Japan – cute place right? Experienced exclusively through the “news of the weird” pages/blogs, the country seems like a toddler’s imagination turned real, all Hello Kitty and robots marrying people. The number of cute mascots vying for my attention on my daily commute to work have convinced me that if Pikachu appeared on the national currency tomorrow I wouldn’t bat an eye. Yet like most things looked at only from the outside, the inner workings of Japan aren’t so cuddly. Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out The Sun documents the unseen side of modern Japan, a world full of young people refusing to interact with the outside world. Above all else, the Japan Zielenziger writes about seems like a terribly lonely place where fashion brands replace human relationships. No amount of Sanrio plush dolls can dull that pain.
“If it’s ice cream, I’ll write about ice cream. If it’s a ghost, I’ll write something about a ghost. There’s not necessarily a particular message.” That’s Puffyshoe’s member Neko discussing how she writes lyrics, and I don’t doubt her for a second. The Tokyo fuzz-rock band’s second album Something Gold never explicitly mentions modern Japan, but the same outwards-inwards relationship their home country experiences can also be applied to their band. From the outside, Puffyshoes are two young women who emphasize “cuteness” via photos of them posing with sweets and songs about dessert items, delivered in a scuzzy lo-fi package announcing “cutesy girls make loud music!” bordering on total novelty. Spend some time with their latest release, though, and the inside becomes clear. Something Gold finds the energetic young duo not just making some of the catchiest and most chaotic punk-tinged-pop of the year, but also some of the loneliest.
Which is to say…when did Vivian Girls end up being the most influential band in the indie-world? The Brooklyn trio’s 2008 debut album clocked in at just under 22 minutes, but has since influenced scores of groups trying to merge girl-group melodies with reverb. Though Puffyshoes draw inspiration from numerous other groups…fellow Japanese acts Afrirampo and Shonen Knife in particular…, they take the most cues from Vivian Girls, and manage to hit on everything that made Vivian Girls such a thrilling listen. Something Gold never burns itself out (over in 24 minutes) and manages to make reverb an essential part of its songs, not just a cosmetic detail.
Puffyshoes’ mostly avoid complexity on Something Gold, choosing instead to keep it simple with rudimentary playing and lots of hypnotic repetition. What the sloppy chug of “Kissing In The Kitchen” and the vaguely Strokes-ey “Get You Gone” lack in terms of development, they more than make up for with pure catchiness. When Puffyshoes come across a great riff-and-vocals combo, like on “I’m Sorry I’m Not Sorry,” they milk it for all it’s worth and drop it before things get stale. The lo-fi static helps the most on these more mosh-worthy tracks – the extra noise helps buff out the duo’s sparse set-up (guitar, drums), especially when only the drum is being smacked around. “The Scary Ghost,” the one song on Something Gold where Puffyshoes stretch out a bit, benefits the most from the fuzzy recording technique. Opening as a dusty strut, “Ghost” quickly descends into terrifying sonic territory, as the extra buzz turns shouts of “I’ll eat your eyes! I’ll eat your heart!” into actual psychotic threats.
Something Gold would be just another very-good garage rock album if it featured nothing but these kind of songs, but it’s the sadder and less noisy moments that make it something greater. “Happy Birthday To Me” puts a Chuk-E-Cheese-worthy melody up against defeated singing. “Happy birthday to me/tonight I’ll stay here alone/alone, alone, alone/I’m a loner” the song starts before getting into the sad-sack details. It’s not the loneliness that sticks out though as much as the narrator’s desperate attempt to convince herself everything will be OK even when she “cries and cries inside.” Late cut “My Imaginary Lover” devastate even more. “I can hear you in my ears/I can see you in my eyes/I can feel you in my hands/I love you my imaginary lover” things begin, and it soon becomes clear this dream-love is the only thing going for her. Bluntly put, it’s one of the saddest songs I’ve heard all year.
Yet for all the hints of isolation dropped on Something Gold, Puffyshoes also deal in hope. Album standout “Good Girl” works as a sort of statement of purpose for the band, despite ditching the noisy chaos in favor of tight songwriting that would make Guided By Voices proud. “No need to be a good girl” becomes Puffshoes’ rallying cry, and they let it sound clearly over the album’s prettiest sounds. If “Good Girl” is a mission statement, album closer “Lazy Seventeen” serves as a call for action. Pushed ahead by waves of reverb, the band sings “I’m getting too old/I better get up.” After 20-some minutes of loneliness and goodbyes and junk food, Puffyshoes realizes they’ve got to do something.
Something Gold might have a song about ice cream, pizza and ghosts on it, and yeah the cover features the duo wearing animal masks. All external appearances – Puffyshoe’s sophomore album is a catchy blast of garage rock where fuzzy noise boxes in the vocals, making already lonely lyrics even more isolated. A lot of these neo-garage bands could be cited for apathy, but Puffyshoes aren’t afraid to detail being alone, or the hopefulness that eventually springs up from such emotional pits. Despite the cream puff outside, Something Gold’s all substance.