypes of the styles they helped create.

Progressing through indie rock, neo-punk, folk-rock and retro 50's and 60's beach rock, about the only genre absent from their usual repertoire is disco. Yes, disco. While ostensibly a rock act, Puffy has always been about fun as much as anything, and some of their most famous and popular songs could have easily sprung from the drum machine of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. "Electric Beach Fever", "Tokyo Nights", and even their original hit "True Asia" were obvious nods to the disco era. Perhaps they've dropped this bit in an effort to court the more serious western crowd, but Splurge is wall-to-wall guitars in one form or another. Don't misunderstand - Puffy's trademark up-tempo party tracks still take a bow in "Nice Buddy", "Beginnings" and "Tokyo I'm On My Way", but there's nary a drum machine to be heard, and synthesized strings are reserved for the 1950's-inspired slow-dance "Missing You Baby".

Highlights are almost too many to mention, but new fans in America will probably immediately take to the aforementioned "Call Me What You Like" as well as the second Butch Walker composition, the powerful cover of Marvelous 3's wail against corporate rock "Radio Tokyo". Both Ami and Yumi have solo songs on this album (something they haven't done in a while), Yumi's "Cameland" being a slow, traditional-sounding Japanese folk song and Ami's "Security Blanket" a punky but heartfelt dedication to her three-year-old daughter (with surprisingly poetic English lyrics written by her). Both are among the best songs this year, let alone on this album, and both show a depth to Puffy that is both new and a little surprising. These aren't college kids anymore - this is a 33-year old new mom and a 31-year old divorcee singing about real life (and death).

Really, though, with the exception of Dexter Holland's "Tokyo I'm On My Way" and Jon Spencer's "Go Baby Power Now" (both of which sound like bad imitations of their composers' real bands as interpreted by the PowerPuff Girls on speed), this album is balls to the wall - as immediately fun, catchy and listenable as any of their past albums, but with more nuance and experience behind the singing and the songwriting. While they may have been musical novices when Puffy was formed, at this stage of their careers, these girls know exactly what they're doing. And if Japan no longer cares, that's their loss. Puffy is everything we've forgotten pop music could be in this country, and if only they could break through here as Nirvana and the Sex Pistols did years before. Our music industry could use another good kick in the pants.

Note: this review refers to the US version of Splurge. The Japanese version is missing the two US bonus tracks but instead includes Puffy's cover of Green Day's "Basket Case". It also includes Japanese-language versions of "Call Me What You Like" (titled "Shall We Dance?") and "Go Baby Power Now", and features a different track order. "Radio Tokyo" leads the Japanese release.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Show report - New York City July 11, 2006

YO YO: This post originally appeared on my other blog Alphabet City, so the context in parts may seem a little unnecessary. Just bear in mind that if anything sounds weird given where you are, this originally was not on a Puffy-dedicated blog.

Whew! Just got back from my second Puffy concert in a year - for anyone who's curious, click here for my previous lengthy report on last year's show at Irving Plaza. Also, for any Japanese speakers, my wife has posted her own short report from this concert (in Japanese) here.

I'll spare you most of the introductions - if you don't know who Puffy is by now, then feel free to read the intro in my previous report (and no, I'm not talking about "P. Diddy" or "Diddy" or "Dumbass" or whatever he's calling himself these days). They're at least a little bit more well-known in the US than they were even a year ago, so a full bio probably isn't necessary at this point.

Tonight's show was part of the River to River Festival in lower Manhattan. This festival began after 9/11/01 to help revitalize lower Manhattan by putting on a series of free concerts and cultural events to bring the visitors back. At that, it's been so successful that it's now in its fifth year. Puffy normally play small clubs in the US - dark, intimate settings that follow the standard club concert script. Lots of standing in line waiting, lots of standing on a hot club floor waiting, lots of suffering through an atrocious opening act, then more waiting, then finally, usually about 2 1/2 hours after the scheduled time, the headliner appears, plays for as long as they want, and the concert finally ends at around midnight or sometime after.

This is also true of most of Puffy's current US tour. Tonight's show was much different, in ways both good and bad. There was honest-to-god seating, for one thing! Take a look at the venue itself:

Like all the shows in this festival, there was no admission charge - which means no ticket stub to save for posterity! We got there a little after 5PM and got in line - and the line quickly grew behind us:

The gates opened a little after 6PM and my wife found us seats while I made a bee-line for the merchandise table, having heard that not only was the US version of their new album Splurge on sale 2 weeks before its street date, but the first 50 were autographed! Having scoped out the scene earlier, I knew exactly where to go, and found myself alone at the table where I easily got my grubby mitts on said autographed musical piece:

(A side note: the US version of this CD differs from its Japanese counterpart in many ways beyond the addition of "AmiYumi" to the artist name. The track listing is different [there is no "Basket Case" on the US release], the track order is different, and a couple of the Japanese songs are sung in English for the US release. Oh, and by the way, this album is incredible - easily ranks among their best, if not at the top of the list.)

