Sharps and Flats

Published April 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

these days, all things Japanese carry a hip kitsch cachet, from Hello Kitty and Speed Racer to the charming, delicious Shonen Knife. There's an element of ingenuous sincerity to these pop culture exports that can't be duplicated among sarcasm-sick American bands, which is why no one comes close to Shonen Knife for pure cotton-candy punk exhilaration.

Naoko Yamano, her sister Atsuko Yamano and Michie Nakatani have figured out that their American fame comes from their kooky, gushing femininity, and they play it up on their first album in three years, "Brand New Knife." Whether you call it regression or reclamation, for the past few years the underground has been filled with bratty little girls refusing to grow up. Part of the popularity of Japanese anime cartoons comes from their wide-eyed child-women. Shonen Knife helped start the mania for twisted Japanese cuteness, and, though they've been joined by bands like Pizzicato Five and Cibo Matto, they're still working it with songs about Twister, Barbie dolls and fruit.

Despite a few mediocre stabs at stupid, grungy guitar rock, "Brand New Knife" is full of the kind of sparkling songs that make you want to put on a miniskirt and blast the car stereo on a summer day. "Explosion!" -- the album's first and best track -- is reminiscent of the Primitives' "Crash," the quintessential piece of girlie power-pop. The exuberant melodies on "ESP" and "Frogophobia" sound like a cross between the Ramones and the Go-Go's, the two bands to which Shonen Knife is most often compared.

Unlike American riot grrls in dime-store barrettes, Shonen Knife's childishness isn't about kinder-whore rage. When they sing about roller coasters, they mean the real thing, not the melodramatic emotional kind. On "Loop Di Loop," Naoko Yamano chirps, "It's a muggy silly sunny day/Let's get up early in the morning like a bird/Take a ride to the happy crazy fun fun park/The amusement park we'll have lots of fun." It's the kind of nostalgia and escape that only perfect pop can create.

Though Japanese versions of six of the album's best songs are included as bonus tracks, their simple, wacky English lyrics aren't a result of sketchy translation -- they say they write all their songs in English first. The American love for Japanese techno-trendiness may explain Shonen Knife's latest leap toward fame -- even Microsoft chose their cover of the Carpenters' "Top of the World" as the theme song for a TV campaign.

Short, sweet pop songs are what Shonen Knife does best. The trio aren't terribly gifted musicians, but their lack of prowess is invisible as long as they stick to three-chord confections. When they attempt to get harder, as on the songs "Magic Joe" and "Buddah's Face," they sound like they're doing Black Sabbath covers and their charm gets reduced to schtick. Even the lyrics on "Buddah's Face" sound like a heavy-metal parody, "Formaldehyde brain melts and flows/Picking up eyeballs and lining them up." It works as a novelty bit, but Shonen Knife is best when you can love them without irony.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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