Sunday, May 29, 2011

Time and A Half For Weekend Work: The Music of Shonen Knife

Super Group


With the insanely adorable Etsuko Nakanishi taking over behind the drums.

"Super Group"--Still at fact addicts.

Naoko Yamano is the rare lyricist whose words jump into the air, into your ear, and tickles the hairs. "Their recordings are the best/Super pop songs touch everybody's heartstrings."

Intention and satisfaction in a wall of riffage and occasionally flashy bottom end...soloing simple as sun beams...the modern Shonen Knife in full force here.

On paper, the Traveling Wilburys were the greatest super group ever. George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, that other guy. Where from concept to execution did it all go so horribly wrong? I bet Naoko loves that record though. Just a guess.

"Slug"--Youth is served with the increased musicianship exhibited by the rhythm section. The intro makes me think someone's about to bust out a sped-up "I Will Follow Him," but alas alack. The fuzz axe-wielding behemoth saves it for its wedding night here. Very cool song, and I co-sign the sentiment fully. I remember being a young girl (not a little girl; I was once "young," but I have never been "little") staying with my family in Kentucky some random sweltering summer night and stepping out on the back porch to witness a veritable slug family leaving trails all over the steps. Then my grandmother made me eat tapioca pudding. I fucking loathe tapioca pudding. More than slugs? I dunno, it's not a contest! They're both terrible, horrible, no good, very fucked up things to be endured in this world.

"Muddy Bubbles Hell"--The obligatory devil-horns to the sky anthem, and with a title like that, how could it be anything but such? It's like if you see a song called "It Will Be a Good Time (Jah So)," you know it's gonna be reggae, and it's gonna suck.

When the temptresses pull back the hellfire curtain, cannons do not boom, pits do not spit up lava, demonic laughter does not escape Satanic lungs, and Rob Halford does not take the stage on a motorcycle. Speed and slash is forsaken, leaving ample room for spooky pewter-hued shadows to haunt your every step underneath a sky that shifts shades by the second.

Shit is Sabbath-ian.

"Deer Biscuits"--Yet another song on Super Group reminds me of well-spent youth in KY. Not 'cause of any deer, but 'cause of biscuits. For all the crap people from the American South get from other Americans--lazy, uneducated, insensitive, hateful, intolerant, obese, unwashed--you cannot deny that they do three things at a higher level of outstandingness than any other people in any other region of the U.S., and those things three are: drinking, storytelling, and eating. And they eat plenty biscuits. Plenty cornbread. Plenty buttered up and washed down.

Lest I fall into a snare decorated all pretty-like, however, I will be the first to say that the music taste of the average citizen who has to crane their neck to see the Mason-Dixon line lacks a tad. Play some Shonen Knife for the average Tennessean, and it will not go over well.

Naoko is not the mistress of metaphor. This song is about how she visited a deer park and gave a deer some biscuits. She also dispenses some advice for those listeners who may one day visit a deer park: "Make sure it's a sunny day."

"BBQ Party"--Super Group is, by far, the most Southern album Shonen Knife will ever do. How goddamn yee-haw y'all is a barbecue? Mind you, Naoko lists tofu and squid among the edibles at her particular git-down.

"Pig out pig out!" the chorus exhorts. Ah gluttony, the most universal of the deadly sins! "Don't worry about your diet." I hear that; see you in muddy bubbles hell, closely monitored daily caloric intake!

(Quiet as kept, Etsuko is the MVP. She's the classic mini-dynamo, contained in fresh-lock containers when at rest.)

"Pyramid Power"--Naoko's tone is kinda's probably the most notable aspect of 21st century SK albums, all told.

"Earth Wind and Fire made a 'Fantasy'/Pyramids on the stage." She's right, you know.

"Time Warp"--Let's do it. Again and again. And again and again!

"Na Na Na"--I won't lie, we're hitting a rough patch here, that inevitable skid on most latterly Knife records featuring songs that are utterly unremarkable. This is the band that did "Public Bath," the racket-gang that is exactly what the Ramones would be as Japanese women, mediocrity cannot be accepted.

"Your Guitar"--This is better. Meaningful volume has returned, and so has heart. Naoko beseeches a woman who has abandoned her rock n roll fantasies to walk over to that corner, dust off that Fender, plug in the amp, and re-commence to the fuckin' rockin'. Naoko, see, she never stopped. She knows how good it can always be.

"Jet"--I am a feverish fan of Paul McCartney. Yeah, I'm one of those. "Jet" is one of the man's finest several minutes, so I was kinda apprehensive at the prospect of Shonen Knife running it through their popcorn mower. And while it's not a tragedy, nor is it a triumph. The vocal harmonies bring visions of three singing Hello Kittys and no, I don't want that in my head. The ooh-woo's are far too subdued.

Super Group...just another product from the factory. It's what I expected.

Free Time


This cover is one of the few immaculate creations to spring forth from Earthly minds. CATS IN SPACE, a sight so spectacular that fish burst through the ocean, through the sky, through the planet to gaze adoringly upon it!

