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Here, there and everywhere

by Steve McClure

Even though you may not recognize the name Tamio Okuda, you’ve probably heard his music. Okuda is the Svengali behind the extraordinarily successful female duo Puffy, and his love for and deep knowledge of ’60s and ’70s rock comes through loud and clear with every Beatles riff and classic chord pattern in Puffy’s songs.

But at the same time Okuda has been piling up the cash thanks to his work as Puffy’s main producer and songwriter, he’s maintained his own career as a solo artist. His music is worlds away from the slick, preprocessed pap that plagues the J-pop charts. Instead, it’s warm and full of human emotion — fancy that! — and has a sly, gently ironic sensibility that’s refreshing.

Okuda first made a name for himself as a member of Unicorn, a five-man band that was one of Japan’s top acts in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At that time, he was already gaining attention as a talented songwriter, though it was only after Unicorn broke up in 1993 that Okuda began to come into his own.

But first, Okuda took some time off to pursue a newfound passion: fishing for black bass. Once he’d landed enough black bass, the musician decided he had other fish to fry.

In an inspired move, he convinced two women working at his management company’s office, Ami Ohnuki and Yumi Yoshimura, to form Puffy. Collaborating with American musician Andy Sturmer (of Jellyfish fame), Okuda molded Ami and Yumi into a performing unit and became their producer, songwriter, backing musician and overall creative guru. Puffy’s music was guitar-based and full of catchy hooks, offering a refreshing contrast to the techno sounds that dominated the charts in the mid-’90s.

In 1995 Okuda released his first solo album, “29,” which was — wait for it — his age at the time. The album was recorded in New York with American studio musicians, including famed keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who added a dash of that very retro instrument, the Mellotron, to “Musuko (Son).” Okuda’s inspired take on the classic rock and pop styles of the ’60s and ’70s reminds me of the way Karl Wallinger appropriates and mutates various musical forms in his outstanding “World Party” releases. One of my Japanese colleagues recently asked me what I thought of the way Okuda recycles Beatles riffs on some Puffy tunes, and I answered by saying that kind of thing is very different from an out-and-out copy — it’s simply a musical in-joke, a tribute to the great ones who have gone before.

While his work with Puffy occasionally verges on parody, in his solo work, Okuda tends to wear his heart on his sleeve, expressing his emotions in an honest, gutsy way. For example, on “Musuko,” he sings about the love a father feels for his son in an unaffected, moving way. I guess you could call this the Japanese version of “dad-rock” — “oyaji-rock,” anyone?

Okuda followed “29″ with “30″ in November 1995, and the two companion albums cemented his status as one of J-pop’s most individual voices. The cover art for “30″ included Okuda in full John Travolta “Saturday Night Fever” duds, which typifies Okuda’s slightly twisted, self-deprecating sense of humor.

In 1997, Okuda teamed up with veteran singer-songwriter Yousui Inoue to make an absolutely superlative album titled “Shopping.” The album gave Inoue a well-deserved career boost and put Okuda firmly among the greats in the Japanese rock pantheon. Their version of the Okuda-penned Puffy hit “Asia no Junshin (Pure Heart of Asia)” is miles better than the original as far as I’m concerned.

But for my money, the best track on “Shopping” is “2 Cars,” which featured a solo Okuda vocal. It’s a wistful, haunting song that on the surface is about, well, two cars driving along the expressway, but which may or may not have a subtext about the vagaries of human relationships. It’s that kind of subtle, nonliteralness that makes Okuda such an interesting songwriter.

Okuda continued to explore the automotive theme on an album he released this past January, “Car Songs of the Years,” which contained such offbeat gems as “And I Love Car” (cf. The Beatles’ “And I Love Her”), his rendition of the Puffy hit “Circuit no Musume (Circuit Girl)” and an inspired cover of the old chestnut “Sunny.”

On Oct. 24, Okuda released a new single, “Custom,” that continues the retro theme by employing that wonderfully out-of-date studio effect, the phase-shifter, which he uses to make great whooshes of sound. In anyone else’s hands, it would be an irritating distraction, but Okuda makes it work, probably because “Custom” is, like most of the stuff he writes, a damn good song. The Japanese music industry needs more inspired “oyaji” like Okuda if it’s to achieve its goal of selling more CDs to Japan’s middle-aged — and aging — listeners.