[7 May 2014]
I like the concept of a band such as Japan’s Shonen Knife. Around for nearly 35 years now, and heralded in the ‘90s alterna-rock boom by the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife is essentially one big walking stereotype of J-rock culture, and their 19th studio album, Overdrive is no different. Here, we get songs about ramen noodles, fortune cookies, cats, robots from hell, green tea and shopping, among other things. So, yes, Shonen Knife is a walking, talking anime cartoon. But they’re a good one when they’re firing on all cylinders. Buried in my collection of CD-R’s is a song of theirs called “Cookie Day” that I love and enjoy, and used to annoy the living heck out of an ex-girlfriend.
But things have changed since their ‘90s glory days. The band is now taking cues from influences such as the Ramones—in fact, they, in recent years, recorded a Ramones tribute album that I dismissed here on PopMatters, perhaps a little too swiftly—and on Overdrive, Shonen Knife bring their ‘70s arena rock, jock rock, cock rock, whatever you want to call it, influences to the table. That may seem a little weird, as punk and classic hard rock never really got along back in the day, but Shonen Knife manage to make it somehow work, even if there are moments on Overdrive when the sound is a little too derivative and this all female trio are basically ripping off other artists of note.
To that end, the album actually gets off on the wrong foot. Opener “Bad Luck Song” is essentially a retread of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”. The riffs are remarkably similar, and it’s hard to overlook what seems like blatant plagiarism. But even worse is the follow-up track, “Black Crow”, which rips off “Black Diamond” by KISS and features one of the most banal choruses in recent memory: “Don’t wake me up in the night / I want to stay in my dreams / Don’t wake me up in the night / Go back to the mountain.” Despite profoundly disliking the song on the first few listens, it stuck with me and I found myself humming it while I went about my business during the past few days prior to penning this review. Clearly, Shonen Knife can take a weakness and make it a strength through the sheer force of superficiality and simplicity. If you overlook the carbon paper copying and weak lyrics, there is catchiness to be found on the weakest songs on Overdrive. In fact, the more you listen to this record, the more you might find yourself being enamoured by it and getting caught up in the plainness and thudding anthems that Shonen Knife bring to the table.
And the album gets better as it goes along, with some of the best songs buried in the back. While some critics have already weighed in negatively on “Robots from Hell”, one calling it “turgid”, its reliance on repetition in its wordplay and thudding rock rhythms make it another song that you might catch yourself playing in your head at whatever opportune moment may come along. “Fortune Cookie”, meanwhile, is a slight deviation in the album’s ‘70s rock themes, and is much more of a jangle-rock piece that would nestle quite nicely into the Byrds catalogue, if the Byrds ever thought of writing a song about the lucky numbers on a slip of paper buried in a dessert treat that may help you win the lottery. And “Like a Cat”, with its “Meow / Meow / Meow” chorus is giddily catchy, even if there is another example of weak lyrics that can be easily misheard in the bridge of the song: “She doesn’t care about the past / She doesn’t care about the future / She doesn’t care about me / ‘Cause she’s busy moving herself.”(I heard this as “moving herself”.) And “Green Tea”, meanwhile, while aping something out of the Black Sabbath catalogue, at least in its opening riffage, is another example of deft songwriting, perhaps eventually segueing into the most overtly Ramones-esque moment on the record.
However, for all of the allusions to classic hard rock on this album, Shonen Knife show their Ramones influence beyond “Green Tea”: they mangle the pronunciation of the word “chocolate” on one of the songs here, in much the same way that the Ramones mispronounced the word “massacre” on their debut’s “Chain Saw” so that it would rhyme with the lyric that came after it. Still, if anything, Overdrive shows that Shonen Knife is en route to toughening up their sound and writing balls to the wall rockers with gleeful abandon—to varying degrees of success. And yet, Overdrive, despite its lapses into the superficial and cloying, is a remarkably fun LP. You may find yourself liking this record in spite of yourself, even if it comes at the cost of shucking the simple and chintzy pleasures of a song like “Cookie Day” in the band’s back catalogue.
If Overdrive proves anything, it’s that Shonen Knife wants to rock out with the best of the boys—something that shouldn’t be taken for granted or easily dismissed. Still, one wishes that the group took a little more time, if not in honing their lyrics, then in not ripping off classic bands of yore, as there is something to be said for taking one’s influences and pureeing it in a blender, rather than simply just copying what came before, which, unfortunately, Shonen Knife sometimes lapse into here. Still, Overdrive is hardly stuck in neutral. There’s a good time in store for anyone who listens to this, which is pretty much the highest commendation that I can give to this record and Shonen Knife in general.