Having registered a solid and satisfying blip on the Western indie-pop radar screen by firing loopy salvos of American-style pop-punk back from Japan, Shonen Knife proceeded from adorable Hello Kitty amateurishness to a more accomplished Ramonesy archetype as their international stature grew. Initially viewed as hapless wide-eyed shoppers in the great music mall, the consumer culture-obsessed Osaka trio — Naoko Yamano (vocals/guitar), her sister Atsuko Yamano (drums/art) and Michie Nakatani (vocals/bass) — have grown into a solid band, losing a lot of their childlike grace in the process.
The colorful Knife’s early records are magical treats of whimsical absurdity, ingenuous attacks of product endorsement and artless reports of mundane Japanese reality: “Ice Cream City,” “I Wanna Eat Choco Bars” and “Public Bath” (all on Pretty Little Baka Guy) accurately describe the band’s conceptual impulses. Burning Farm and the dinky-sounding Yama No Attchan, both sung almost entirely in Japanese, were packaged together for America as Shonen Knife, with helpful translations of such catchy Knife essentials as “A Day at the Factory,” “Insect Collector,” “Cycling Is Fun,” “Flying Jelly Attack” and “Twist Barbie” included in the booklet. The belated American vinyl issue of Pretty Little Baka Guy contains five songs from a 1990 Osaka concert; the CD and cassette replace three studio tracks with formative live efforts from 1982. K’s cassette-only edition of Burning Farm adds three songs from a Japanese compilation.
Even before the Knife started touring here in 1990, the band’s growing cult following — at least in and around Los Angeles — was commemorated in a sprawling tribute album, Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them (available in single-disc and double-disc vinyl configurations, as well as CD), and a song on Redd Kross’ Third Eye LP. The trio returned the fraternal attention on 712, which boasts “Redd Kross,” “White Flag” and “Blue Oyster Cult,” a harmony explosion about food poisoning, as well as the rapped “Shonen Knife,” which samples the Runaways, quotes the Monkees, mentions Jonathan Richman and offers the self-description “ultra eccentric super cult punk pop band.” Redd Kross’ Steven and Jeff McDonald, along with several other LA musicians, put in guest appearances, mocking up a John Lennon/Asian woman duet on “The Luck of the Irish” and helping Naoko (here billed as Nancy) through an atrocious cover of the Beatles’ “Rain.” Otherwise singing well — mostly in English — with improved instrumental skills, Shonen Knife adds the indolent “Lazybone” (“I don’t wanna ride a crowded subway/I wanna go by car”), “Fruit Loop Dreams” and “Diet Run” to their product line.
That brought the trio to critical commercial mass, and the young women’s next album was mixed by American producer Craig Leon to an approximation of the buzzing rhythm roar he achieved on Ramones and issued on a major label. The decision to rerecord some of the band’s best songs (but failing to filter out such also-rans as “Ah, Singapore,” “Black Bass” and a Buzzcocks rewrite, “Devil House”) for the all-English Let’s Knife make it something of an anti-climax for fans, but it’s hard to resist clearly rendered versions of “Twist Barbie,” “Riding on the Rocket,” “Cycling Is Fun,” “Insect Collector” and “Flying Jelly Attack.” Sonic consistency and fake-sounding drums are incongruous attributes for Shonen Knife, but their plainly audible enthusiasm — and the assurance in their giddy voices — makes this de facto greatest hits worth its weight in Sanrio gift certificates.
Though it was inevitable that Shonen Knife would eventually lose its guilelessness, Rock Animals rips it off the threesome like stolen clothing. The album is an effort to make the group a number of things it’s not. Dragging typically slender and only moderately charming song ideas out to insupportable lengths (the 48-minute album contains only eleven numbers; the five-minutes-longer Let’s Knife squeezes in seventeen), co-producer Page Porrazzo slickly shoehorns the band into the teetering high heels of inappropriate and unappealing stylings that negate Shonen Knife’s personality and leave the band sounding uncomfortable, awkward and pretentious. For these guys, simplicity and naïveté aren’t just assets, they’re fundaments — even if it’s all a self-conscious put-on. Greater subtlety and invention might have put the wrongheaded mainstreaming goals of Rock Animals within reach, but this clumsy mess (complete with guest appearance by guitarist Thurston Moore) throws innocence away on nothing.
We Are Very Happy You Came is a live album; The Birds and the B-Sides is an enticing odds-and-ends compilation of ’90s matter, most of it happily light in tone and spirit, cleverly produced and previously unavailable in the US. Among the eighteen selections are five live Knife classics, nifty covers of the Carpenters, Kinks, Phil Spector, Martha and the Vandellas (“Heatwave” by way of the Who) and Brian Wilson (“Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”), and such nifty original studio rarities as the exhilarating “Space Christmas” and “Strawberry Cream Puff,” a number left off the American edition of Rock Animals. Creative rehabilitation sometimes comes in strange packages.