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Review: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Moshi Moshi Harajuku

A common complaint thrown at…or, in a lot of cases, a clever way of justifying a legit enjoyment of…J-Pop trio Perfume is all their success comes courtesy of producer Yasutaka Nakata. The line goes that you could stick any three women in the roles held by the current members, and Nakata’s whizz-bang 80’s fetishism/production would still win the day. A fair point and a tough one to debate.

Until now, because from this point on anyone who lays out the above argument will get a finger pointed squarely at Moshi Moshi Harajuku and a smug saying “yeah, OK, listen to this buddy.” Harajuku blogger-turned-model-turned-eyelash-peddler Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (Kyary from here on out) stands as the most replaceable leading lady Nakata has ever worked with…and yet he’s managed to put together a shockingly great EP-worth of Nakata-pop on her behalf. Dude should update his resume with this near the top.

To be fair to Kyary, she finds herself in a strange position on this album. This is her initial foray into the world of music following a pretty darn smart career moving on up in the Harajuku fashion world, a realm that I imagine is surprisingly cut-throat given all the pink sparkles. She’s also 18, and any still-teenager smart enough to align herself with the people who can nab Nakata to produce your music…a move giving her instant cred, and guaranteeing her music will get exposed to a whole bunch of people who try to avoid Harajuku…deserves credit. Plus, that time spent modeling for magazines prepared her for the visual side of the music business, as her video for lead single “PonPonPon” shows. That got on Kotaku and, uh, topped the Finnish and Belgian iTunes charts.

Yet Kyary isn’t as flashy a singer, turning into just-a-voice for the most part amongst Nakata’s electro wonderlands. Which brings us to the women who came before her…they were able to inject honest-to-goodness bits of uniqueness into their songs, even with Nakata doing his thing. The individual members of Perfume don’t really shine through themselves, but rather they come together and play off one another, working as a team to create a vital aspect of the trio’s music that not just anyone could step into. It’s kinda like that fake AKB48 member, if it actually did anything besides shill for gum. Elsewhere, Toshiko Koshijima of Capsule and MEG have very distinct voices that, even when fucked around with by the producer, remain completely their own. Kyary, for the majority of Moshi Moshi, lacks any of that vocal presence and, while certainly not sonic wallpaper, ends up being a really prominent aural ottoman.

In a recent Time Out Tokyo interview, Kyary talked about daily recording sessions with Nakata:

“The way Nakata records, he doesn’t give you any demo tape in advance: you get the lyrics when you turn up at the studio on the day. I’d read the lyrics myself, and wonder what kind of song it would be, and then he’d play me the song. I’d memorize the lyrics in about an hour, and then I’d sing them.”

Worked wonders here. After a cotton-candy-stuffed-inside-funnel-cake intro song, Moshi Moshi shocks with the sweet dance-pop of “Cherry Bonbon.” It makes sense “PonPonPon” got the single spot (more on that later), but that song and it’s CGI-fireball video don’t reflect how this mini-album actually sounds. It’s surprisingly reserved (for Nakata) and almost workman-like in the way these songs give you some verses and then a sticky-good chorus, no frills (for Nakata) just the goods. “Cherry Bonbon” captures this perfectly – it’s not breaking new ground for the producer but such a simply catchy pop song it floors anyway. How much of that comes because of the semi-dread forced up by “Pon” I don’t know, but like a cough drop “Cherry” makes it all better.

The album’s back half continues what “Cherry” started. Despite opening with what legitimately sounds like fart sounds (no, really), “Chodo Lino” quickly transitions to a buttery bit of easy-going disco, the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in the coolest dentist’s office around. That’s a legit compliment – Nakata creates an airy atmosphere that Kyary wisely sets up a hammock between, everything building up to a predictably mellow-but-memorable chorus. “Pinpon Ga Nannai” picks up the pace a tad, throwing some sonic popcorn over a Perfume-lite dance track that peaks with a, uh, very Perfume-like chorus. This particularly strong stretch ends with Kyary covering older Capsule track “Jelly,” the original’s heavy dance-floor emphasis replaced by radio-friendly pop touches that make it the obvious second single. A worthy update that Nakata was wise to wheel out.

Sitting right in the middle of Moshi Moshi, though, is the mini-album’s first single and bizarro-world “PonPonPon.” Cats chase dogs, Michele Bachmann makes a lot of sense while Nakata dyes his hair black and grows a really devilsh goatee. This is the one moment where roles swap, Kyary stumbling across flashes of personality and carrying this, while Nakata phones it in. On the production front, Nakata rehashes old Perfume songs pretty blatantly but without the oooomph of the originals. “But wait a sec,” you, the astute reader, are saying. “You said that one song sounded like Perfume, but was good?” True, but “Pinpon Ga Nannai” works because I’m reminded of Perfume but can’t place a specific song to it. With “PonPonPon,” the verses obviously borrow from “Polyrhythm” and that just detracts from the song.

Kyary, meanwhile, adds a weird urgency to the chorus, and even comes close to showing off some nifty vocal tricks of her own, mostly when she stretches out “ponnnnnnnn” in “everyday ponnnnnnnn.” “PonPonPon” also improves dramatically when removed from the absolutely offensive-to-the-eyes video, no computer-generated pieces of white bread present to distract from that wisely extended sweet spot of a chorus. Considering how the five other songs on Moshi Moshi thrive because Nakata occupies the driver’s seat (we shall ignore the extended dance mix of “PonPonPon” for a lot of reasons), it’s surprising that this album’s most commercially-ready moment comes courtesy of Kyary’s energy.

Which actually brings us to one more aspect of the Kyary experience…this stuff isn’t selling that well at the moment. “PonPonPon” might have topped digital charts in Finland and Belgium, but this is a Japanese act and in her native country Moshi Moshi has only gotten as high as 72 on the Billboard Hot 100. The only place I’ve seen ads for this release are at Harajuku-leaning fashion stores (where, admittedly, they are pimping the hell out of this), yet it stops there. The people marketing this advertised Kyary into a corner…by leaning on her Harajuku-ness to a fault (see: video), she seems to have fallen into a niche, one aimed at the fashion lovers crowding the Harajuku streets. Those people will eat this up, but it’s also gonna alienate folks…as someone who recently walked down Harajuku, fuck Harajuku.

And that’s sorta a shame, because Moshi Moshi ends up being an extremely accessible dance-pop album courtesy of Nakata, anchored by one goofy-albeit-catchy single that really should be bigger than it is. For now, nerds like me can champion the fact Nakata done did it again, producing a great mini-album that given its backstory has no reason to be great. As for Kyary, she’s got a while to go before she carves out an identity beyond “wears clothes covered in eyeballs” but hope isn’t lost…remember when Perfume seem doomed to be Akihabara-centric idols? Until then, she has “PonPonPon,” a great jumping off single and the business card of one hell of a producer.