Sound Takes: Let’s Knife
Let’s Knife (August Records)
I’ve spent a good part of my life parsing the lyrics to rock and roll songs. Morrissey’s destabilizing self mockery, Shane MacGowan’s scabrous surrealism, Lou Reed’s minimalist narratives from hell: the work of these songwriters sometimes approaches the richness and complexity of the canonical poets they have clearly studied. So what to do when confronted, in the case of Shonen Knife’s Let’s Knife, with a collection of songs about Barbie dolls, jellybeans, and kitty cats? All my graduate school training tells me that “Twist Barbie” must be an ironic deconstruction of consumerism and imprisoning sex roles. But no, it’s actually a song about, well, Barbie. I don’t know what Harold Bloom would do if faced with lyrics like, “She’s very smart / She can dance well / Ooh … ahh … ahh … / ”Bang bang bang, Twist Barbie,” but I know what I do: surrender.
Some people think that the songs of Naoko Yamano, who has been writing, singing, and playing lead guitar for Shonen Knife since forming the band in Osaka in 1981 with two girlfriends from college, are a joke carried to excess. I don’t think they’re a joke at all. She’s a middle-aged woman now, and she’s still singing songs like “I Wanna Eat Chocobars” and “Ice Cream City.” I consider these perfectly valid subjects, partly because my passion for chocolate bars and ice cream easily outstrips Naoko’s, but also because they denote the world we live in. There’s no reason for Bono not to write songs about Yahweh and the peace that passeth all understanding, but neither is there a reason for Naoko Yamano not to write songs about insect collecting and bass fishing. Each songwriter has a proper subject. I just consider Naoko’s subject a little more believable and a lot more fun.
I regret to say that I missed Shonen Knife when their popularity peaked in the early nineties and they were opening shows for Nirvana. (I have seen them several times since, and yes, they are adorable.) They’ve played a lot of shows and made a lot of records since then. It can’t be an easy life. Sometimes they shill their own records at a concession stand before the show, as they did at Bell House in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. Later, when some bozo started flailing around dangerously in front of the stage, I—about as tough as the girls in the band—hustled him off to the back of the room. I don’t just love Shonen Knife; I want to protect them.
That night in Brooklyn I bought their tribute album Osaka Ramones and the very early Pretty Little Baka Guy. They’re pretty good (actually, Pretty Little Baka Guy is pretty great), but for me nothing touches their 1992 masterpiece of punk/bubblegum song craft Let’s Knife. Splendid as the music is, this is not the place to hear suspended 11th chords or 7/8 time signatures. Basically Let’s Knife is three chord power pop, and though many other bands do the same thing nearly as well, nobody writes lyrics like this. How can I possibly describe the sheer giddiness of a song like “Making Plans for Bison”? This is no plaintive lament about majestic herds that once roamed the plains. It’s as if a five-year-old were free associating on the theme of “bison,” with one bizarre non sequitur succeeding another:
We’re only making plans for da da dirty dirty bison
We don’t like him so much, ‘cause he’s very ug-ug-ugly
We’re only making plans for da da dark brown bison
He has a right to live though he’s ill ill ill-shaped.
Of all the things that could be said about buffaloes, “He has a right to live though he’s ill ill ill-shaped,” doesn’t spring immediately to mind. Adding to the otherworldliness of the lyric is the sense that although it’s sung in English, it sounds like it’s in Japanese. You’d be lost without a lyric sheet. Some of the band’s songs exist in earlier Japanese versions. They sound just like the English ones. Or vice versa. Also, Shonen Knife songs almost never rhyme. Possibly rhyming in English exceeds the linguistic capacity of Naoko Yamano, but the effect, once again, is of an alternate verbal universe, sort of like Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre” with Barbie dolls.
Did I say Rimbaud? Sorry, it’s hard not to get carried away. Let us then by all means board the rocket ship in “Riding on the Rocket” bound for Pluto with “Blue eyed kitty cat [who] said Please let me go with you.” Really, what more is there to say? There are more than enough rock and roll songs about heroin addiction. This is the only one I know of about eating marshmallows, asparagus, and ice cream on a rocket ship with a cat who dances the mambo.
If drugs are one great rock and roll fixation that Shonen Knife songs avoid, sex, or romance, is another—which is why “Get the Wow,” the second to last song on the album, confounds me. Could these lines possibly mean what I think they mean?
When you open my little box – Wow
Big surprise from me to you – Wow
Give it to you one more time – Wow
Come on now, we’re gonna have a good party
Hey, let’s eat some honey pie baby
Honey pie? Really? No, this can only be my incorrigible dirty mindedness reading way too much into a guileless song about not even romance but friendship. The sex in Shonen Knife is all in the music. If a ferocious, overdriven rhythm guitar in a song like “Devil House” turns you on, this is your band. But really, Naoko Yamano’s lyrics are not so much asexual as presexual. They return us to the strangeness of childhood, when a cat or a fish or an insect is cause enough for wonder. They’re also gloriously silly, another characteristic shared by children I have known and loved.
All of which leads to “I Am a Cat,” which does for Let’s Knife roughly what “A Day in the Life” does for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, in place of four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, we’ve got kitty cats and flying saucers, but the dreaminess and relatively languid tempo are much the same. Analysis fails before this mysterious amalgam of silliness and sublimity. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for songs with cat whiskers in them:
Sometimes I slip into timeless zone
And I lose my way . . .
I don’t know who I am
I discover whiskers of a cat in a timeless zone
And I put them on my face
In a moment I become a sweet little cat
And I dance on a flying saucer
I Am A Cat!
I would like to say that Shonen Knife make me feel like a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert, except that Kurt Cobain already did. I came to this band later in life, when my club going days, not to mention most of the hair on my head, were mostly a memory. Yet I treasure Let’s Knife all the more not just for its lean, stripped down power pop but for this vital reminder: in my busy adult life of responsibilities and obligations, there’s still time to be silly.