If there was a time when rock and roll didn’t rest, at least partially, on a foundation of gloom, angst, cynicism, and dourness, I sure was never around for it. Admittedly, as a young guy, my generation has been raised on grunge, post-grunge, late-90s alternative, nu-metal, emo, and whatever the hell Nickelback, none of which you’d ever describe as buoyant or sunny. All this makes Shonen Knife even more of a curio to the rock world. A three-piece garage rock outfit out of Osaka, Japan, the band (some might argue mega-group) has made a 30 year career out of endless optimism and child-like wonder, delivered with catchy, simple riffs and endearingly broken English. Sure, you might not hear them on the radio, but for the devoted fans (among whom number countless rock-and-roll royalty like Sonic Youth and Redd Kross), they represent a welcome panacea to the glumness of modern rock, a band of grown women who can sing without the slightest hint of irony about Barbie Dolls, food, and animals.
With that in mind, the newest Shonen Knife album, Pop Tune, is a resounding success for fans of their special blend of whimsy and power chords. The album kicks off with the one-two shot of “Welcome to the Rock Club” and the titular “Pop Tune”. The former burns by at a quick two minutes of driving three chord punk, as the band chants “Welcome to the Rock Club!” in typical Ramones fashion. This leads right into the audience pleaser “Pop Tune”, filled with sunny little gems like “Since you’re already, think of happy things” and “When I sing the song, I get power”. The band doesn’t forget its roots, however, taking time to praise their hometown in “Osaka Rock City”, one of the album’s highlights.
The quintessential Shonen track on the album, though is “All You Can Eat”, a garage rock ballad about going to a buffet. Seriously. Featuring advice like “I have to be careful not to overeat”, “Before you grab your plate, decide which one you want,” and “Don’t forget to take some vegetables”, the song is at once confounding, endearing, and infinitely catchy. There’s even a kazoo solo. In short, it is amazing. The band keeps the simple concept tracks coming with “Paper Clip” – telling the journey of an actual paper clip as a metaphor for life; “Mr. J” – about a sad man in the subway station that no one calls; and “Ghost Train” – which is about a train that is a ghost. Maybe. They say “ghost train” a lot. Sometimes it helps to just smile and nod your head.
However, for me the highlights of the album are the genre pieces. “Psychadelic Life” rides its jangly guitars and heavy tom fills into a sound straight out of 60s San Francisco (think Jefferson Airplane and Mamas and Papas) complete with flute, fitting for a song whose chorus chants “It’s about living a psychedelic life/Acting like a bohemian”. “Sunshine” relies of acoustic guitars and a moving baseline to capture the wistfulness of a cloudy day, culminating in some crisp melody/counter-melody interplay. The album’s closer “Move On” offers listeners some parting encouragement to “move on like a rolling stone” when bad times hit. Poetry it isn’t, but the simple buoyancy and earnestness of the song make it endearing nonetheless.
Simple as the album may at times seem, Pop Tune is a triumph of relentless optimism, a sunny 35 minute slice of unironic, unbridled enthusiasm for life and music. Sure it’s silly and a little naïve. But in a world of paranoia, economic uncertainty, and political aggression, maybe all we really need is someone to tell us to “think of happy things.”
Final Grade: B+
Pop Tune is available now for download on iTunes and Amazon, as well as from their American distributor Good Charamel Records (both physical and download).