Returning to find our seats, I discovered we had made it to the second row. Because there's about a seven foot gap between the front row and the stage at this venue, we were about as close as we were last year at Irving Plaza. There, the stage is close enough to the fans that the artists can reach out and touch them (as both Ami and Yumi did several times), so even though we were about 5 rows deep a year ago, we were no closer in the second row tonight. Still close enough to make out the gathering crows' feet around the eyes of the now-thirtysomething Ami and Yumi!

The show began on time, with no opening act - though there was no buildup of anticipation as at most shows. It was almost anti-climactic when Puffy appeared on stage:

Last year we were on Yumi's side - tonight, we were nearest Ami. Sort of just worked out that way - the front section on Yumi's side was reserved for VIP's, which must have made for a pretty boring show for her.

Because it was still daylight, there was no light show to speak of. As the skies darkened, things got somewhat more interesting and both the band and the crowd got more into it. I will say, though, that neither they nor the crowd ever really reached the frenzied level of Irving Plaza a year ago. No doubt part of it was the venue, as it kept the band at an artificial distance from the crowd (and kept much of the crowd seated, though those of us near the front did stand) and another part was the outdoor setting, which was large and open and not at all intimate. Whatever the reason, though, Puffy never quite made that direct connection with the crowd that they did almost immediately at last year's show.

I didn't have a pen but I made my best effort at memorizing the set list. If I've forgotten anything, please let me know - I do believe this list is complete, though the order may not be quite correct:

MOGURA-LIKE (yes, with the dancing!)


It was a short set, possibly because of the heat (it was really uncomfortable!) but leave a comment if you see them somewhere else and they play the same set. They may just be getting older and toning down their sets a bit - the Irving Plaza show seemed really long by comparison.

UPDATE: I've now confirmed that they cut two songs from the New York show - "Electric Beach Fever" and "Joining a Fan Club". The latter's no big loss, but I would have loved to have seen "Electric Beach Fever" live.

I thought the song selection was also a little strange in some cases - I know in Japan they're celebrating their 10th anniversary and so are playing lots of old stuff, but here I expected more from Splurge and less seemingly random stuff from Hi Hi and Illustrated History. I was pretty shocked (in a good way) to hear "Wild Girls on Circuit" - that song never gets a lot of attention here. I had also expected "Boogie Woogie #5" to be retired long before "Hajimari no Uta", the latter of which they played last year but not this year, even though it's on the album they're supposedly promoting!

Throughout the set, Ami and Yumi did their trademark shtick where they read a bunch of little stories about their recent days that they've written in English on little notepads. It seems obvious that neither one of them is comfortable enough speaking English on-the-fly yet. Their stories are sometimes a little more revealing than you'd probably want them to be, though I guess that's partly why they're popular (especially in Japan) - they really don't care what anybody thinks about them. Tonight, one of Ami's stories was about how she'd developed a rash that needed treatment. Another was about how she once left her fly open on stage (to which Yumi replied that she was laughing at her until she realized hers was open too). Yumi talked about going to a spa and getting a massage (adding in Japanese that she was totally naked).

Overall, it was a fun concert and they played and sang well - though it didn't have quite the energy of last year's show, for a variety of reasons. I appreciated just how freakin' efficient this show was compared to most, but I kinda hope they go back to the club circuit next time they visit NYC.

Musically, Puffy's still at the top of their game - but as they get older, and their social obligations mount as their energy level starts to drop off, you kind of wonder how much longer they're going to keep doing this. I hope it's a long time more, but it's rare for any Japanese musical act to last ten years - and they weren't sure originally that they were even going to last longer than one album!

I actually forgot to get any real photos of the crowd until everybody was leaving. It was a different crowd than last year - fewer kids (both the little kind and the teenagers), more adults, and more Americans. Probably bodes well for their longer-term success here. There were a lot of people there tonight too - I don't know how many people that venue can fit but it was pretty packed, including standing room. Kinda hard to tell from this but you can at least get an idea of the size of the area that was filled up:

I'll close by showing off a couple of the other tschotschkes available at the merchandise table - I didn't get everything (I really was just after the autographed CD) but I did get a shirt, and a "bonus" vinyl folder they were giving out.

T-shirt front emblem - the shirt's black but for this in the upper corner:

Puffy endorses piracy?!

Back of the shirt - I'm not too fond of this, but it was the only actual tour shirt they had (the other was a Splurge shirt, and it was white). Even a bit of bad English at the end (girls, if you need someone to proofread your shirts, I'll be happy to do it!):

The "bonus" folder - this was free, and is just a vinyl sleeve trying to get you to visit Japan. It's got a big picture of Puffy on it, though, who actually are government-designated official Japanese "Goodwill Ambassadors":

Feel free to leave comments on anything - ask me questions, tell me about experiences at shows you've seen them at, or whatever else.