I picked up both Super Group and Free Time at Amoeba Records, the Hollywood record store that really needs to annex a small house for me to live in. Trick and I were staying with our friend Kar, and if we couldn't make it out anywhere else, we had to pass through Amoeba. Just one of those decisions that's "no brains required."

We blasted Free Time in the car the next day, and it was like reuniting with your life's love after a week with no contact.

"This doesn't sound like them," Patrick claimed.

"Sounds good to me," I said.

"This fucking rocks," Kar averred.

"I never said I didn't like it!" Poor Patrick. Kar and me each have two X's, you only have one.

"Perfect Freedom"--Limber and lucid, the perfect freedom granted to crack planks underfoot in the attic, instead of cheekily checking reflections in a spic'n'span kitchen floor.

"Rock N Roll Cake"--Malt shop sells fuzz-rimmed drinking glasses and wicked tasty cake by the slice.

"I want to sleep inside it/Like hibernation." Kinda like Slayer do between albums!

The contrasting guitar parts make this a near-rival for red velvet.

"Economic Crisis"--Feed is back! Back to stay! Metallic Knife is here early baby, the gleam...the dream...the not-quite scream that makes me rip off an arm, tie a shirt around it and wave it violently in the air like GOOOOOOOOOO TEAM!

Naoko is raging and incomprehensible. Aren't we almost all, in these shaky fiscal times? We need money for food, gas, concerts, Snoopy, leggings, lodging. Enunciation suffers.

"Do You Happen To Know"--Etsuko's drumming is so on point that point had to kindly ask her to move a bit to the left so it could breathe. Pop that is immediate, warm, and sharp.

"Capybara"--Cowgirls with backbone sing 'bout barrel-shaped rodents with webbed feet. Do you think all the animals Shonen Knife have serenaded over 27 years really appreciate their efforts? I mean, I'm sure an underappreciated creature like the capybara is deeply grateful for the affectionate attention, but do you imagine similar thankfulness from bison? Hell no. Bison are looking out for bison.

"An Old Stationary Shop"--This song is about a stationary shop that has some years on it.

Free Time is the perfect name for this album. 'Cause SK got plenty of both. Breathing out the jive and breathing in the love. They eat a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream once a week, three spoons deep in that bitch, and feel no apprehension, shame, guilt or remorse.

"Monster Jellyfish"--Rambunctious, ramshackle, and who cares what jellyfish think? Stingy bastards, ruining beach experiences. Not to fret; Etsuko's got the death roll down. Smash 'em, smash 'em, smash 'em with yer fist!

"P.Y.O."--Pretty Young Oysters? No.

Purse Your Ovaries? No.

Pick Your Own? Yes.

This one's made to be listened to with a fellow Knife-head (even if they don't know they are yet) and sing along with, even if the rousing chorus occurs only in a hastily-assembled playground of your own mind.

Pick your own what? Berries. "Cranberry, strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, gooseberry, Chuck Berry." Oh Naoko.

"Love Song"--Uninspired title, but listen. No hitting the wall on Free Time. "I don't want cheap love songs/But people in the world like to listen to love songs/I don't know why/Maybe I have a strange mind." The chorus is so fabulous it's practically creme-filled: "I need you/I want you/Musty phrases embarrass me."

What makes this song extra amusing is its resemblance to early Beatles records--namely chord structure and vocal harmonies--the lyrics of which were packed sick with "musty phrases" of yearning and devotion.

"Star"--How you gonna be a star without love songs? The problem is the star that longs to shine alone, that sees the congregation of a constellation as compromise. Gaseous and distant, indeed.

After a few pleasant but average full-lengths, Shonen Knife delivered the greats with Free Time. This doesn't bode well for the next album, as the band have not to my ears released back-to-back powerhouses since Pretty Little Baka Guy and 712 but I can't know that for sure, can I?. Naoko's still so damned determined to live every second of her life in thrall to rock and roll, she may surpass herself with the next one. To quote the legendary Japanese comedian Hosei Yamasaki: "It's a surprise. Look forward to it."


  1. Love it lady. You still rock the cock. xoxo

  2. An as expected, jacked up account of days spent with these songs, as only Trapper Jenn can do! Even when you don't know *all* the music - it doesn't even matter. Jenn's descriptions are so damn entertaining you feel like you know it well after reading all.

  3. I love the Peanuts' strips that you posted. Every year when school is about to start, I think of the strip where one character (Charlie Brown?) tells a second character (Sally?) that school is going to start. The second character runs away and yells, "Panic in the streets." That's how I feel right now, and I'd love to see that strip again. Do you have it? Would you post it?


  4. I got to this blog via this SK, not the other one.

    Saw them at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis last week. Never seen them before. It was the most fun show I've seen in, well, years. Minneapolis audiences can be reserved about the dancing and singing along and stuff. Not at this show, though. We were hopping.

    Perfect Freedom was great. Shonen Knife politics are going to be a bit inscrutable. But then, so are the Sex Pistol politics they are questioning.

    The Capybara one was very good too.