- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The self-described “ultra-eccentric … punk-pop band” Shonen Knife hits the Black Cat Monday, aiming to show they’re still the band that Kurt Cobain said turned him “into a hysterical 9-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.”

Despite some changes, the formula since 1981 still holds. Two sisters plus their friend assimilate the Beatles, Ramones and ‘60s pop in general, run it through a Japanese cultural filter, and play the resulting songs (frequently about animals and food) in a rocking but (usually) charmingly amateurish style.

Shonen Knife’s first album “Burning Farm” hit the United States in 1985 on Olympia, Washington’s K Records, where Mr. Cobain first heard them. “November 1991, we toured with Nirvana in Britain. During the tour they had one secret gig, and he wanted to play ‘Twist Barbie,’ and he asked me to teach how to play the guitar of it,” recalls singer Naoko Yamano from her home in Osaka.

The image of Kurt Cobain chanting “I wanna be Twist Barbie” is only slightly more entertaining than the song itself, an unironic ode to Barbie as beauty ideal. Here Miss Yamano’s guitar and sister Atsuko’s drums are lifted straight from the Ramones playbook, and mix lo-fi energy with a pretty three-part vocal harmony. As with their best songs, it demands you sing along even if the lyrics leave you puzzled.

Oglio Records just re-released the first four Knife albums, which Miss Yamano says makes up about half their live set list. Although crude and uneven, certainly compared to 1992’s mainstream effort “Let’s Knife,” there’s enough here to strike a chord or three.

“Burning Farm” has foreboding pre-grunge guitar and a chorus chant lifted from Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances.” “Lazybone” extols slackerhood over office work and claims you don’t need to be a “walrus” or an “eggman.” Phil Spector’s influence appears as a well-timed bike bell on “Cycling is Fun.” Finally, Metrorail riders may relate to “Watchin’ Girl” (“They can’t see anything/Pretending that they’re asleep”) and its exuberant wake-up call.

“I think we haven’t been to Washington since 1998,” Miss Yamano says. Founding bassist Michie Nakatani left in 1999, so sister Atsuko switched to bass. And when Miss Yamano had a baby in 2000, they couldn’t tour here for a while, though they did contribute a song to a Powerpuff Girls soundtrack album: not too surprising, given that the cartoon trio’s look owes much to the band’s colorful style.

Some songs from an unreleased new album will show up live. “I recently listened to ‘70s music, like disco, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and also ‘70s hard rock like Black Sabbath,” she explains. The new album “only used guitar, bass, and drums; it’s basic of rock music, and rather simple but heavy. And we have Ramones-style songs, too.”

Shonen Knife has played and recorded numerous ‘60s pop covers, but “for this tour, we will play with [touring] drummer Etsuko [Nakanishi], and we had to rehearse for many songs. So we had no time to rehearse [former live staples] “Boys” or “Heat Wave” this time,” Miss Yamano says. There’s a better chance of hearing the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” though.

Miss Yamano says with a laugh, “Etsuko is very shy, so it’s a little hard to sing onstage for her right now. She sings just for one song. Actually, not singing, just saying, “Hey, ho, let’s go.”

Speaking of hey-ho-let’s-go, she describes a personal high point when she went to one or two Ramones shows in Osaka in the ‘90s, and also when Shonen Knife opened up for the Ramones shows in Osaka during their farewell tour.

“Very fun, and very good experience … and we played their songs ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ and ‘Suzy is a Headbanger’ onstage. After the show Joey [Ramone] said the version of ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ was excellent, so I was very happy.”

To those seeing a Knife show for the first time, she asks: “Please listen to Shonen Knife once. … After people listen to our music, they will become very happy. I promise.”

• • •

Guitarist Jeff Lang brings his blues/roots rock hybrid from Down Under to Jammin’ Java in Vienna tonight. Mr. Lang is known for his slide guitar stylings, but he can also go the acoustic singer/songwriter route.

One other difference: It’s unlikely his slide master heroes Ry Cooder or Robert Johnson ever penned an instrumental titled “The Day I Got Chewing Gum Stuck In My Hair.”

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