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SHONEN KNIFE

Happy Hour
Rating: 8
Squirm factor: 1
   I've got a good friend, Ian, one of whose aims in life is to introduce me to new weird music. He's got reams of English post-punk, two-tone ska, novelty country, goth revival, and other genres too recondite to even have names. And every once in a while he gives me one of these discs for Christmas. The odd thing is, while sometimes I don't quite get it ("Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage"), they usually turn out to be among my favorites, like Wreckless Eric or Shonen Knife.
   If you don't know, Shonen Knife are three Japanese women who sing in English and play very cool rock and roll songs. They've been lumped into the punk category, but I really don't see why; their tunes are pop-based guitar rock of the finest variety. (Side note: I also have never understood why the Ramones are considered punk rock; they're clearly surf-rock revivalists who devolved into lame heavy metal.) Happy Hour is the only album of theirs I own; critics are saying it's not quite up to their usual standard, in which case their other albums must be incredible, because this is one fine album.
   The songwriting and singing is split unevenly between guitarist Naoko Yamano and bassist Michie Nakatani. Sad to say, there seems to have been a lot more effort put into the production on Yamano's songs (which may account for Nakatani departing the group after this album.) Both are capable of some terrific melodies, but Yamano's guitar riffs are what really sell this album. Check out the chorused lead line over three overdubbed ska-line rhythm guitars in "Cookie Day", the overdriven grind of "Konnichiwa", what is either a Leslie or an e-bow set at maximum r.p.m. under a beautiful slide line in "People Traps", or the insanely rapid strumming in the chorus of "Sushi Bar Song." Incredibly catchy, and impeccably delivered. Nakatani's three songs don't have so much going for them in the guitar department - just the plain vanilla chord progressions bassists are prone to write, without a lot of lead work.
   The vocal melodies throughout are terrific - out of 13 songs here, there are at least 10 that will stick in my head all day after I listen to this album. "Konnichiwa" has a sudden swing upwards that's a surefire hook, "Cookie Day" has a beautiful interval repeated a step higher the second time around, "Hot Chocolate" has a bridge that slides smoothly down the scale, "Fish Eyes" has a dramatic pause in the upward thrust of the tune, "Jackalope" has a catchy melisma in the bridge, and it goes on and on. Even the duller tunes don't get boring; they simply pale in contrast to the rest of this hook-filled collection.
   The lyrics are real grabbers, too. There's a tendency to fixate on food products: "Cookie Day", "Sushi Bar Song", "Hot Chocolate", "Banana Chips", and even a dish which I've never heard of, but sounds great judging from the song, "Gyoza" ("spiced minced pork, wrapped in a small pancake"). Some might say this is all a bit trivial, but they're not funny songs about food a la Weird Al; they're genuine appreciations of the pleasure food brings. You may have noticed from my picture that I'm no stranger to the pleasures of gourmandism, and I say, it's about time someone starting devoting as much effort to singing the praises of food as of puppy love or getting parties started.
   Elsewhere, a certain fractured sensibility shines through; there's a Dada element to the Shonen Knife worldview. Take this verse from "Cookie Day": "Sugar sugar candy in my mouth/Stay home watch TV/A cute boy singer is singing like a man/I have nothing to do/It's very very hot outside/I'm lazy in my room/I have to water the cactus on the porch/'Cos it needs a drink/Thinking about these kinds of things I suddenly wanted to eat some cookies and dip them in milk". "Fish Eyes" tells the story of a girl who grows fish eyes on her head overnight, and "Jackalope" is a tribute to the mythical postcard creature, which is "kind of cute, kind of cool, kind of wild." "Konnichiwa" (Japanese for "good evening") is the kind of barnburning set opener all good live bands need, and even includes crucial information for newcomers: "Welcome to our show, we come from Osaka, Japan".
   Not everything succeeds, however. "Shonen Knife Planet" is an attempt at hip-hop fusion that builds on none of the strengths of the group, and the cover of "Daydream Believer" just sounds odd coming from a female singer (just as "Natural Woman" sounds weird in Rod Stewart's voice).
   I can't get enough of this album, though, and my Christmas wish next year is for more Shonen Knife!

READER COMMENTS

  • From Tasha "Basswench" Avon: Hi - just happened to come across your review of Brand New Knife. "Plain vanilla" or whatever that bassists tend to write? Being a bassist, I sort of take offense..anyway, Naoko could have done more with the plain vanilla chords had she wanted to.
    Why Michie ultimately left the group is really anyone's true guess. From all I've heard, she has said "she wants her own life." I would really be surprised if she indeed didn't really like being pushed more and more towards the background as their albums progressed and wanted out to do her own thing. I certainly wouldn't have stuck with a band for over ten years (1982-1998?) if that were the case.
    Anyway, regardless of everything...welcome to the wonderful world of Shonen Knife. As you may or may not know, there's been two new albums, Strawberry Sound and Heavy Songs, both of which I like for various reasons, but after listening to earlier discs (I got 712 *after* Heavy Songs), I sorely miss Michie's presence.
    Sigh. Oh, well. Nothing in life is ever perfect.
    Thanks for listening.

  • From Erik Piper: I found your page while aimlessly browsing for pages containing references to “People Traps.” You pondered a bit on the fact that Shonen Knife are often classified as punk rock. Their older material is indeed quite often punky, though still very much a Shonen Knife kind of punk. They evolved into the intelligent pop-rock sound you hear on Happy Hour; most bands kind of degrade with age, but SK only got better.
    Haven’t heard any of the new stuff; really oughta break open the wallet for it.

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