Puffy AmiYumi An Illustrated History

Tokyo-based pop duo Puffy AmiYumi may be one of the most misrepresented J-pop bands in North America. Back home in Japan, the unit is known simply as Puffy (apparently to the consternation of the so-called artist formerly known as Sean "Puffy" Combs), and has been among that nation's highest profile home-grown bands since the release of their 1996 debut CD AmiYumi. Eight releases later (five of them full-length studio recordings), Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura finally enjoy an introduction to prospective North American fans with this appropriately titled disc. Some of these illustrations have endured a few alterations on their way across the pond, though - most noticeably a fresh coat of English lyrics here and there. The effect, to these Western ears at least, is kind of like rolling toffee in icing sugar. The sweetness is due in part to Ami and Yumi's alternately Beatles-esque and ABBA-like vocal harmonies, and to the antics of the act's writer/producer team Tamio Okuda and Andy Sturmer. (The former used to be part of popular Japanese outfit Unicorn, the latter is better known in these parts as the former beat-keeper for Chicago band Jellyfish.) Backed by a stable of super-competent studio musicians, Okuda and Sturmer direct Puffy all over the place stylistically, going through the convincing motions of disco, Latin samba, ELO-inspired synth-pop and big, over-the-top cartoony dance fare (think strings and timpani reminiscent of Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk") that sounds retrofitted for tomorrow. The routine is one of extreme versatility, at times to the point of ridiculousness. The best moments here, however, come when Puffy emulates Quadrophenia and Tommy-era Who, like on 1996's "Pinball Wizard" rip "True Asia," and the track "Jet Police," taken from the outfit's 1998 Jet CD. (Bar/None)