I am hereby requesting a ticket for a one-way flight to Japan - anywhere in Japan would do. After listening to Puffy AmiYumi’s ‘An Illustrated History’, I am convinced that all of my yearnings for the a lived pop reality have been achieved by Puffy in Japan. Yes, good, smart pop music can be popular after all. To be more precise, the pop duo of Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura who go by the name “Puffy” in their native Japan are bigger than the Puff P. Diddy Daddy himself, bigger than Brittney, Cher, Celine, or Mark Anthony. Their music is clever, inventive, hooky, and possibly deep but I don’t understand Japanese. I don’t care. This is fun and the people love it! And it is in Japan that I would like to mark out the remainder of my life, that I may participate in a genuine pop culture phenomenon, something that I can only read about in my native America for I was born too late and too jaded. The achievements of Puffy put our recent pop superstar exports to shame.
I understand that am selfishly and shamelessly requesting a huge favor from PopMatters.com despite our budgetary constraints. Yet in addition, I suggest that PopMatters.com and its crew of lawyers contact the people representing Puffy AmiYumi—the real deal Puffy—so that our little media empire with our great ambitions for the transformation of global culture could find its great ambassadors to our cause in this sprightly duo. Does pop still matter? Yes, and Puffy AmiYumi are proving this. They are putting back the “-ular” in “Pop”. They embrace all styles of music; they embrace money, marketing, and capitalism; they embrace fashion. They are doing things at the level of culture what we are writing about on paper. It is imperative then that we act quickly lest the evil mongers of our Western shores snatch them away from our great cause for this dynamic and savvy duo has already launched their campaign in America.
I am certain that Puffy, or Puffy AmiYumi, will one day reign supreme in the world and we must ensure that we will be at their side in order that we may safeguard the world together.
Sincerely (and with great enthusiasm),
Humble Staff Music Critic
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Puffy AmiYumi has already conquered the masses in Japan. With their modishly good looks, charming intelligence, and a handful of good tunes, Puffy AmiYumi (Shawn P. Diddy Dudley Do Right Daddy Combs sued the duo, who otherwise go by Puffy in Japan, for the exclusive right to the Puffy name in America - he must have been really scared) have coming knocking at the doors of America. Their achievements in Japan are already truly remarkable. They host their own television variety show like Sonny and Cher or the Smothers Brothers of yesterday! They sport their own line of clothing apparel and SHOES like J. Lo and the entire Wu Tang Clan! And their adorable faces grace all sorts of public billboards, spaces that we Americans only reserve for underwear models. As they say in the business: Puffy AmiYumi has got ups.
An Illustrated History, released in conjunction by Epic and the renown little Hoboken boutique Bar/None, is a pre-emptive “greatest hits” package for the expressed purpose of spreading the Puffy AmiYumi phenomenon beyond their Eastern borders. Take away the language barrier and there is no good reason why Puffy AmiYumi cannot become huge superstars in the West. They have already mastered the art of producing and seducing one giant market. Why not ours? Did I mention that they sport their own brand of shoes? And musically, this is no less the case: they have mastered the art of reproducing Western pop music with a big vision for thrills and crowd-pleasing hooks with the kind of reckless abandon that makes the New Tin Pan Alley of Hollywood and 54th Street seem hopeless dated.
Musically the sound of Puffy AmiYumi is most indebted to the Beatles. In 1963 the Beatles created the modern experience and exhilaration of popular culture and when they packed their bags in 1970, one could argue that the high level of expectation, desire, and public obsession ended then. It can be argued that every pop culture phenomenon since the Beatles has been a spoiled imitation of the original. The Partridge Family? Been there. The Bee Gees? Done that. The New Kids? Show them some drugs. Hanson? Give them two years. Brittney? Give her five years. The ultimate legacy of the Beatles is that they successfully sustained cultures decade-long obsession with them. They were princes when they arrived and they closed their doors as kings. It is no wonder then that Puffy AmiYumi has taken so much from them. And the Beatles are everywhere in these 16 tracks.
In “Wild Girls on Circuit”, or “Circuit No Musume” in Japanese, Puffy AmiYumi shamelessly steals Paul McCartney’s bass lines from “I Saw Her Standing There”. They don’t stop there. They also lift Ringo’s simple drum patterns and the clumsy jazzy drum rolls. Even the strange inclusion of the sound of a zooming racecar reflects back to the spirit of the studio experimentation of the Beatles as demonstrated in stellar pop wonders such as “Yellow Submarine” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Surely, producer George Martin would never have agreed to the sound of a racecar in any Beatles song—but it sure as hell is fun. Think of the bicycle bells on Queen’s “Bicycle Race” and you can start to imagine what a joy it is to hear a racecar zooming through your pop song.
