Shonen Knife formed in Osaka in the early Eighties and, a decade later, suddenly had a North American audience; it helped that they opened for Nirvana on a 1993 tour. Burning Farm was the title of their first record but also of a song; the version I have is off of 1993’s Let’s Knife, probably the group’s essential album. It has a lot of good songs with great melodies, superb light-hearted vocals, high-energy performances, punk guitar, and amiable Japanese looniness; but Burning Farm stands out. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

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The Context · The band has never, as far as I know, hit the big time; when I play the music for other people I usually get a startled “What on earth is that?!?” reaction. Shonen Knife was originally a trio: sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano and friend Michie Nakatani. Michie left in 1999 but the band apparently remains active. I haven’t seen them live.

There is a 1989 album entitled Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them featuring Knife songs performed by other musicians, including Sonic Youth, Red Kross, L7, and Babes in Toyland. I’ve never heard it.

The Music · Shonen Knife is obviously a creature of the New Wave era; the songs are mostly very short and very fast and have a lot of punky guitar-bashing. But the tunes—including some pure pop gems—would stand out in any genre. There are a few lightweight tracks without all the guitar roar.

I have read critical scoffing along the lines of “They’re cute but they can’t really play”, which is bogus. They play those tunes fast and the performances are tight and confident. Some of the vocal gymnastics are actually fairly astounding if you listen carefully.

As for Burning Farm (opening lines: “To this vast wasteland/We will set a flame”), it’s a little longer and a little more complex than the Shonen Knife average. The central chant is I’m pretty sure stolen from somewhere I can’t put my finger on but it’s somewhere good; the singing is excellent and the drum and guitar parts behind it too, and the bass line is better; if it doesn’t make your booty want to shake, well, you’re dead. This is what intelligent rock & roll should be. [Update: Tom Harrington writes to identify the chant as being a variation on the one from Land of a Thousand Dances, written by Chris Kenner and Fats Domino, made famous by Wilson Pickett. Yep, that’s “somewhere good”.]

Let’s Knife also has Milky Way, a surf-guitar instrumental. Surf-guitar instrumentals are, as everyone knows, the highest achievement of Western Musical Culture, and this one is really not bad at all. Screw the critics.

Oh, and by the way, the sound quality is fabulous, I originally discovered Shonen Knife in a review in an audiophile magazine.

I don’t know why they’re not famous. Shiny happy songs sung fast and well, it’s got a back-beat, you could dance to it, what’s not to like? If you’re listening to this on headphones out in public you’re running a pretty severe risk of acting like a complete dork when you start doing dance moves or an Eighties head-bang; I defy anyone to listen and not want to dance. Worse, you could start singing along and the men in the white coats might come for you, because most of the songs are not in any known human language.

Some are in Japanese—probably perfectly sensible Japanese—but most are in something somewhat but not entirely unlike English. For example, the track titles on Let’s Knife include: Bear up Bison, Twist Barbie, Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme (Sea Turtle), Antonio Baka Guy, Flying Jelly Attack, Black Bass, Cycling Is Fun, I Am A Cat, Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme (Green Tortoise), Insect Collector, and Get the Wow. Let’s sample the lyrics from one of them, say Insect Collector:

Going to a mountain alone with her insect cage
Lost track of time while waiting for another insect
Konchu saishu

Going home to give an inspection to a little shell
Consulting a picture book to see what she collected

Konchu saishu

All arranged neatly in a case and kept with care
Just before bedtime one more look and she’s happy
Insect collecting is a hobby few can share
But when she’s thinks about her insects
She feels happy, oh so happy, she is happy

She’s an insect collector

We can agree that these are, shall we say, eccentric. Adding to the effect is the fact that they are sung in an entirely impenetrable Japanese accent. One suspects that it’s at least partly for effect.

How to Sample It · It’s dead easy to find this stuff; Amazon and iTunes both have it, and it’s on the pirate networks. But remember, don’t pirate it and don’t buy the watered-down locked-in iTunes half-music, go buy a nice shiny silver disk and it’ll sound great and it’ll be yours forever to play however you want.

Speaking of Web stuff, while I was poking around for stuff on Shonen Knife, I ran across nippop, which seems to be just the thing if you want exhaustive coverage of all aspects of Japanese popular music.


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February 06, 2006
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