Reviewed on this page:
Burning Farm - Yama-no Attchan -
Pretty Little Baka Guy - Live In Osaka Japan - 712 - Let's Knife - Rock Animals - The Birds and
The B Sides - Brand New Knife - Happy Hour - Heavy Songs - Genki Shock - fun! fun! fun! - Super Group - Free Time
A retro rock trio from Japan that developed into the most
entertainingly silly band this side of Bootsy
Collins. They write all their own stuff (they have to, nobody
else could write those lyrics), and they're no virtuosos, but by
now they can play credibly (which has cost them dearly with their
original punk-oriented fans). Oh, and they're all women.
After years of cult status, they got a major label deal in the 90s, and remade some of their early hits, but by the new millennium they were back to Japan-only releases, mostly on their own Burning Farm label. (DBW)
This page isn't my fault. (JA)
Naoko Yamano, guitar, vocals, main songwriter; Michie
Nakatani, bass, vocals, other songwriter; Atsuko Yamano,
drums, vocals, not a songwriter. Nakatani left 2000, Atsuko switched to bass, Mana "China" Nishiura joined on drums. Nishiura died in car crash, November 2005, replaced by Etsuko Nakanishi. Atsuko retired, 2006, replaced by Ritsuko Taneda. Nakanishi left, 2010, replaced by Emi Morimoto.
Burning Farm (1983)
Their debut studio release, which has just been rereleased on CD with bonus tracks (supposedly including a cover of the
Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," though it's not on my copy). The singing is tentative at this point ("Miracles"), but the
instrumentalism is fairly proficient: they mostly stick to straight-ahead garage rock, but when they range to reggae ("Parallel
Woman") they pull it off. The lyrics are preoccupied with food ("Elephant Pao Pao" is one of three songs about bananas), with
occasional comments on pop culture ("Twist Barbie," "Watchin' Girl").
The recording quality is very crude: the vocals are echoey, Atsuko Yamano's drumming sounds thin, and Naoko Yamano has the same fuzzy
guitar tone on every track. And the best tunes were later remade for Let's Knife: "Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner's
Theme," "Twist Barbie" and the title track, with its main hook copied from "Land Of A Thousand Dances" (better known as
"that song that goes 'Naaaah, na na na naaah, na na na na, na na na, na na naaah, na na na naaah'").
Factor in the short running time and it's hard to recommend this debut as highly
as their later work.
Yama-no Attchan (1984)
I can't deny it: the bouncy "Flying Jelly Attack" and pensive "Insect Collector," the two songs which were remade for the
band's US debut, are the best songs on the record... the CD reissue includes live versions of both tunes. (The mellow,
near-instrumental closer "Bye Bye" is nearly as good.)
The production values continue to be cut-rate, but the band doesn't do as much to rise above it, as a bunch of the
compositions are perfunctory ("Elmar Elevator").
The fascination with fruit continues ("Banana Leaf"; "Cannibal Papaya"), though they do range farther afield with the
trippy "An Angel Has Come" and "Dali's Sunflower."
