It seems impossible that Shonen Knife formed in 1981. Thirty years is a long time for any band to ply their trade, but for a Japanese pop punk band whose output could be unkindly described as “novelty” to hit such a landmark is almost miraculous. This version of the band may only feature one original member in vocalist/guitarist Naoko Yamano but the basic sound of Shonen Knife remains firmly intact on Free Time.
It would be fair to say that Shonen Knife’s peak in popularity came around 1991/2 when Kurt Cobain expressed his love of the band and invited them on tour. As a result, their 1992 album Let’s Knife found its way into the collections and hearts of many an indie kid. Since then, they’ve been plugging away making cult masterpieces, maintaining a small but loyal fanbase, and existing mainly on the peripheries.
Free Time is a typical Shonen Knife album, ticking all the boxes you’d expect and hope for. There’s the songs about animals, a particularly cute theme that runs through most Shonen Knife albums. Here they tackle the Capybara; giving praise to everyone’s favourite South American mammal twice over the course of the album. There’s the sparse Techno-version rendered in Japanese and a phenenomenally catchy punk-strum which is essentially a nursery rhyme. The melodies are perfect, and the chorus drills its way into centre of the brainbox within microseconds.
Monster Jellyfish meanwhile is a thundering punk gallop through a world threatened by an outbreak of massive jellyfish. The only way to survive is to eat them – naturally. There’s almost certainly a serious side to the song, but it is almost impossible not to get pulled along by the punk-pop undertow and the slightly ridiculous refrain of “Outbreak of Jelly-FISH!”.
P.Y.O. is another basic nursery rhyme tune that is utterly charming. It’s essentially just a list of fruit and a simplistic chord progression that borders on an Adam Ant ho-down whilst hinting at BINGO Was His Name-O. Elsewhere there a gentle paean to the Rock N Roll Cake; clearly Shonen Knife have their finger on the pulse and are well aware of the surge in popularity of baking occurring in the musical world at the moment.
Despite Shonen Knife’s tendency to drift towards the cutesy there is a more serious side to the band. Economic Crisis is a breakneck sprint through Hardcore territory, Yamano bellows “Breakout! Breakout! Breakout! Where has the money gone?” against a Minor Threat inspired riff – it is invigorating stuff.
Perfect Freedom marries punk and pop perfectly and suggests that with financial freedom, most people would just sit around all day playing videogames. This is clearly correct, and if there’s some nicely judged pop-punk to soundtrack it all then so much the better.
An Old Stationery Shop contains a dollop of pathos. It kicks off with a simplistic guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Half Man Half Biscuit song, and then develops a considerable debt to Blur. Despite this it retains a personal element (Yamano sings about the good old days when she could buy coloured pencils for school) that, as with a great deal of Shonen Knife material, makes it utterly endearing.
This is not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination. It is at times a little too simplistic, and you have to be in the right mood to accept songs about cakes, capybara and economic meltdown. However, when the world starts to look too serious, spending your free time in the day-glo world of Shonen Knife can only lift the spirits.