Shonen Knife Reveal a Sharper Edge
In Shonen Knife's songs, life's a carnival of candies and kitties, Barbie dolls and pretty boys. Take away the lyrical kookiness, as when the trio sing in their native Japanese (which they do on the seven bonus tracks on their new [it[Brand New Knife, on the Big Deal label), and the artlessness still shines through via sweet vocal harmonies and jewel-toned melodies. Not for nothing were Shonen Knife raised on a Beatles/Ramones/Buzzcocks/Kiss diet.The band's music is perfect pop, effortless and elementary. In their 15-year career they have sung with such deadpan guile about routine pleasures like bicycling and catnip that it's hard to know where the joke ends, or whether it ever really began. Their straight delivery and all-around passion has given them an aura of purity that belies topics like junk food and sumo wrestlers. Kurt Cobain loved Shonen Knife for their "honesty," and it's safe to guess that the 20-plus bands who contributed to the '89 tribute disc Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them (Gasatanka/Giant) did too.Talking to vocalist/guitarist/leader Naoko Yamano doesn't do much to solve the mystery. She calls from Seattle, where the band are in the early stages of a six-week tour. She's so gracious and sincere, it's hard to imagine she's driven by any wise-acre sarcasm whatsoever. Exactly twice she gets a little breathless: when she speaks of meeting Joey Ramone backstage in Osaka, and again when she mentions the decor in her apartment back home ("I have many monsters!").So where does all the whimsy in Shonen Knife songs come from? "Our daily life or our experiences. Or our favorite things. On our former albums, I sang about many kitsch things. But Brand New Knife has some serious things about my opinion or my feelings."Indeed, the opening "Explosion!" is a point-blank call for the masses to get off their asses: "Nothing's gonna start if you and I do nothing/Nothing's gonna change if you and I are only waiting." The next track, "Wind Your Spring," also rails against spiritual vegetation: "If you do nothing at all, you'll be destroyed." (Yamano's other Brand New contributions do, however, include the usual chintzy treasures, like robot toys and Barbies.) Then bassist Michie Nakatani's "Fruits & Vegetables" contemplates both vegetative forms -- spiritual and edible: "When you feel down, I recommend to you/Have lots of fruits and vegetables." Forget the cream puffs, choco bars, and double-decker ice-cream cones of other, earlier Shonen Knife songs.In a way, "Fruits & Vegetables" is Shonen Knife pared down to their essence: the spiritual sustenance, the joy, that comes from mundane pleasures (and, hey, studies do show that food affects mood). Shonen Knife make the silly into the sacred. It's what's kept the band endearing after all this time.Brand New Knife is the band's first disc of new material in three years, not counting last year's compilation of rarities, Birds and the B-Sides (on Virgin). It's also the first Shonen Knife disc recorded outside Japan, in Los Angeles. The change in locale allowed for one large change in the creative process. "The studios in Osaka are very small," Yamano explains. "So we couldn't play all together at the same time. Basically we recorded drums and bass first and then I overdubbed guitar, but this time we could play all together. So I think Brand New Knife has a very nice groove sound."And don't think the three-year lull means Shonen Knife have been a bunch of silent lazybones -- they've been touring relentlessly. Yamano admits that travel can be tough. "Riding in a bus sometimes is very hard for me because the bus is shaking very much, so I feel very tired. But I like live shows, so I like touring." They played Lollapalooza '94 ("I enjoyed watching Green Day play every day," Yamano says); last year their cover of the Carpenters' "Top of the World" was used in a Microsoft ad. Their semi-fame has made it easier for other Japanese acts (such as the Boredoms, the Ruins, and Supersnazz) to get an audience here.So what's it like when she gets back home, when she's not doing music?"I like to go to sports gym," she says, to work out on weight machines. "I like racquetball, and I like to play computer games. Also, I like to watch sumo wrestlers. For me, some sumo wrestlers are very attractive. They have very nice bodies. Not only fat, but they have very nice muscles [she laughs]. Also, I like long-haired boys. Sumo wrestlers have long hair."