Sugar Snaps


Could a band whose current symbol for itself is a troika of perky, stuffed bunny rabbits be the conscience of modern rock?

We can only hope.

Shonen Knife knows that rock was placed on this planet to encourage and invigorate its adherents and to indulge them with flavorful, three-minute bursts of enjoyment that leap through the ear and quickly spread to the nervous system, setting toes a-tapping and bodies a-bopping.

Rock never was intended to become a wallowing tub of anger and self-pity--although it most certainly can be properly used as a trampoline that recognizes the gravity of our collective situation while insisting that we try to bounce back and, at least once in a while, imagine what it would be like to soar free.


For Shonen Knife, the all-female trio of punky garage-popsters from Osaka, Japan, all this goes almost without saying. The band sings about silly, cute, everyday things (those bunny rabbits are the cover critters of an almost-perfect new album, “Brand New Knife”).

Shonen Knife’s absorption of rock’s energizing essence is so complete that what’s silly on the surface actually exemplifies a profound understanding of what music is for.

In a show Wednesday night that began its U.S. tour (not counting a noon appearance at Cal State Fullerton the same day), Shonen Knife, decked in matching sequined mini-dresses that might have been found mothballed in the Supremes’ wardrobe, devoted its hour at the Galaxy Concert Theatre to songs about the wonder of small things, and to light spoofs on such questionable cultural artifacts as Barbie dolls and thudding heavy-metal songs.

The most telling number of the set, though, was “Wind Your Spring,” a wistful tune from the new album in which Naoko Yamano, the band’s guitarist and primary lead singer, gently chides all those morose, Bush-league ninnies who are starting to sound like such broken records: “If you have nothing to do, you must be bored.”

Among the activities Shonen Knife’s songs proposed as antidotes to boredom were: space flight (metaphoric for rocking out), amusement-park rides (maybe metaphoric for rocking out, but then again, sometimes a ride is just a ride), eating junk food and eating health food.

All were delivered in various shades of catchy rock that were rough enough to be parked securely in the garage, yet sufficiently well-crafted and well-sung to produce a shiver of pop delight.



The opening song, “Riding on the Rocket,” spoke of where Shonen Knife wanted to go with its music while revealing where it comes from: the punk ‘70s (the song was virtually a Ramones tribute), and the British Invasion ‘60s (when not alluding to the Ramones, it was quoting the riff of the Who’s nugget “Boris the Spider”).

Shonen Knife also infused galloping country beats with a nervous rock momentum, a la Throwing Muses, and pulled off three-part harmonies as sharp as the Go-Go’s or Bangles.

Yamano’s voice was airy and sweet but had enough body to avoid cloying girlishness. She’s been at it for 15 years now with her drum-beating younger sister, Atsuko, and bassist Michie Nakatani.

The result was ensemble singing that was spot-on, and playing that was professionally garagey. Nakatani took some solid lead vocal turns, and Atsuko Yamano was all Dennis Wilson-like, untutored innocence as she sang lead on “Fruits & Vegetables,” a nutrition-minded direct descendant of the Beach Boys’ delightfully loopy “Vegetables.”

The show’s only questionable moment was an encore cover of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” (culled from a 1994 modern-rockers’ tribute album to the Carpenters). A bit too sweet, that.

When Shonen Knife sang “Brown Mushrooms,” about a determined search for just the right culinary treat, it was symbolically celebrating the process by which people recognize the good things in life and invest the energy it takes to pursue them (sometimes a mushroom isn’t just a mushroom).


At the same time, Shonen Knife was knowing enough to finish with the slightly sarcastic “One Week,” in which Yamano chirped about a daily round of nothing-but-pleasure before the band exploded into a thrashy coda that makes the punning point that a life lived only for pleasure, with no balancing effort and immersion in difficulties, is “one weak life.”

Don’t be deceived by those pastel bunny rabbits. Shonen Knife rules as a shrewdly disguised, ever-rocking triumvirate of philosopher queens.