PUFFY AMIYUMI

Bleu

I-Spy, 374-9492, $15 adv.

7 p.m. Fri., July 12

Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi are sort of like Britney Spears, only without

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Foreign Invasion

Bigger than Britney and Hello Kitty in their homeland, Japan's Puffy AmiYumi set their sights on America.

PUFFY AMIYUMI

Bleu

I-Spy, 374-9492, $15 adv.

7 p.m. Fri., July 12

Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi are sort of like Britney Spears, only without the hours of dance lessons, breast implants, near nudity, and a pushy stage mom. What's left, you wonder? Well, like Britney, Puffy are idols to millions of prepubescent girls and objects to millions more postpubescent males. As with Ms. Spears, they're also a multimedia, multiplatinum act with their own clothing line and countless merch tie-ins.

But that's where the similarities end. Instead of singing empty dance pap churned out by Swedish session hacks, Puffy songs are written by a host of talented composers, including one Andy Sturmer, late of American power-poppers Jellyfish. Thus, Puffy's global success is, in part, a victory for good music—and that's about as far from the Britney story as you can get.

Sensations across Asia—they also have a top-rated TV series, Pa Pa Pa Pa Puffy—Puffy AmiYumi have been living a Hard Day's Night existence in their homeland; the Tokyo-bred twosome, Yumi Yoshimura and Ami Okura, can't go out in public without being mobbed. Fame, however, turns out to be relative, because on this, their first full American tour, they're nearly anonymous, forced to play small clubs and opening slots instead of the usual headlining arena dates.

"Maybe it's better if we are unknown," says Yoshimura, on the line from Japan. "Because people can listen to our music without any preconception of us, and no image attached."

It's a situation that probably feels quite freeing to a band with its own line of action figures—but it might not last for long. Not only is the Cartoon Network contemplating a show starring their animated alter egos, but the groovy duo's music is receiving its widest U.S. exposure with a career-spanning collection, An Illustrated History of Puffy AmiYumi, on Bar None.

At first glance, it might seem odd that a multimillion-selling act like Puffy is signed to a small boutique imprint. But in fact, the band's eclectic musical sensibility is closer to Bar None acts like Shrimpboat and the Mendoza Line than to any major-label contemporaries.

On History, that sensibility runs the gamut, from disco ("Electric Beach Party") to Brazilian samba ("Ai No Shirushi") to Beatles-esque pop ("Love So Pure"). This heady mix is due in part to Andy Sturmer's ability to create compelling songs in diverse styles, but also reflects the duo's own discerning tastes.

"Much of Japanese music is extremely derivative of what's popular over here," explains Sturmer, who first got acquainted with Asian tastes when Jellyfish toured the Far East in the early '90s. "They have their own version of the Black Crowes or whoever else is big. It's kind of funny, but unfortunately, a lot of it's kind of schlocky R&B, not really that good."

Puffy, he says, is different because both Yoshimura and Okura are well versed in all manner of pop music, from rave and techno to metal and indie rock. In fact, the first time Sturmer met Okura, the only thing he was able to discern from her broken English was how much she liked Matthew Sweet.

"I'm just extremely fortunate they're such cool artists and people," says Sturmer. "They do all kinds of things—disco, retro, pop—their tastes are all over the map. [It's] eclectic to the point of being humorous."

Along with Puffy's creative mastermind Tamio Okuda, Sturmer has been responsible for crafting much of the standout material found on the band's recent records—sprite, joyous albums that have earned raves from even the most cynical indie-rock dwellers.

Any way you look at it, Sturmer has a hit—and a curiously commercial second career—on his hands. And it may turn out to be an even more lucrative proposition, should Puffy tap into Britney's core constituency—namely female adolescent record buyers. Sturmer, for one, thinks the duo is a natural for stateside success. "They're just so cute," he says, laughing, "[you] can't help but like them."

The band members themselves, however, aren't so sure. "It's a bit like starting all over again," says Okuda of the group's foray onto Yankee soil. "But there are lots of people around us who are supporting our activities in the U.S.A., so we are very blessed in that sense. I must admit there is a lot of hard work, but at the same time, it's a lot of fun."

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