There are not many bands who have a career so prolonged they can release twenty-two studio albums. There are even fewer that have been performing for 42 years. That number shrinks further if you only consider all-female bands from Japan. To say that Shonen Knife is unique, almost an anomaly, is a vast understatement.
The trio from Osaka have unleashed their 22nd studio album, One Best Place, with a clear intention of not slowing down any time soon. Guitarist and singer, Naoko Yamano, told The Guardian in 2021 she will probably never retire. “If I can live for another 40 years, I can be the oldest rock musician in the world.” With her performance on this album, their first new release since the critically acclaimed 2019 album Sweet Candy Power! I can well believe she is capable of it.
Naoko Yamano is the only original band member who has been part of Shonen Knife since its inception, although her sister Atsuko Yamano was in the original line-up but left in 2006, only to return ten years later. Risa Kawano completes the trio. In case you were wondering, the band took their name from an old brand of pen knife which was marketed to boys in Japan – Shonen meaning ‘boy’ in Japanese. Taking influence from the 70s punk scene, particularly The Ramones, the band created their spin on the genre. As you will see in this review, the subject matter of their songs is wide and varied – but ultimately a lot of fun.
Naoko has said previously that she is not a deep thinker and would rather write songs about things she finds interesting and hopefully make people feel happy. Previous tracks have covered topics such as wasabi, cute animals, spam emails, anime, jellybeans and the use of a peppermint oil spray to deter mosquitos.
As I sat down to listen to this album, I wondered what weird and wonderful thoughts and ideas would spill out of my speakers and into my grey matter. Where in their unusual and colourful world would they take me? And would I be able to get back in case of an emergency?
The album kicks off with ‘MUJINTO Rock’, a song all about being on a desert island. Musically, it sounds as if someone has stuck The Ramones and Buzzcocks in a blender and created a special, enjoyable smoothie. Naoko sells the premise of being alone on this island well – “There is no King/There is no Queen/There is no President/There is no Prime Minister.” Where do I sign up for this idyllic-sounding refuge? It is hard to call this song anything other than catchy. If there is one thing Shonen Knife do exceptionally well is creating a punk-pop sound that creates aggressively penetrating earworms.
The next up off the rank is ‘Nice Day’ which sounds a little like Half Man Half Biscuit with a Sex Pistols-style riff (the opening riff to Pretty Vacant to be exact) thrown on top to keep the punk roots intact. It is a truly lovely song. That’s the only way to describe it. You are carried along on a beautiful bouncing bassline as Naoko tells you about the things in her life that make her smile and feel cheerful – such as her toothpaste tasting of blueberry, her face cream smelling of rosemary and having an afternoon nap at 3 pm. It is a very positive song that just makes you smile. I don’t use face cream myself as it would be like applying a sticking plaster on an axe wound, but I get her point. It is the little things that bring us joy, but we often overlook them.
Are you ready for a history lesson? Get yourself comfortable and I’ll begin. Baumkuchen is a form of cake that is made on a spit by repeatedly applying layers of batter. Believed to be of German origin (though some dispute this), the final product looks like a tree. Baumkuchen translates as ‘tree cake’. It was introduced into Japan in 1919 by a German confectioner and has become a much-loved dessert. The Japanese call it ‘baumukūhen’. I needed to explain this so I can describe the third song on the album, otherwise, you’ll think I’ve flipped.
‘The Story of Baumkuchen’ tells this very tale. Once again, you are sucked into the catchy music web of enjoyment and there is no escape. Carrying a Ramones vibe, we are confronted with a song of happiness and joy once more. The lyrics demonstrate Naoko’s approach to songwriting – “It looks like the stump of a tree/Sweet smell from the tree makes me free/I want to live on the tree/Of a baumkūhen one day”. It is delightfully explaining the emotion and pleasure she feels eating a favourite dessert. Not all songs have to be about death and destruction or excruciating relationship breakdowns.
‘Vamos Taquitos’ works on a simple premise – It’s a lovely day so let’s go and eat some taquitos; a rolled taco if you’ve never had one before. An acoustic guitar gives out a Hispanic feel to the song and gets your body moving. It’s the kind of simple but fun song a band like the Toy Dolls might create.
