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Puffy Stuff

PUFFY AMIYUMISpike (Sony)

With America’s native pop-culture system lately displaying all the classic symptoms of creative exhaustion -- i.e., rampant irony, crap nostalgia (Behind the Music), pee-pee infantilism (Tom Green, Jackass) and big-budget remakes (Planet of the Apes, George Bush II) -- perhaps it was inevitable that cultural imports like The Weakest Link, Lars von Trier, Harry Potter, Dragonball Z, Sigur Ros and that Australian weisenheimer who rassles with reptiles on Discovery would have no problem waltzing in and grabbing the American public‘s collective attention.

Next up -- hopefully -- for this occasionally xenophiliac nation is Puffy AmiYumi, a Japanese female duo who have sold 14 million records during the last five years. In Asia, they are a genuine cultural phenomenon -- the kind that involves consumer products and TV variety shows and fashion spreads as well as mega-selling albums and radio hits. Fine and good and boring. What sets Puffy apart from your average J-pop or U.S. teen group circa 2001 is that they’re also loaded with really good songs, lovingly rendered by a stable of songwriter-musicians (including ex-Jellyfisherman and AmiYumi-appointed “Puffy Godfather” Andy Sturmer) in the bubbly style of their favorite vintage Western pop: Puffy are a contemporary female version of the Monkees with the popularity of ‘N Sync and the homagetheft approach of ’90s pop-recombinant cult heroes the Pooh Sticks.

Spike, the duo‘s sixth album and first to be distributed in the U.S., is a typical Puffy affair. While there’s no borrowing here as blatant as the opening Who sample on their 1998 Jet album, Spike‘s songs still come off like uncanny sideways covers of forgotten Top 40 hits, sung in Japanese (except for the Sturmer-penned English-language bonus track, “Love So Pure”) and given titles like “Cosmic Wonder,” “Destruction Pancake” and “This Is the Song of Sweet Sweet Season When Cherry Garcia Blossoms Bloom.” The band globe-hops and time-bops from T. Rex boogie to dreamy lounge-disco to bashed-out punk to ’60s sunrock; Misses Ami and Yumi are girl-group harmonizers, detached disco divas, leathered-up biker rockers; their support crew studiously re-creates not just the chord structures of past pop masters but the textures as well: vocodered voices, Phil Spector timpani rolls, Henry Mancini horn riffs, Beach Boys bass, Steve Jones guitars, etc. It‘s some pretty fantastic plastic -- a 15-course, three-chord pilfered-pop banquet that must have Joey Ramone grinning in his grave.

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