Keith Richards, carbon nanotubes and those boastful little cockroaches have nothing on Japan’s premier punk-pop sculptors Shonen Knife. To gaze into their enviably youthful faces is to look upon indestructibility itself. Shonen Knife are like water: you could break them into their separate components and scatter them thousands of miles apart, but whenever those components are thrust back into contact there will always be Shonen Knife. In a recent interview with The Japan Times to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the band’s first rehearsal, last remaining original member Naoko Yamano expressed a wish that they should continue not only until she takes to her deathbed, but also beyond. Pop in perpetuity. It’s a noble ambition.
Just as (clean) water tastes more or less the same no matter where it comes from, each new Shonen Knife album is lovingly prescribed with a heartening inevitability: superpowered melodies, pop hooks brash and big enough to land a blue whale, and charmingly peculiar musings on animals, food and the awesome, unifying power of music. Pop Tune, their eighteenth album, has most to say on the last of these. The opening pairing of ‘Welcome To The Rock Club’ and ‘Pop Tune’ (hello, knowing key change) provides a textbook Shonen Knife welcome, drawing the listener into a world where music is a conversation between artist and audience, each drawing energy from the other and reflecting it back at amplified strength. The effect is something like an echo chamber of politely stated joy.
‘Osaka Rock City’ neatly complements this with a baldly uncomplicated billet-doux to the band’s birthplace that defers, yet again, to the enduring influence of Yamano’s ultimate heroes The Ramones. It’s from here on in, though, that Pop Tune takes a stab at distinguishing itself from Shonen Knife records of the past. As principal songwriter, guitarist and vocal lead Yamano has always been the life force of the band, but Pop Tune finds her coalescing in new ways with her giddily propulsive rhythm section – drummer Emi Morimoto and bassist Ritsuko Taneda – assuming centre stage for one song apiece. Morimoto’s strong vocal, honed by a stint with experimental group Ni Hao!, steers the heady groove of ‘Psychedelic Life’ away from mere Jefferson Airplane pastiche, while a 30-second recorder interlude and intermittent rattle and snap of canastas add improbable but endearing flourishes. Taneda’s ‘Sunshine’, meanwhile, is a largely acoustic, wholly wistful tumble through a daydreamer’s thoughts that skirts the tattered fringes of Britpop.
‘Paper Clip’ is arguably the more successful of Pop Tune’s mellower songs, and its go-with-the-flow philosophy is one that gets reiterated throughout the album’s second half. ‘Mr. J’ gets in a good-natured dig at the smartphone zombies we’ve all become when companionless in public, while ‘Move On’ is an overextended continuation of the band’s chin-up-buttercup perkiness that feels somewhat out of place on the album. It’s a minor shame that Yamano didn’t feel compelled to advance the biting interest in politics that she showed on 2010’s Free Time, but Shonen Knife were always the unlikeliest candidates to take up that particular mantle. The closest they come on Pop Tune is showing a modicum of public health awareness through the cakehole of ‘All You Can Eat’, though it comes packaged with an out-of-nowhere kazoo solo, so make of that what you will.
Robust in its eccentricities and musicianship, Pop Tune makes good on Yamano’s assertion that the current Shonen Knife line-up is its strongest. With the band still reaping the benefits of a rejuvenated profile in the UK thanks to the endeavours of Damnably Records, it seems that there are still a good number of people only now discovering their joyful thrills and spills. To them I can only advise to dive on in: the water sure is bubbly.