Pretty Little Baka Guy (1986)
Originally released only in Japan, now available on one CD with Live
In Osaka Japan. The band had already settled into its niche: humorous
tunes about animals and food, over upbeat rock chords and stripped-down
arrangements. Contains the original versions of many tunes remade on
Let's Knife, including "Bear Up Bison," "Devil House," "Ah
Singapore" (with very different lyrics) and "Riding On The Rocket." Fans
will definitely want this for the New Wave-y "I Wanna Eat Choco Bars"
and "Ice Cream City," though the uninitiated should probably start with
the more precise remakes. (DBW)
Live In Osaka Japan (1990)
Five cuts from a 1990 show, mostly from Pretty Little Baka Guy,
and three from way back in 1982 when they had no idea what they were
doing ("Spider," "Secret Dance," "I'm A Realist"). With so many tracks
repeated from the earlier disc, it's not much of an added value, but you
do get to hear that they're about as accurate and cheerful in concert as
they are in the studio. (DBW)
Last of the early Japan-only releases. It's generally badly
recorded, and musically all over the place: a couple of Beatles
covers ("Rain") where the band doesn't play the instruments; a
pseudo-hip hop collage ("Shonen Knife"); and some excellent lyrics
confounded by formulaic music ("Diet Run," "Superstar"). (DBW)
Let's Knife (1992)
The first new release on Virgin, this is remakes of the best of the
band's earlier material - no tunes from 712,
however. For the first time, almost everything's sung in English,
which irritated a lot of folks, but since I don't understand
Japanese, I'd be a fool to complain. The band takes control here,
producing, arranging and composing all the songs and playing all
the instruments, and it's a decided improvement over the previous
compilation: the tunes are enjoyable and well-recorded, and
silly/serious lyrics address endangered bison ("Bear Up Bison"),
Twist Barbie(tm), insect collecting ("Insect Collector"), and the
joys of being a tourist in Singapore ("Ah, Singapore"), as well as
asking the musical question, "Do we need the media?" ("Watchin'
Rock Animals (1993)
Their unique sense of humor really comes across on this one, and the riffing is also heard to best advantage. The pro-drug
"Catnip Dream," hard-rocking "Quavers" and the
almost title track "Concrete Animals" are all powerhouse rockers that are also laugh-out-loud funny. The heavier
"Tomato Head" got MTV airplay but isn't one of their best tunes; sonic youth
Thurston Moore adds characteristically gritty rhythm guitar to "Butterfly Boy." And they even get in touch with their
sensitive side on the enviromentally correct "Little Tree." (DBW)
The Birds & The B Sides (1996)
Now that's what I call a cult band: after just two widely-available releases in
the US, they put out a collection of rarities and remixes. I
don't quite see who's going to enjoy this, though: the devoted fans will
already have most of the material on imports, and everyone else is
unlikely to be enthralled with such minor works. The best
tracks are rerecordings of older compositions, including cool live
versions of"Public Bath" and "I Wanna Eat Choco Bars." The alternate
version of "Little Tree" from Let's Knife is a find, Blondie-like pop rock. Then there are six
covers, and they're just not strong enough performers to do anything
more than retread: they keep the Beatles vibe going with a live version
of "Boys," ruin Martha & the
Vandellas' "(Love Is Like A) Heatwave," tackle Brian Wilson's "Don't Hurt My Little
Sister," plus the Shangri-Las ("Paradise"), the Carpenters, and
Kinks ("Till The End Of The Day").
Brand New Knife (1997)
This time out, the Knife basically dispensed with keyboards or any recording
tricks in favor of straightforward lead-rhythm-bass-drums. They do rock
out a bit harder than usual on "Magic Joe," a fun love song to a toy robot,
and "Buddah's Face," a rare venture into gross-out humor, but basically
it's nothing you haven't heard them do before. The lyrical subjects
aren't quite as interesting, though Naoko gets in touch with her anger
on "Explosion!"; lyrically the best tunes are both by Michie -
the health-food ad "Fruits & Vegetables" and the too-weird-to-be-true
"Frogphobia," not to mention a sincere, touching love song, "The Perfect
World." Nothing's at the level of the best tunes from Rock Animals, and
too many cuts are just routine ("E.S.P."). I can't imagine this record
changing the mind of anyone who doesn't like the band, but if you've
already got the habit, this is a satisfying fix. (DBW)
Happy Hour (1998)
Another collection of no-frills rockers, nearly all about food: "Cookie
Day," "Banana Chips, "Gyoza," and so on. There are some hard-edged,
enjoyable riff tunes ("Konnichiwa," "Jackalope"), and Michie comes up
with the nightmarish "Fish Eyes," but overall the material just doesn't
sound fresh or humorous any more. You can just picture Naoko sitting in
a restaurant thinking, "Okay, what kind of food haven't I written about
yet? Gyoza? Great, I'll order that." There's also one more ho-hum cover:
the Monkees' "Daydream Believer." They
seem to have progressed about as far as they're going to as
instrumentalists, though the fast pacing keeps the proceedings from ever
bogging down. Hopefully they'll come up with some new ideas before the
next release. (DBW)
Strawberry Sound (2000)
This was either the last US release or the first back-to-Japan release; since I've never seen it in a store,
I'm guessing the latter.
