Such a label placed on a band or album would be a significant insult, as far as I was concerned, back when I reviewed music for newspapers. It’s a silly charge, of course. What music springs out whole and completely new, like Minerva from Jupiter’s head? I can hear y’all calculating, making arguments for certain recordings…Sgt Peppers? Paul’s Boutique? Kind of Blue? Giant Steps? Rock Around the Clock? Rocket 88?
No. All music is based on the past. We hear music from birth, sung by our parents, drifting out of the computer or TV, in the streets. Our ideas of harmony and melody, dissonance and scales, polish and power, calm and storm in music are placed in us by our environment, making their way into our conscious and unconscious via our ear hole.
So. In 2003 when Puffy’s album “Nice.” was released on Bar/None Records, a copy arrived in the mail for me to review and I had the somewhat challenging task of imagining what these young Japanese singers were trying to do with their 48:59 of recorded sound.
Here in the U.S. of A., countless bands stole from the playbook of grunge to jump into the hot sound of the day, a dozen bluegrass bands imitated Mr. Monroe’s lineups and sounds to get over, Lenny Kravitz bit Prince and Jimi hard, and Queensryche copied Pink Floyd while Greta Van Fleet was supposed to replace Zeppelin. Those are the egregious cases. Everywhere on the radio, all the time, in every era, ideas were being, er, cross-pollinated. Additionally, hundreds of bands started out by imitating other groups early in their career, only to blossom into something much more original. Think the Beatles in Hamburg, Pink Floyd chasing singles with Syd, Dylan playing folk standards, and Led Zeppelin nicking about a dozen old blues tunes in their beginnings. Having your hand in the cookie jar is not a crime. Eating only cookies at every meal, however…
Back to Puffy. (In the United States, they must be known as Puffy AmiYumi, because Puff Daddy sued for infringement. He later went on to sell clothes made of dog fur and change his name to Love. Can these women call themselves Puffy again now? Please?) The first spin through the album revealed an overstuffed closet of influences, thefts, homages, and nicks from all manner of bands, songs, and genres. I almost wrote it off after the first run-through as something like a Japanese wedding band…until I realized that the light-as-a-feather confection “Your Love Is a Drug” was stuck in my head. My rule for record reviewing was always to listen carefully all the way through three times before formulating my opinions on an album. By the third listen through “Nice.,” I loved it.
It became a game. Was that a borrowing from No Doubt in “K2G?” How could those vocal harmonies in “Thank You” be anything but a go-between in the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles? Is that Buddy Holly’s influence I hear in “Long Beach Nightmare,” or just mid-career Fab Four? Surely that’s not Styx I hear in “Tokyo Nights” before the beat goes disco. I just looked up the credits for the album on AllMusic, and the reviewer listed several influences I didn’t initially hear, which only proves how deep this treasure chest is.
I could go on. And on. Some songs have one instrument that is strongly suggesting an American band or hit single. Others adhere to Japanese roots, especially “Planet Tokyo,” which has the energy of Shinjuku Station and ends, appropriately, with the sound of roaring street bikes. I’m left contemplating the notion that Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura grew up or at least went through an intense stage of devouring British and American pop with a connoisseur’s deliberate fervor. Could it be that pop devotees in the United States gain a sense, just from the air, of what can be borrowed from another act without accusations of appropriation, while someone growing up on the other side of the world only sees the wonderful buffet available?
I don’t have my original review of “Nice.” I know I gave it a positive review, but I remember nothing else…except effusive praise for “Your Love Is a Drug.” As I surveyed all the hints and heists on the album, I realized that most readers would not read a listing of such as praise. And I considered “Nice.” to be one of the greatest pleasures (guilty or otherwise) of that year’s music. So I focused on “Your Love Is a Drug,” knowing that only the most ornery would refuse to acknowledge its pop hookiness.
The next question is about how seriously we should take pop songs that are meant to be consumed like a bon-bon, all sugary nothingness, so delicious and yet also barely consequential. It’s a question that spans bands and genres. Poor Billie Holiday had to wait years before she was allowed to record better pop songs—they were all claimed by the white performers the record labels favored. The Clash’s pop outing, “Train in Vain,” is hated by half of the band’s fans. The early Beatles material is considered inferior to the more complicated and adventurous work they made toward the end of their run, at least by critics and self-appointed pundits (like me). The entire R.E.M. album “Green“…
“Nice.” now receives regular play on the home stereo, in part because my 10yo son loves it as much as me, and the rest of the family doesn’t hate it. And I am left listening to a song by Aimee Mann.
Her record “I’m With Stupid” is likely to show up later in my blatherings, but for now, I ask the reader to simply consider the song “Superball.” I loved the album the first time I heard it, and I hated “Superball” just as early on. It was almost always skipped when possible.
Groups such as Big Star and Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish never flipped my switch, despite the right and well-meaning efforts of several enlightened friends. Power pop for me ends at Elvis Costello. Mann’s “Superball” was literally bouncy and bright, clashing with most of the rest of the album. In my decrepitude, as I consider that Andy Sturmer, the producer of “Nice.,” was a member of Jellyfish, things are getting clearer for me. And as I learn to play guitar and help my son with the same, I appreciate the pop sensibilities and genuine love for the sounds on Puffy’s album—and on “Superball.” Mann’s song is a pop tart, a Trojan horse. It seems as threatening as a gumball, until you hear the subtext, which is spelled out in the song’s outro: “And I won’t deny/the velocity I’m gathering.” Earlier in the song, she says that this velocity is sending the “lamps and chairs all scattering.” This is an Atomic Fireball, not a gumdrop. A cartoon ball with nitroglycerine inside. Destructive, unpredictable, energetic. Pop can hide power.
“Nice.” is a box of chocolates, a sampler. But the chocolate is good quality and the fillings are fine. Gorge yourself. And ponder pop’s roots.