The Hard Bulletin

There was something charming about the booming, lo-fi production of Number Girl’s earlier albums, but on its latest album, Sappukei, the Japanese punk quartet teams up with the Flaming Lips’ producer David Fridmann.

Fridmann has boosted the group’s rhythm section, cleaned up the guitar effects and flitered Mukai Shutoku’s banshee vocals through a number of effects processors.

At first, it’s hard to listen to Number Girl with such a polished sound. It almost goes against the total visceral experience of School Girl Distortional Addict or even Shibuya Rocktransformed Jootai, the band’s live album.

At the same time, it’s great to hear a Number Girl album blaring out of a stereo the way it ought to.

But enough of all this audiophile stuff — is the album any good?

Mukai’s songwriting has becomed a bit more sophisticated. Either that, Fridmann’s effects have given Mukai’s songs a different shade of loud. The hooks of such songs as “Sasu-You” or “Tattoo Ari” aren’t as immediate as, say, “Iggy Pop Fan Club” or “Young Girl Seventeen Sexually Knowing.”

On “Urban Guitar Sayonara,” Fridmann’s more orchestral touches — as evidenced on the Lips’ The Soft Bulletin — get in the way. The piano hook and a timpani roll are nice, but that atonal sax has to go.

After a week of listening to Sappukei, many of its song start seeping into the subconscious, and an album that gave the first impression of losing something vital to Number Girl’s essence in fact turns out to be a clarified version of the same.

Sure, the guitars don’t whack a listener in the ears like on the old albums, but your blood will pump no less when guitarists Mukai and Tabuchi Hisako tear through riffs on “Abstract Truth,” “Brutal Man,” “Brutal Number Girl” or “U-Rei.”

Number Girl is still one of the hardest rocking bands on the planet, and on Sappukei, it’s still all there.