Shonen Knife Slices Through Modern Tension

Shonen Knife

Does anybody remember laughter? Tough to recall in these bleak hours of Occupy Everything, Europe’s economy becoming a vacuum and Justin Bieber putting out a Christmas album. (Oh how the gods weep!) But tucked in a little rock ‘n’ roll alcove in the City of Angels, the denizens wore something that stoics and the freewheeling would both question: smiles. Shit-eating, candy-coated grins as though the go-go ‘90s never ended.

What was that ringing in their ears? Power chords! What an endangered species in this diminished minor world! Ironically, this joyful noise was imported, like so many commodities assaulting American capitalism. Made in Japan, punk-frock trio Shonen Knife commemorated its 30th anniversary at the unassuming Echo club and absolutely illuminated the dank box with its Hello Kitty brand of rebellion.

All glittery instruments and whimsy incarnate, Shonen Knife entranced the filled-to-the-brim venue. What an oddity it was — at least to the smitten, bordering-on-pervy, white old dudes clinging to the front row. The all-girl band’s frames behind big, phallic guitars and precious vocals made many a middle-aged man wag his tongue. Alongside them, petite, gamine girls who probably grew up on “Sailor Moon” shimmied as nimble bassist Ritsuko Taneda shook her mane like a restless lioness.

This unabashed enthusiasm, quite unfashionable in this hip neighborhood, was initially sparked by openers the Monolators. Comprised of a husband-wife team and their pal on the six-string, this Los Angeles threesome laid on the thick bass and Buzzcocks worship.

“I have never been more excited to play a show,” exclaimed bassman/singer Eli Chartkoff. He told the audience he’d been dreaming of performing with Shonen Knife since he saw the gals in concert in 1994. He certainly did them proud, as his band tore through charmingly shambolic power-pop tunes. What’s a sour note here or there when the message is fun? His wispy Austin Powers-baiting white scarf sang almost as loudly as he did. In not taking themselves too seriously, the Monolators seriously rocked.

If it were indeed still the 1990s, middle-marquee group Shannon and the Clams would have been another breath of fresh air. In fast-food-employee garb slinging girl-group vibes, they could have shone back then. But since Best Coast, Vivian Girls and a slew of others already beat them to the punch, they were easy to shrug off. It was almost a letdown that this offshoot of the equally doo-wopping Hunx and His Punx tread so closely to that outfit’s sound. Sure, Shannon Shaw’s coo-to-caterwaul could wake the dead, but that too-effete croon from male member Cody Blanchard was like nails on a chalkboard.

In this example, schtick was ick. But Shonen Knife took what could have been a face-smacking farce and made it work magically. Its most recent album, Osaka Ramones (Good Charamel) re-envisions the musicians as a Ramones cover band. For the encore, the women did a costume switcharoo into their NYC heroes’ patented leather jackets and blue jeans. The set was fast, furious and ridiculously infectious. A polite mosh pit swelled to the strains of “Blitzkrieg Bop”, acting as though this was the first time anyone had heard such a boisterous thing.

And that’s why Shonen Knife has had such incredible staying power (never mind that singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano is the only original member): It brings back punk to its roots. Its music is simple, catchy and carefree. It’s something the world needs right now.