If Your Heart Is Puffy
489 · 10 June 04
You can go ahead and try, if you feel like it, but I don't think you're going to be able to make any happier a record than 59, the new seven-or-eight-song mini-album by sugar-pop grand-master Andy Sturmer and his protégé/muses Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura. This was the formula for their last full-length album, Nice., too: Sturmer writes and produces, he and John Fields play most of the instruments, and Ami and Yuki yelp their uncontrivedly cheerful way through the giddiest melodies any of them can devise. 59 refines this idea further by ditching any style experiments that don't sound like they'd be capable of inducing glucose aneurysms in hummingbirds, bookending the record with two versions of what is almost certainly the greatest teen-superhero theme song you or I will hear in our lifetimes, and jamming in, in the middle of the self-effacing sub-half-hour running time, both an English-lyric rewrite of the best song on Nice. and a belief-defying Jellyfish cover that makes even Sturmer's original hyper-florid version seem maudlin and torpid.
Puffy's enchanting debut album had only seven songs, and Ami and Yumi's split solo album had seven each, and perhaps this is really their ideal form-factor. Admittedly a part of me knows that calling this the perfect pop record is like calling a squishy Krispy Kreme donut-lump the perfect dinner roll. Surely this kind of manic chirpiness is supposed to be tempered by some small element of gravitas, or six or eight inches of perspective, or at least the momentary sound of John Denver being strangled. Surely it invalidates this as an album that it needs so many tricks to get through so few minutes. Surely it matters that the biggest problem with Ami and Yumi's phonetic English singing is that it takes so much of their concentration just to keep nonsense syllables in tune. Surely pop can't be this simple, and if it is, surely there are a hundred tossed-off records like this.
But I don't know a hundred of them. I'm not sure I know ten. Sturmer's gadgety arrangements make Talk Show seem rudimentary, and Ami and Yumi's puppy-earnest melodies make We Are Shampoo seem poutily self-abnegating. Puffy are the music that Spice World deserved, or what you might get by swiping Spy Kids through a miniaturizing ray. My tolerance for glaze-bath squelch maxes out around three, and even by the middle of the third gelatinous donut I'm not precisely enjoying myself anymore. But I can listen to 59 on loop for hours.
It begins and ends with the swoop and twang of "Teen Titans Theme", first entirely in English and last with the verses in Japanese. The song was already a bonus track on the US release of Nice., and the show is real and running on Cartoon Network at the moment, so you might already have heard it. I hadn't, and didn't know the show, and was half-convinced until I looked it up that Sturmer had given the girls the title as a joke, to see if they could invent an entire aesthetic from the flimsiest two-word premise. "When there's evil on the attack, / You can rest knowing they got your back!" "Never met a villain that they liked!" "When they catch you there won't be any doubt! / You've been beaten by the teens!" There's not a non-exclamatory period in the whole song, including the inevitable chorus sections where they shout-spell the title ("T!E!E!N! T-I-T! A-N-S!"). Sturmer and Fields play guitar-solo out-coying duels like spy and surf movies were never two separate genres, and if I were a teen villain I'd be redeploying my minions in search of an amnesty program with extended evening hours, because even if the Teen Titans are just TV characters, Ami and Yumi are real, and it's hard to see how you'd defend yourself against them tickling you into senselessness and then happily poking souvenir drumsticks up your nostrils into your brain.