Heavy Songs (2002)
Released only in Japan, but well worth tracking down, the best batch of riffs and lyrics since Rock Animals.
There are the usual fast rockers ("A Map Master"), but they find some great melodies in the same old formula
(the tempo-shifting meditation on consumerism "A. A. A."). The louder tunes verge on metal (the disturbing, ambivalent
"Computer Language"), and there are some offbeat numbers like the disco tribute "A Boogie Monster" and the piano-led
Naoko's lyrics - she wrote everything except Atsuko's "Whatever" - deal with thirtysomething concerns like going to see her
favorite band's reunion tour and finding out they're not aging too well ("Golden Years Of Rock'n'Roll") and having to
watch her weight so she doesn't look like the big Elvis (title track)... nice to see that she's growing up with her fans;
we can't eat jelly beans and choco bars the way we did in our twenties.
More guests than usual: Ron Sexsmith and Tim Bovaconti add vocals and guitar on "An Elephant Insect"; Seiichi Yamamoto
and Moray Crawford appear on "Mango Juice"; Roman Yumeno plays some guitar and bass.
Produced by Shonen Knife and Atsushi Shibata.
Candy Rock (2003)
Another Japan-only release, this time all sung in Japanese as well. (DBW)
Genki Shock (2005)
It looks like the return to form of Heavy Songs was temporary; this is just another middling set of garage rockers
with kitschy themes ("Anime Phenomenon"; "Broccoli Man"). The slower numbers aren't particularly tuneful ("Under My Pillow"),
and the worst lyrics are appallingly slight ("A World Atlas").
The good stuff is real good, though: thudding rhythm guitar on "S*P*A*M"; the anthemic fade of "Spider House"; dueling
heavy metal leads on "The Queen Of Darkness." And "Giant Kitty" is a terrific, crazed rocker, about Naoko's stuffed
animal (she wrote all the tunes this time).
Several tracks feature drumming from Etsuko Nakanishi, and Dean Wareham is around somewhere.
fun! fun! fun! (2007)
Generally speaking, more jokey garage pop-punk with self-referential lyrics (taken to the extreme in "Barnacle"), and some obvious riff-pillaging ("Gravity Zero Gravity" is strikingly like The Go-Gos' "Vacation"). Even the better tunes are as thin musically as lyrically ("I Wanna Eat Cookies"). There's real emotion, though, on the desperate, anxious "Flu" and the gentle "Good Night," which indicate that Yamano isn't purely going through the motions.
An English-language version was recorded at the same time, but wasn't available for sale until a 2009 tour; it includes a couple of live bonus tracks including "Twist Barbie."
Super Group (2009)
Shonen Knife was always primarily Naoko Yamano's group, but at least there used to be a consistent lineup and a few songs from Michie or Atsuko. Now there's no pretense, just a backup bassist and drummer (though they're proficient, as evidenced by Nakanishi's dramatic rolls on "Slug").
There's not much change in the post-punk sound - I'm pretending not to notice the winking country-western "Deer Biscuits" - and some disappointing ripoffs ("Pyramid Power" is an obvious bite of Alice Cooper's "School's Out").
But there are some winning tunes ("Muddy Bubbles Hell" with a Sabbath-style main riff but a crisp verse). The lyrics continue to plumb Yamano's main themes, animals and food ("BBQ Party").
Cover du jour is "Jet."
Free Time (2010)
There's always been a cornball element to Shonen Knife, but it goes overboard here, with silly singalongs ("Capybara") and trite melodies ("Do You Happen To Know"; the pseudo-girl group "Monster Jellyfish"). It's hard to point to pluses like Nakanishi's strong drumming ("Perfect Freedom") when the context they're situated in is this dumb.
To be fair, "Economic Crisis" may be about as serious as the band has ever gotten, though it doesn't exactly balance the scales. None of that would matter, of course, if the cuts crackled with life, but they sound as bored with the schtick as I'm starting to be ("Rock N Roll Cake").
Come to Music Square.