A couple weeks ago I reviewed an upcoming record by Belgian garage rock duo Black Box Revelations. I admitted that my knowledge of Belgian music was pretty limited. Well if that knowledge is limited, then my awareness of all-female Japanese rock music is non-existent. The only time I’ve really been exposed to that genre was the scene in Tarantino’s Kill Bill where The Bride shows up to The House Of Blue Leaves and The 5,6,7,8’s are performing on stage. Their screen time is pretty short, so not much I can go on.
So when I actually started listening to Shonen Knife I was amazed how I instantly felt familiar with the music. Not only was it something that I understood, but it’s done so well that you’d almost never know that these women didn’t grow up in southern California, surfing by day and rocking by night.
I did a little reading up on the group after listening to their new album, Pop Tune. Boy did I feel like an idiot. Not only has Shonen Knife been a band since I was born (which was a LONG time ago), they were handpicked by Kurt Cobain himself to open on Nirvana’s UK tour leading up to the release of Nevermind. They’ve put out almost twenty records over the course of their career, and while only one original member (of three) remains, they’ve done a good job of remaining the kind of group they wanted to be at the beginning.
Pop Tune, Shonen Knife’s 19th album is a catchy, fun record filled with big guitars and often silly lyrics. The lyrics aren’t all that important for this style, though. They come off as a perfect mix of The Ramones and The Ronettes. For a more contemporary comparison I’d say they’re like a female version of Smith Westerns.
On the punk rock side of things I really love the track “Osaka Rock City.” It is quintessential Ramones music that pays homage to all the great punk bands of the early to mid 70’s. One of the things that really impresses me about Shonen Knife, though it shouldn’t given their long history, is how well they understand what works to their strengths in punk music. There is a tipping point that some bands cross that makes their music almost hurtful to my ears. These ladies strike the perfect balance between aggressive instrumentation and exhilarating lyrics and vocals.
Their pop half shows through on a lot of the songs off this record, but I think my favorite is “Sunshine.” It’s the most simple tune included here, and it’s quite refreshing. Normal lead singer Naoko Yamana turns the spotlight over to bass player Ritsuko Taneda, whose youthful exuberance permeates through the track. Toward the end there’s a section that features Yamana’s voice combining with Taneda’s for an interesting piece of musical theater-type layering.
If you’re like me and this band has just now come into your world, rest assured there is plenty to dig into. The band is also going on tour (dates) in the US in July and August along with Chicago’s flame-haired brother-sister duo White Mystery. They’ll be appearing at The Empty Bottle on August 2nd as they trek back and forth across the country. I’m amazed that with their track record they aren’t playing bigger spaces, but I’m also happy that fans will get to enjoy the band in intimate settings like The Bottle or First Ave’s 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis.
Pop Tune is out now, and you can download it here.