It Slices, It Dices, It’s Shonen Knife!

Let's Knife

It’s time to enter the garage. Via Japan.

But first, let me tell you a little story. The year is 1981. In the megalopolis of Osaka, known worldwide for its sake, three young women start a band that’s different from the typical J-pop group. Combining influences from 60s girl groups, garage and punk rock, the trio create a poppy yet punky sound that is unusual in their home country. In less than 10 years they will be hailed by Kurt Cobain and other leaders of the alternative rock scene.

Now it’s 36 years later. And the band plays on.

Osaka Ramones

Shonen Knife is an unusual creature, not really fitting into any convenient niche. Although they are most closely associated with a Ramones-like sound, their poppy and somewhat frail vocals immediately put them in a different category altogether.

(EVERYONE: THEIR POPPY AND SOMEWHAT FRAIL VOCALS IMMEDIATELY PUT THEM IN A DIFFERENT CATEGORY.)

 Er, yes.

Powerpuff

Throughout their career Shonen Knife has delivered their own take on punk, garage rock and 60s pop, creating a unique amalgam. In fact, if there is a Shonen Knife sound, it would be poppy vocals over heavy music. The term pop punk, most often applied to bands that sound like Green Day, is not what I’m talking about here. Pop punk is fast, catchy music with a bit of an edge to the guitars. It’s homogeneous. Shonen Knife combines two sounds that really don’t fit together that well. But, and this is the important bit, they make it work. Recent albums focus on heavy metal (Super Group from 2010, Free Time from 2011), punk (Tribute to the Ramones from 2011), 60s pop (Pop Tunes from 2012) and 70s hard rock (Overdrive from 2014 and Adventure from 2015). Yet they all sound like Shonen Knife.

Lyric content definitely provides some continuity for the group. From early on, songs have focused on food (Sushi Bar, Wasabi, Fortune Cookie), animals (Parrot Polynesia, Bear Up Bison, Like a Cat) and science fiction (Planet X, Riding on the Rocket, Robot from Hell). In fact, it’s safe to say that SK’s lyrics are pretty weak in general. And this is not a criticism! Pop music is built on inane lyrics (There’ll be rainbows reachin’ cross the sky and we’ll both be so happy we will cry from The Monkees song The Day We Fall In Love). It’s practically required that pop music lyrics be absurd!

Overdrive

The 2014 album Overdrive (which was part of the EPL collection until recently) is a good place to start your acquaintance with these ladies. Filled with great hard rock riffs (Green Tea, Shopping), jangly dream rock (Fortune Cookie) and that “typical” Shonen Knife sound (Jet Shot), Overdrive gives an overview (clever wordplay alert!) of the band’s oeuvre. Why, Robot from Hell, a most excellent hard rock tune, is in itself worth the price of checking the album out!

Thirty-six years is a mighty long time for a rock band to successfully exist. Band members have left, been replaced, returned, had babies, quit, got a haircut and returned. They have toured extensively and released 20 albums. And still the music pours out of them.

So if you need a little spring in your step, a little cheer in your soul, get thee behind Shonen Knife. And as you go out into the world today, keep these lyrics from Bad Luck Song close to your heart:

The bad luck song might be my good luck song
This is the best way of thinking
Let’s take it easy
Change the way you’re thinking

Reading on Impulse

An intriguing review or recommendation is the usual, and sensible, criteria I use when selecting a book to read. Recently though, I overrode my usual programming and literally judged a book by its cover. Blame it on the weird graphics or maybe the author’s last name being the same as Haruki Murakami but I succumbed to the library equivalent of an impulse buy and checked out The Audition by Ryu Murakami after only a quick glance at the cover.

Despite my flawed selection criteria, The Audition turned out to be a great read. Well, great if you don’t mind entering a disturbing, gruesome and oddly funny world.

Aoyama has been widowed for several years and, despite the chiding of his teenage son, has avoided the dating scene. When his film producer friend hatches the idea to hold an audition to find him a new spouse, using a fictitious film as bait, he reluctantly agrees to participate. He falls hard for the young, beautiful and mysterious Yamasaki.  His infatuation blinds him to the mounting evidence that something is very wrong and leads to a truly horrific conclusion.

Part social commentary, part comedy and part thriller this is a hard book to define. It is written in a straightforward style and admittedly does have a slow buildup. If you stick with it you will be rewarded, if that is the right word, with a book you won’t soon forget.

Having enjoyed The Audition, I used a more reliable book recommendation method and decided to read another title by the author. Popular Hits of the Showa Era definitely fit the bill and didn’t disappoint.

Set in a nondescript Tokyo neighborhood, this is the tale of two unlikely warring factions. The first is a dim-witted group of young men who giggle uncontrollably and perform karaoke shows for no one. The second is a team of middle aged divorcees united only by a shared last name. Both groups are caught in an existential malaise until an act of violence unites them in a desire for mutual revenge. From then on, the body count begins to rise and things quickly get out of hand.

If you take this title on, be prepared for a scathing social satire. Social satire is actually too generic a term. Think Camus’ The Stranger with tons of pop culture references and played for laughs or maybe a modern day Japanese Satyricon. If you think it could be justifiable to fire a missile at a bunch of drunken youths in drag lip synching to horrible pop tunes, this book may be for you. If not you probably want to steer clear and resist the enticing cover.

Richard

Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City

Certain books just get inside your head. The language somehow finds your resonant frequency and refuses to leave. There is no choice. You have to finish the book as quickly as possible. The experience can be exhilarating and exciting but also disturbing and disorienting at times. If you find yourself staying up too late or missing your bus stop to finish the next chapter, you have come across the kind of book I’m talking about.

Two books that I read recently fit into this category: Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City both by David Peace.

The plot description will only tell you so much. Set during the Allied occupation of Japan, Occupied City is technically about a mass poisoning that took place at a bank and the attempts to find the killer. Tokyo Year Zero shares the same setting and deals with a police detective tracking down a serial murderer. Both crimes are based on historical events.

Defining these books as mysteries or historical fiction would be a grave mistake, however. Who did it and why, while important, really isn’t the author’s prime concern. Instead he uses an intense stream of consciousness narrative to get inside the head of the characters. The question is whether you want to be there or not.

If you are up for a challenge, and don’t mind going down a few very dark alleys, both of these books will reward you with an addictive reading experience.

Richard