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.