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Japan’s Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Bids for Stateside Pop Stardom on ‘Pika Pika Fantajin’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 12, 2014
Label: Sire

Pop is supposedly a universal language, although getting American audiences to believe that has been rough going—a few songs that dabble in Spanish have made the leap to pop radio playlists, but they’re anomalous enough that Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” which topped the charts some 18 years ago, remains one of the bigger tracks to cross over.

Which brings us to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a Japanese model-slash-singer who’s become well-known among North American music fans for her hyperkinetic fashion sense and exploded-drawing pop music, both of which balance notions of “cute” with the grotesque in ways that are as glee-inducing as they are unsettling. She’s hung out with Katy Perry and been enthused over by Grimes; she’s played a handful of shows in the States and in Canada, attracting fans costumed in ways that, while outlandish, don’t hold a candle to her breasts-as-eyes party frock or Christmas-tree ‘do. And this year her profile has only risen: Avril Lavigne’s sugar-coma-inducing video for “Hello Kitty,” which the Canadian singer released to much consternation, was eventually uncovered as an homage to Pamyu Pamyu. And last weekend, Courtney Love posted photos with Pamyu Pamyu and her army of decked-out dancers.

Pamyu Pamyu’s third album, Pika Pika Fantajin, has her working once again with the Japanese songwriter and producer Yasutaka Nakata, a meticulous crafter of complex yet earwormy pop songs who’s part of the Jpop group Capsule. It’s also, if “Ring A Bell” is any indication, her first push out of the mini-tour fringes and into the meaty part of the Western pop market. “Ring A Bell” is Pamyu Pamyu’s first offering in English. It’s an upbeat tale of visiting the studio that has an utterly straightforward, glittering chorus, which eventually gives way to her singing “I’m happy today, I’m happy today” over and over. As a standalone song, its simplicity almost sounds cynical, until her proclamation of happiness repeats itself for so long that it eventually takes on the qualities of a manic episode, which makes for a fine pop experiment, but a bit of a gritted-teeth listener experience.

Other tracks on the album, though, go for the pop jugular, even while Pamyu Pamyu’s air-balloon soprano directs listeners toward surface lightness. Nakata’s arrangements sound like they were first crafted in miniature, with no room left for instrumental flourishes or drum fills, then blown up to scale. The strenuously up-tempo “do do pi do” sounds the most readily accessible to Western audiences, its housey piano intro giving way to plinky toy-pianos and Pamyu Pamyu’s sugary vocal. “Kira Kira Killer” is a peppily presented tale of a “sparkly killer” with backup vocalists who sound ready to charge through the next candy store they find; “Sunngoi Aura” is an extended exercise in whimsy, complete with trilling piccolo, that is so precisely orchestrated as to conjure images of storyboarded chase scenes. Whether the American audience beyond online diehards will take to Pamyu Pamyu’s complex, layered take on pop—or at the very least, be entranced enough by her fashion sense to let her live in the liminal arena of “music-related celebrity”—remains to be seen, but the airy yet dense, utterly catchy tracks on PikaPika Fantajin certainly deserve a listen from those looking to expand their pop boundaries.