Most bands would have to come down after a TV theme, and plenty of bands have never properly recovered (cf. the Rembrandts), but Puffy barely pause. Drums clatter and snap, and "Sunrise" surges to speed like the sun is chagrinned it gave the moon a night's head-start. Sturmer programs what may now be the archetypal drum-machine hi-hat pattern, Fields rumbles impishly through a bounding bass line that Sturmer's DX7 fusillades glint off of like sparks, Ami and Yumi do their haplessly charming unsteady unison bleat, and I try to control the order in which my body parts melt so the ears come last. It's hopeless, of course, as I am released by "Sunrise" only to be ambushed by the dumbfounding cover of Jellyfish's "Joining a Fan Club". Puffy's version is only three seconds shorter than the original, but it's at least eight or nine times as fast, and maybe twenty-four times less ironic. Jellyfish's was an episodic pastiche of a rock god's ascension and disintegration, told only incidentally through the narrating fan's obsessiveness. For Puffy's version Sturmer has the inspiration to tweak the narrative from male first-person to female third-person and cut the buzz-killing crown-of-thorns verse, which in Puffy's swoony voices finally turns it into the fan-song the title always intimated. In place of the cut-and-paste musical structure of the original, Sturmer gives Puffy a jubilant lurch-and-sprint pace-tension, the verses writhing like funhouse-mirror costume preening, the choruses careening into guitar-snarl sprint. Ami and Yumi's brashly approximate harmonies say more about the way foolishness and compassion weave into falling in love with idols than any words will ever somberly explicate.
Calm is only relative, in this short set, but "Kokoro ni hana o" ("Flower in the Heart", maybe, although "In the heart, a flower is..." more exactly replicates the grammar) is the record's least intently dizzying interlude. Sturmer and Fields slow down just a little, and let fluttery synth figures and deftly chiming guitar chords sparkle around the girls' fractionally more wistful singing. It's only a feint, though, as "Kaze makase futari tabi" (something about trustingly riding the wind together...) starts off sounding like Berlin got trapped on the Metro and turned French, and by the chorus has morphed into something more like the pillows simplifying Pizzicato Five. And after that, "Forever" might actually be the record's cleverest moment of all, a bewilderingly logical explanation of the sense in which ABBA was actually Motown.
"Invisible Tomorrow" was my favorite song on Nice., and one of my favorite songs from all of last year. Despite the English title and the instant-classic non-count-off at the beginning ("3! 5! 4! 1! 2! 2! 5! 4!"), it was mostly sung in Japanese. Somebody must think that the language barrier was all that stood between it and stardom, as it is here reprised as "So Long Zero" with no appreciable alteration except an English text. The Japanese version was about the tricky unknowable things you can't control in a relationship. The English version is a triumphant school-girl kiss-off. "So long zero", they cheer, "I'm going solo!" Weirdly, though, the story is so steeped in minor Japanese cultural assumptions about romantic custom, or so it seems to me from what little I've picked up from a handful of movies involving Japanese teenage girls, that in English it ends up still sounding foreign. Our popular break-up songs are heavily biased towards revenge (quintessentially "You Oughta Know"), with backup themes of liberation ("Silent All These Years", say) and regret (Jane Siberry's "Taxi Ride", modulo the "popular" part). Puffy's starts with the magnificent "I've been onto you from nearly the start", and works into the blithe "I'm not that dumb, / So hit the bricks! / Go find another girl / That you make lovesick!" It's my impression that in this model young girls' relationships are almost arranged, and breaking one off (even, as in this case, with what we'd agree was "cause") is itself a transgression liable to count more severely against the girl than infidelity or getting broken up with will against the boy. But this only renders Puffy's exuberance more cathartic, and maybe makes this an anthem of defying social expectations instead of just a farewell to one useless boy.
And then it's "Teen Titans" again, reminding me that half the secret to being a cartoon superhero is that cartoon supervillains are so much easier to deal with than other teenagers. And then the album is over. I don't know what Sony plans to do with it in the US, where Nice. is still only a few months old and already has the theme song. Reduced to six songs 59 wouldn't be the same. Expanded to twelve or fourteen it probably wouldn't be the same, either. I can't say there's no chance of it being improved, but that's not usually the direction in which label interventions take records. Maybe Puffy AndyAmiYumi have another record in them that will be amazing on so much larger a scale than 59 that it's inane of me to fret about what will come to seem like a footnote. Or maybe these little bubbly songs that Sturmer writes them are holding Ami and Yumi back from much bigger art they will one day learn to create by themselves. Or maybe this is their last chance.
But these tumbling doubts are the danger and challenge with moments of perfection. The records loops, I must learn to just let it. Or rather, I must learn to let myself loop a little, without trying to make enjoyment into dialectics or calculi, and then let both of us move on.