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It's easy to forget after years of American releases and appearances, but Japan's legendary Shonen Knife, appearing this Sunday in Long Beach, gained one of their first big breaks with a late-'80s tribute album to their work. Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, L7 and the Mr. T Experience were among the many paying homage to their cheerfully energetic blend of '60s pop, '70s punk and retro, neon clothing—a nice corrective to all the boring-as-heck tribute albums that featured lazy bands doing overfamiliar standards that ended up turning the idea of any sort of tribute album into the ninth circle of hell.
Shonen Knife happily made a mark in their own right, even scoring a major-label stint on Virgin in the early '90s, while barely changing their enthusiastic approach to music. Their bubbly riffs and gang choruses made mosh pits at Lollapalooza in 1994 seem like the funnest places on earth. Last year, in conjunction with their anniversary, the band performed their own tribute with an album-length celebration of the Ramones, but this year, it's an all-new album in the form of Pop Tune (released June 5), as fizzy and rocked-out as ever.
"I've never looked back, and I'm just looking forward," says vocalist/guitarist Naoko Yamano, the band's leader and sole remaining original member. "Without notice, 30 years have passed. I think this is the most powerful lineup of Shonen Knife, and I'm content with these albums. This album became a happy, fun, pop and rock album. I hope many people enjoy it."
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The outcome is as much of a salute to Cheap Trick and the Ramones as it is to the Shangri-Las and the Damned. The songs are punchy, catchy, loud and immediately tuneful, the kind of thing too many bands turn into a surprisingly dull formula but Shonen Knife always seem to infuse with giddy life and joy.
The band's American connections continue with the help of Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robbie Takac, whose Good Charamel label has been Shonen Knife's U.S. home for some time. Takac has also worked on other productions with the band in recent years; Yamano credits him with inspiring the Ramones tribute album in particular.
"Recording with Robby was fantastic," she says. "He is so nice and talented! It's easy to create new songs once I start to write them. I'm very lazy, and I usually don't write songs when the recording schedule is booked. Actually, I have to be more earnest!"
The current lineup, still a trio as always, features bassist Ritsuko Taneda and drummer Emi Morimoto, both veterans. Yamano admits to a certain guardian role—"I'm taking care of them. I have responsibility, but they are getting used to the tour quickly," she says—but she's also enthusiastic about what they've brought to the band, particularly when it comes to singing.
"Emi sang 'The KKK Took My Baby Away' for the Osaka Ramones album, but for Pop Tune, 'Psychedelic Life' became her first vocal," she says. "I wrote that song, and the lyrics are just like Emi's life: She likes to wear psychedelic clothes and drink peppermint tea. I like her innocent vocal. Now all members of Shonen Knife can sing, and I wanted them to sing—it became a good variation for the album."
It's clear Yamano hasn't lost her joie de vivre. When asked if there were a difference between the band's multiple generations of fans, she very simply replied, "I can't find [any] difference between the newer fans and our initial fans. Our fans always rock."
This article appeared in print as "Staying Sharp: Japanese fem punks Shonen Knife continue to play hard and look innocent."