VAULT: Artist Spotlight: Shonen Knife + A review of their new album Adventure
VAULT is a new weekly review series hosted by The Comma and run by Ansel Wakamatsu. This week, guest writer/my super cool girlfriend Amy Tong dives into the world of Japanese pop-punk with a review of Shonen Knife’s latest album, Adventure.
As a student, I’m always bombarded with the question: “So Amy, what are you going to do once uni finishes?” Hmmm… Well... if I ever had the choice to do so, I would move to Japan with my three dogs and become the bassist for Japanese pop-punk band, Shonen Knife. It’s a difficult image to envisage, so here’s an illustration for some assistance:
Some might say I have waaay too much ambition, but I believe it’s achievable. I’ll just have to find a Japanese salaryman to marry at the fruitful age of 19 first! As for Shonen Knife, they’re an all-female pop-punk band hailing from Osaka, Japan. Born in the 1980s, the band is heavily influenced by 1960s girl groups, The Beach Boys and The Ramones. Throughout its three decade reign, the band has had a couple of lineup changes but its constant sole original member is 55 year-old singer-guitarist, Naoko Yamano.
After watching a couple of videos where the group perform, it’s incredible to see a woman (the same age as my mum) stage an act with such bountiful energy. They belt out tunes with the same enthusiasm as I did when I was an angsty 16 year-old who learnt three chords on the guitar and realised I could play the entirety of The Ramones’ music catalogue. Seriously though, I cannot properly express the joy I felt when I learnt how to play Blitzkrieg Bop on a shitty, wooden acoustic guitar.
Shonen Knife’s enthusiasm is so infectious that they have earnt the respect of Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was Shonen Knife’s biggest fan, claiming that he “was transformed into a hysterical nine year-old girl at a Beatles concert” when he finally saw them live in 1991. Cobain asked Shonen Knife to join them on their UK tour as an opening act, just prior to the release of Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind. However, Yamano later admitted that she had no idea who Nirvana were and stated that “they might be scary persons, because their hairstyles and clothes were very grunge.”
Here’s a little something from their 1998 album, Happy Hour. This one’s called Banana Chips! The childish lyrics, Banana chips for you / Banana chips for me / In the afternoon, banana chips and tea, makes Shonen Knife the cheesiest punk you’ll ever listen to but that’s part of the band’s charm. Banana Chips exemplifies what Shonen Knife is all about - it’s pop punk that’s not supposed to be taken seriously. Don’t expect songs about political corruption or the fragile human condition to pop up in their music catalogue anytime soon, but rather songs about cookies, sushi, cats and bicycles. I guess in that sense, they’re a breath of fresh air from all the anarchy that was characteristically associated with punk rock in the 1980s.
Fast forward to 2016, Shonen Knife released an album earlier in April titled Adventure. The album is brimming with sunshine and comprises of familiar sounds inspired by motown, metal, punk and 60s style bubbly-pop. Adventure is laced with cascading vocal harmonies and catchy guitar riffs that definitely pay homage to the past.
The opening track is called Jump Into the New World - a breezy, summery pop-punk number about one’s coming-of-age. The song comprises of three-part vocal harmonies, simple chords and a melodic guitar solo that is almost verging upon being cute (if that’s even possible for a guitar solo to do). In terms of lyricism and musicality, the song isn’t THAT interesting but it’s a catchy little ditty that sets the optimistic mood for the rest of the album. Look at Shonen Knife performing the song - they’re all literally bouncing with energy.
Another notable track is Rock n’ Roll T-Shirt - a song literally about the joys of wearing a band T-shirt. I think this song connected with me the most because it embodies the love I have for my Violent Femmes T-shirt that an old friend got for me for Christmas a really long time ago. The shirt was five times my size and I always used to wear it to sleep. However the threads are now fraying at the seams ever since my dog decided to chew it up, so now it has all these holes in all the wrong places. Rock n’ Roll T-shirt is a fucking badass song - much more gritty than any of the other tracks on the album. If Adventure was released a couple of years earlier, I would’ve probably had this track on repeat on my tiny blue 2GB iPod shuffle.
The song is a weird concoction of growly guitar lines that are definitely influenced by The Ramones, but the underlying bass line is a nostalgic wink to the 1960s. The vocals are so cheesy and wonderful as well - all the members belt into the mic in rounds, which is reminiscent of girl groups. That aside though, I think the repetitive chanting is what makes the song for me because it screams adolescent angst and attitude.
Towards the middle of the album, Shonen Knife start singing about food, in particular wasabi and green tangerines. Wasabi was a track that definitely stood out to me when I first gave the album a go, because I couldn’t believe a band was actually singing about “the pungent taste” of wasabi and how “it’s so hot”. I remember showing Wasabi to Ansel on the train… He was definitely unimpressed, to say the least.
I wonder if the simple lyrics represent the band’s yearning for a simpler time. Most of the members of Shonen Knife have families and are part-time office workers, so it would make sense of them to have the desire to return to a childlike sense of wonder.
To be honest, it’s not an album that I would listen to on a daily basis. It’s perfect when I’m having an off-day because I feel like I’m 16 again whenever I listen to it - full of energy and attitude. It definitely reminds me of a simpler time… Back in the day where my only worry in the world was whether my high school crush would ever like me back. And now I have to sort out NDA Agreements and Tax Declaration Forms?!
After digesting their massive discography,it is apparent that Shonen Knife don’t really bring anything new to the table with Adventure. I highly doubt the band are going to pull out a three-hour jazz fusion odyssey anytime soon. That being said, Adventure is a continuation of their previous works - preppy, bubblegum pop-punk - which is acceptable because they’re excellent at it.
Verdict: Overall, I give this album an 11/10. Though, I’m still yet to convince Ansel that Shonen Knife are musical geniuses. (But then again, what does he know? He admitted he liked a Jonas Brothers song in the last article. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
VAULT recommends: If you have managed to read this far and are somewhat interested in the music I’m talking about, here’s the album stream because no one has released the tracks individually on Youtube.
Amy Tong is studying a Bachelor of Communications, majoring in Journalism. Whenever she isn’t busy contemplating the meaning of her life, she likes to scroll through pictures of Shibas and Corgi butts on Instagram.
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