Pretty Little Baka Guy
BANANAS AND BARBIE TOGETHER AGAIN WITH THE RELEASE OF THE FIRST 10 YEARS OF JAPANESE SUGAR-PUNK TRIO.
Shonen Knife was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite bands, and it's easy to see why. The trio seems to be everything Nirvana wasn't: female, Japanese, willfully childish, unabashedly gleeful and partial to songs about food and animals. "Even if I have hardships, it doesn't reflect in my songwriting," singer-guitarist Naoko Yamano says in the press release accompanying the reissue of the band's first four albums. "My policy is 'music should be fun.' Music is entertainment." No wonder Cobain sought refuge in her band's sugar-high pop-punk. But a closer reading of 1983's Burning Farm, 1984's Yama-no Attchan, 1986's Pretty Little Baka Guy and 1991's 712 reveals that not everything was so sweet.
Listening to Shonen Knife is kind of like snorting Pixy Stix: Maybe you'll puke, maybe you'll become an addict. The sound of a grown woman chirping about bananas (one of Yamano's favorite lyrical subjects) in Japanese can be either delightful or deeply unsettling. Is Burning Farm's "Twist Barbie" ("Blue eyes, blond hair/ Tight body, long legs/ She's very smart/ She can dance well…I wanna be Twist Barbie") simply juvenilia, or is there some sort of ironic feminist subtext here? What is up with Yama-no Attchan's "Chinese Song" ("Tons of Chinese are coming by bikes…Tons of Chinese are walking in their uniforms")? Why does Naoko Yamano sound so sad when she sings 712's "Fruit Loop Dreams"? And who thought it would be a good idea to cover John Lennon's "Luck of the Irish" as a duet with Redd Kross's Jeff McDonald on that same album?
Of course, such questions can be easily ignored in the face of the sheer joy exuded in the playing on these records. Shonen Knife was formed in 1981, with Naoko's sister Atsuko on drums and Michie Nakatani on bass. All three were secretaries at the time, and rocking out helped them let off steam. Burning Farm is the band at its rawest: tick-tock drumming, hopping basslines, three-chord riffs drowned in fuzz. Kitchen-sink percussion and wordless vocal interjections dot the sonic landscape. Songs like the dub-tinged "Parallel Woman" and the "Land of 1,000 Dances"-aping title track clatter along unsteadily, threatening to fall apart at any moment.
With each album, Shonen Knife's playing gets tighter and the production more polished, but the band never loses its dinky charm. The members are also acutely aware of their place in the world. "Nick Lowe, Costello, Beatles, Redd Kross, Ramones, Buzzcocks/ Shonen Knife is a cult band," Yamano raps on "Shonen Knife," the opening track on 712. By 1991, they were indeed an underground sensation, beloved by the American indie-rock community and eventually signed to Capitol and Virgin. They never broke through to the mainstream, but they also never broke up and continue touring and releasing new material.
Believing that Shonen Knife is all fun and games sells the band short. Thanks to punk music, three women in Japan have spent the past 20 years being rock stars rather than office clerks. But reading too much into them also misses the point. If Kurt Cobain were around today, he'd throw these reissues on the stereo, crank it up loud, and just dance, dance, dance. (Amy Phillips)
Shonen Knife plays its 501st live show Wednesday, March 30, at Dante's. 9:30 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.