“That’s the Way It Is” is a sheer blast of ‘60s Britpop. It begins with the acoustic guitar intro from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and quickly jumps to the short chord riff from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. All in the introduction alone! A mere six seconds! (Am I getting excited? Yes!) The music doesn’t just sound like the Who: these riffs are stolen outright. Then the song launches into the same bass and drum groove of “My Generation”. And by the time the second verse transpires, we hear George Harrison’s five-note descending guitar riff from “Please Please Me”, and ever so cleanly the Who are dropped for the Beatles for the remainder of the song. The bridge features a prominent acoustic guitar part that recalls any number of songs from A Hard Day’s Night down to the latin music inspired percussion. For the sake of authenticity, there are discreet “ooh la lahs” vocal harmonies. And I kid you not: “That’s the Way It Is” has a short harmonica interlude that is virtually indistinguishable from the one that John Lennon played on “Please Please Me”. In addition, the turnaround from the harmonica break back to the verse consists the first four notes from the original Beatles melody played by, yes, a Rickenbacker electric guitar. I don’t know about their copyright arrangements but their recording budget must have been HUGE.
The Captain Funk’s Puffy de Samba Mix of “Sign of Love” begins with calypso steel drums and tympanis (now we’re having fun!) and this builds up to a deep jungle groove worthy of the sweatiest and the smelliest South Miami Beach night club. This is musical madness - but have I mentioned how fun it is? In “Electric Beach Fever” this smart duo expertly combines the vocal styling of ABBA with a Bee Gees disco arrangement, strings, swampy keyboards, and scat funk guitar and all. “Sunday Girls” is another fun song that combines the Bacharach sound (it’s the flutes and the horns, man!) over a cruising surf drumbeat. And the entire spectrum of the ‘80s big pop sound is featured in the song “Friends”. I hear the likes of ‘Til Tuesday, Phil Collins, Howard Jones, the Go Gos and Ah-Ha in this song alone. The catchy chorus sounds remarkably like the Phil Collins hit that goes, “No, you can’t hurry love / No, you’ll just have to wait. . . .” And I ask myself, “How the hell did I come up with Howard Jones”?
Other things that I (swear) that I’ve heard in Puffy AmiYumi’s “An Illustrated History”: Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker leads, Juliana Hatfield, the Police, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin (or was it AC/DC?), Ted Nugent, the Shirelles, the Clash, David Bowie, and a host of other familiar musical entities. And the music of the Who (a brilliantly compact synthesis of the best moments from “Baba O’Reilly”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and “Who Are You”) returns in the rousing closing number “Jet Police”. This song proves that Puffy AmiYumi is also arena-rock worthy.
All this fun makes the language barrier negligible. I don’t want to know what these lovely ladies are singing about; I’m having too much fun marveling at all of musical references. In fact, the least remarkable song in An Illustrated History happens to be the sole English language number, “Love So Pure.” If this track is any indication of their lyrical prowess, I’m thankful for the language barrier.
What Puffy AmiYumi and their producer, ex-Jellyfish drummer Andy Sturmer, have accomplished in each of these 16 tracks is to reveal a talent for expertly and seamlessly arranging familiar hooks in a very compositional manner. As shamelessly derivative as these songs may sound, they nevertheless hold up as musical arrangements. The latest incarnation of the Teen Bopper phenomenon is just as derivative. Puffy AmiYumi rises above this saturated field because their music taps into the great musical achievements of pop music. Hearing a Who riff in the context of a pop song is infinitely more enjoyable than listening to five boys trying to sing like every other five boys in the current lime light. Ami and Yumi may lack the talent for vocal hysterics but at least they’ve latched onto a good sound. Sometimes taste can go a long way. And Puffy AmiYumi is all the more endearing in that the two figureheads readily acknowledge their own fascination with pop music. I wholeheartedly wish that all our plastic pop superstars had good taste in music like Puffy AmiYumi. I detect no pretense here. Ok, I don’t understand Japanese but the music itself does nothing more than what it’s supposed to do: it thrills and entertains. As products for popular consumption, Puffy’s music delivers the goods at every turn, in big, gorgeous helpings.
And so I shout: Go Puffy! Go! Come be my superstars or I’ll just have to board a one-way flight to Japan. And I could give a damn about the Diddy Daddy who stands in our way.