Keeping with the food theme, we then delve into the wonder of ‘Spicy Veggie Curry’. It is not every band that tackles the challenging subject of a quick and easy meal using up veg in your fridge to make something very tasty. Maybe if Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had created a band we may have seen more songs like this. Musically, it is a little like ‘At the Edge’ by Stiff Little Fingers but with less ferocity and more of a cuisine slant in the lyrics – “Spicy veggie curry/Easy veggie curry/Please take a seat/It has no meat”.
‘Girl’s Rock’ is a re-recording of an older Shonen Knife track. The original track was sung mainly in Japanese and was a little faster in pace than this offering. The band mosey on back over to Ramones territory for this rallying cry to women all over the world. It reflects Naoko’s journey of hearing the music she loved and wanting to be a part of it. It elaborates on creating a female voice which will hopefully encourage more women to pick up a guitar (other instruments are available) and give it a go. “Don’t be afraid/You can change the world”, Naoko sings.
From punk-pop, we jump over to a different sound for ‘Afternoon Tea’. Here we have something more resembling Madness and The Kinks. A piano plinks and plonks along throughout the track, making your head bop from side to side as your toes tap in unison. The song almost ventures into nursery rhyme territory. I could imagine They Might Be Giants recording this for one of their albums aimed at children. The theme of the song? Enjoying afternoon tea. That’s it. Nothing sinister or overly complicated. I find this slightly embarrassing, if not a smidge disturbing, but I love how Naoko repeatedly says the word “teapot” throughout the song.
And this is the crux of Shonen Knife in a nutshell. Don’t take everything so seriously. Just have fun. Enjoy life. Embrace simplicity. Appreciate the little things. Smile. Laugh. Love.
In a complete juxtaposition, we hurtle into a full-on hard punk rock sound with ‘Ocean Sunfish’. I feel as if I should go all David Attenborough on your ass here, but I am not the greatest expert in the field of large bony fish. Suffice it to say they are large and heavy. The heaviest ocean sunfish ever caught weighed 2,300kg. You’d probably not need to order chips with that. They are rarely kept in captivity (they are a bugger to look after apparently) but an aquarium in the band’s hometown of Osaka does keep specimens. And so, the link is made. It’s been an adventure researching for this review! This knowledge may come in useful one day if you ever take part in a game show.
Back to the music – there is a fabulous bassline (another fish reference?) that thumps out a superb melody throughout. Mixed with a crunchy guitar you end up with a sonic representation of an ocean sunfish. Go and look at one and then listen to the track. You’ll see what I mean.
‘Better’ is a simple, gentle pop song. A subtle drum rhythm and plump, rounded bass support the smooth vocals and understated guitar. “You don’t need to worry/The sky will get sunny/Take a ride on a bicycle/Feel the summer breeze”, encourages Naoko. It will all be OK. Breathe. There’s always a better day ahead. It acts as a sonic alternative to Kalms.
To wrap up the album, we are treated to a cover of Pilot’s ‘Just a Smile’. Naoko has previously said she is a fan of the Scottish band’s music. Cover versions are not uncommon for Shonen Knife. They have previously covered songs by The Shirelles, The Carpenters, The Monkees, Brinsley Schwarz and The Ramones to name but a few. They released an album of Ramones covers, calling themselves the Osaka Ramones, in 2011.
The song welcomes you in with a bright 60s-style guitar. A song all about the possibility and hope of a relationship developing between two people, it is a calmer and more traditional soft-rock sound to end the album, but with a spiky guitar to keep to Shonen Knife’s roots.
So, there you have it. A ten-track album about some unusual subjects, a range of musical styles and a review that educates you in the ways of big fish, Mexican cuisine and German cake. The CD version of this album also contains three extra tracks – ‘Nice Day 60's Mix’, ‘The Story of Baumkuchen’ (Japanese Version – ‘Baumkuchen no Hanashi’), and ‘Girl's Rock’ (2023 Japanese Version).
This Japanese trio kept me hooked throughout with catchy melodies, quirky lyrics and a barrelful of fun. I now have earworms aplenty and find myself wanting to listen to it all again. Maybe there’s some subliminal messaging hidden in the recording, creating an addiction? I don’t care. I’m OK with being fixated on happy fun time music sounds. Try it. You might get hooked too. Now, where did I put my taquito…