Pop Rocks 

The sugar-and-spice saga of Shonen Knife reaches album No. 18

Although the band's musical output has been relentlessly upbeat for more than 30 years, Japan's Shonen Knife is no stranger to turmoil.

Only founding member Naoko Yamano (vocals, guitar), of the original trio that included her sister Atsuko Yamano (drums, vocals), remains; Atsuko left in 2006 after her marriage relocated her to Los Angeles.

Tragedy also lingers around the group. One of Shonen Knife's early supporters was Kurt Cobain, and Mana Nishiura, who took over the group's drum duties in 2000, died in a traffic accident in New Jersey in 2005.

Naoko Yamano, responding via email, said she has embraced a simple approach to weathering the group's turbulent moments.

"I've never (looked) back," she wrote. "I just look forward."

The backdrop of such calamity makes Shonen Knife's deliriously spiky pop songs on Pop Tune (Good Charamel Records) all the more riveting. For a band that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary—Shonen Knife formed in 1981—the group's ebullience and perseverance are admirable. Bands neither capriciously nor casually withstand 30 years in the music business, but Naoko's philosophy suggests otherwise.

"I didn't (notice) so many years have passed," she wrote. "I'm always (keeping) myself fresh and never thought (of quitting) the band."

The prolific output of Shonen Knife—Pop Tune is the group's 18th official album—renders Naoko's admission that she does not plan ahead ("because I'm lazy") astonishing. Naoko, however, has no trouble summoning her favorite memory of decades of recording and touring with a band whose fans and friends include Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Matt Groening.

"(Opening) up for the Ramones in 1998 in Osaka for their farewell tour," she wrote, "was one of my favorite (memories, because) I listened to their music when I was a student."

The Ramones can also be credited as unwitting muses for Shonen Knife. When the group decided to record a few Ramones covers in 2010, Naoko, feeling inspired, decided that an entire album of Ramones covers would be a fitting release for Shonen Knife's 30th anniversary. The resulting album, Osaka Ramones (2011), weds Shonen Knife's immutably joyous spirit with hits like "Beat on the Brat" (sounding like a bubbling volcano) and more-obscure selections like "Scattergun" (with the sound of ricocheting lightning blasts).

After covering groups from the Ramones to the Carpenters (and everyone in between, including the Kinks, the Runaways and the Beatles), Shonen Knife have become adroit connoisseurs of popular music. Certainly, proficiency and the tenets of writing a tidy, winning pop song, expressed amply throughout Pop Tune, have been instilled while covering many of music's finest. Shonen Knife's latest album came together, Naoko explained, as much of the group's output does.

"I started to write songs three months before the recording," she wrote. "I write lyrics and put (the) melody line for them. Then I make (a) demo tape and give it to other members. We make arrangements in the studio."

According to Naoko, the group's recording process is relatively effortless, and that's evident on Pop Tune. The album is nothing if not unfussy ("I wanted to make [a] pop album for this time"), but the resulting music, for all its traipsing through pop hallmarks, remains remarkably nuanced. "All You Can Eat," one of the year's silliest songs, is remarkable for effortlessly shifting its quirks (kazoo solos and hand-claps; lyrics like, "It's like a dream / to fill yourself with food") into something ultimately touching. "Psychedelic Life" allows its vamping guitar and snaky rhythms to be kaleidoscopically illuminated by a rambling recorder. Closer "Move On" shifts seamlessly from jangly and bittersweet to anthemic and emboldened. Naoko, who wrote all of the songs on Pop Tune, may self-identify as "lazy," but she is clearly a consummate professional.

"I can make songs anytime," she wrote. "When the recording will be booked, I'll make songs. I always have to keep my eyes open for the topics for my lyrics."

For a band so food-obsessed (see "I Wanna Eat Chocobars," "Fruit Loop Dreams" and "Monkey Brand Oolong Tea"), Shonen Knife make it easy to imagine (or hope) that when Naoko examines Tucson for inspiration, there may be a tribute to El Guero Canelo's Sonoran dog or El Charro Cafe's carne seca in waiting. After all, our arid land made a strong (almost poetic) impression on Naoko during a visit in the 1990s.

"I remember (the) audience in Arizona was cheerful," she wrote. "My impression about the Southwest is huge; people are powerful."

More by Michael Petitti


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