Some things change and some things seemingly do not. Japanese all-female, pop-punk trio Shonen Knife have made only moderate adjustments since forming in 1981.
Over the years there’ve been personnel shifts – vocalist/guitarist Naoko Yamano is the sole surviving original member – and some stylistic alterations. The band’s gone from adorable amateurism to Ramones-like perseverance. But Shonen Knife’s weathered fad-conscious hipsterdom. In the early 1990s the band was championed by American indie artists Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Redd Kross as their brand of punkified pop became mainstream – the band has not, and their brief stop at a major label (Virgin) didn’t last. Their English releases are now handled by Good Charamel Records, which distributes many Japanese music endeavors and was started in 2003 by former The Goo Goo Dolls’ bassist Robby Takac.
Despite a lower profile, though, Shone Knife has remained busy. They had a successful 2009 North American tour as documented on the recently distributed DVD, Live at Mohawk Place 2009. Last year Charamel brought out an English-language version of the 2007 Japanese-language record, Fun! Fun! Fun!. That was followed by this English-language rendition of Free Time, formerly issued as a Japanese-only edition in early 2010, as well as a return to the States for a tour.
Free Time, a 13-track, 45-minute outing, finds Shonen Knife on familiar ground. Yamano crafts songs related to her standard topics: sweets (“Rock’n’ Roll Cake”), cute animals (“Capybara,” concerning the world’s largest rodent), fanciful creatures (“Monster Jellyfish”), playing music (“Do You Happen to Know” and “Star”) as well as the mundane incidents of daily life (“An Old Stationary Shop”). The question some may ask is can a 30-year-old pop-punk band keep anyone interested with yet another assortment of basic riffs, clear-cut rhythms and willfully naive lyrics? Shonen Knife fans probably will say yes, others who bought Let’s Knife (1993) or Pretty Little Baka Guy (1986) may not see the sense of buying this newer material, though.
Over the years, Yamano has shifted from childlike, punked-up pop to material reflecting her fondness for hard rock. So, while the guitar riffs are more confident and technically precise than in the 1980s, and the rhythm section (bassist Ritsuko Taneda and latest drummer Emi Morimoto) maintain an effective, straight-up rock beat, the music now seems less charming and more journeyman-like. For example, remove the vocals from “Rock’n’Roll Cake” and there’s a pedestrian, indie rock arrangement. But Yamano’s broken English and lyrics about making her ideal desserts provide a Shangri-Las meets Weezer-esque demeanor. There’s a bit of the same foundation on “P.Y.O. (Pick Your Own),” a catchy ditty regarding the selection of a favorite flavor, which evokes followers such as Dressy Bessy or Cub.
Hard rock with whizzing bass lines, upfront drums and guitar amps turned up to ten permeate several pieces. A current-events diatribe, “Economic Crisis,” begins with brooding bass before pummeling eardrums with a hardcore stance similar to Bad Religion. It might appear incongruous to hear Yamano scream about worldwide recession while slashing out blistering guitar lines – her solo shows she’s obviously been practicing to the Epitaph imports that no doubt are part of her CD collection – but the track proves Shonen Knife is not stuck in a rut.
By contrast, the quirky, Kinks-ish “An Old Stationary Shop” focuses on a mom and pop shop in Yamano’s neighborhood. The cut includes psychedelic-pop guitar, a Ringo Starr-type backbeat and writing that shares Ray Davies’ sentimental affections. Another nod to 1960s pop shows up during the Merseybeat-tinged “Love Song” during which Yamano explains why she doesn’t write romantically-inclined tunes. “Love songs are all over the place, ‘cause people in the world like you listen to love songs/I don’t know, maybe I have a strange mind/‘I need you, I want you,’ musty phrases embarrass me.”
Free Time soaks in progressively, though. Taken in its entirety for the first time, the disc doesn’t have the sort of impact classic Shonen Knife undertakings possess. But ingested in small doses, cut by cut, and listened to with some attention, the subtle enticements sink in – the fuzzy guitar underlining “Star” or folksy acoustics that underpin amiable sing-a-long “Capybara.”
There are two bonuses as well. One is the initial Japanese-sung performance of “Rock’n’Roll Cake,” which is more aggressive and slightly faster than the English-language translation. And in a thumbs-up to old-school Britpop, there’s a stripped-down, eight-bit electronics rendering of “Capybara” ending the program and taking the notion of whimsical to a whole new level.Visit: Shonen Knife | Good Charamel
Purchase: Insound | eMusic