Masterminded by former Unicorn guitarist and current pop Svengali Tamio Okuda (and later abetted by Andy Sturmer, formerly of the American retro-pop band, Jellyfish), Puffy AmiYumi takes bellwether Beatles riffs and dresses them in the sonic accoutrements of their ‘70s imitators—the arena-sized bombast of Cheap Trick, the sci-fi sound effects of ELO, the happy harmonies of Abba, the hyperhookiness of the Raspberries—to create karaoke-ready J-pop. Fronting this appealing package are two quintessentially cute Japanese women (Ami and Yumi, whose names were appended to the band’s original name, post P-Diddy), the kind who make fashion statements falling out of bed. Prefab sell-outs from the start, the band made commercials for Kirin, Shiseido, and Yamaha, introduced their own line of dolls and T-shirts, and had a late-night talk show in Japan called Pa Pa Pa Puffy!
Immediate megastars in Japan, the band made little effort to break out in America, content to earn a cult following among international-pop aficionados. But the band stumbled on a strategy for cracking the American market when Cartoon Network executive Sam Register became enamored of them after seeing one of their videos on a New York cable-access channel. He recruited Puffy to record a theme for Teen Titans, and emboldened by its success, the network offered the group their own show, which, in turning the singers into wide-eyed anime characters, seems poised to leverage their undeniable cuteness for the Disney-radio set and transform the group into the new Hello Kitty.
Now, there’s nothing inherently discreditable in making a cartoon of yourself (though the Archies never have got its due for its string of brilliant early ‘70s singles). But by playing up their kid-friendly cuddliness, Puffy is in danger of alienating their cult audience by making it seem regressive if not slightly sinister to adore them, as their mainstream move shifts fans from the esoteric fringe to the heart of the tweener shopping mall. Their foreignness provides an alibi that allows the music intelligentsia to unabashedly enjoy their slickly commercial music. But at times you have to wonder whether, once you start stripping away the cultural otherness of Puffy AmiYumi, they’ll begin to seem less like a power-pop dream come true and more like Avril Lavigne. Indeed, when they sing in English, as on the Scooby Doo 2 soundtrack number “Friends Forever,” you hear how vapid and anodyne their lyrics can be and it becomes harder to distinguish Puffy from any of the Matrix-produced schlock clotting the airwaves.
In general, the more Puffy performs in English, the less appealing their product becomes. Part of this is because they haven’t mastered the language yet—harmonies that are effortless in Japanese seem labored in English, anchoring hooks that are clearly meant to soar. They are not clumsy with their English—there’s no silly malapropisms inviting our condescension—but they’re not sophisticated either, which means they remain mired at the “We’ve got a love so pure, we’ve got a love so sure” level of profundity. But as long as Puffy and their musical directors continue to look to great pop of past decades rather than the current charts for inspiration, they’ll continue making ebullient and effervescent pop that’s pointless to try to resist.
But for now, we’ll have to be content with this collection, which draws almost entirely from their past, compiling some of their biggest Japanese hits and a few assorted odds and ends. To the credit of everyone involved, the band shows little sign of going all-Anglo; on this album they have the good sense to leave much in the original Japanese and trust their music to convey the irrepressible good feeling that needs no help from words. Kids will get it; they don’t need to be spoon-fed something familiar to embrace the likes of Puffy, and if they do, Puffy should give up on them.
Of most significance to hardcore fans, the album collects hard-to-find tracks from the Japan-only EP 59: “Forever” melds the ba-ba-bas from the Troggs “With a Girl Like You” with Lennon-McCartney balladry circa A Hard Day’s Night to make for a perfect evocation of ‘60s-girl-group innocence. And the synth-laden “Sunrise” has an early ‘80s feel that takes some of the edge off of its relentless, boundlessly energic drive. The only new track on the collection, the hyperactive theme for the Cartoon Network show, “Hi Hi,” is a bit cluttered, but probably suits the credit sequence well.
The rest of Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi is a reiteration of their recent best-of collection, Illustrated History. Their first hit, the ELO homage “True Asia,” is here, as is their “Please Please Me” nod, the sublime “Korega Watashi No Ikirumichi” (here titled “That’s the Way It Is,” but still presented in the original Japanese) from their Jet Cd. The lounge-pop-inspired “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N,” all pizzicato orchestrations and ersatz rockabilly solos, comes from the proto-OutKast dueling-solo-albums set, SoloSolo. (It’s sans Ami, if you’re wondering.) Four songs (“Boogie Woogie No. 5,” “Love So Pure,” “December” and “Into the Beach”) are recycled from their first American release, 2001’s Spike, and the exuberant “Planet Tokyo” is lifted from last year’s Nice, as is the Teen Titans theme and their loping cover of Jellyfish’s “Joining a Fan Club,” except its in English here—it’s tricked out reggae-style is an apparent attempt to conjure comparisons to No Doubt. In all, those unfamiliar with the band would be better off with the more thorough Illustrated History, but those inspired by the TV show to investigate the band will be well served by this compilation. Here’s hoping that further fame does nothing to dilute their eclectic appeal.