SHONEN KNIFE is easily one of the most identifiable Japanese trios in rock and pop history. These ladies have been at it for three decades and show no immediate signs of stopping. I first heard their sound as part of the fun/ny compilation called If I Were A Carpenter (1994) where they did an amazing rendition of Top of the World (sheer genius here). Since those early days they have had a few personnel changes, tightened their sound and colorful presence. They are back to show off their captivating new record Pop Tune and will be visiting Dante’s for a live show this upcoming week (8/9, 9PM) and you should be part of their audience! Watch their new video or listen here. We had some time this week to discuss the latest and greatest in their world.
TJ Norris/Toneshift: Right off your brand-new ‘Pop Tune’ release the tracks ‘Ghost Train’ and ‘Osaka Rock City’ really rocks with a dose of 60’s pizazz. Can you say something about this retro sound that you have perfected?
Shonen Knife/Naoko: I’m inspired by the Beatles, Pilot, Small Faces, Jefferson Airplane, Strawberry Alarm Clock and such kind of ‘60&s and ‘70’s pop for this album. The theme of “Pop Tune” is Pop.
TJN: I’ve only heard your songs in English, have you recorded works in Japanese and do you think they would translate as well to your international fan base?
Naoko: For this album, we have only English version. For Japanese issue of Pop Tune, I attached Japanese translation of the lyrics as a leaflet.
TJN: This is the second time you have been to the Northwest in the last few years, what do you think of it out here and how different is your audience here as opposed to in other cities?
Naoko: I think people in the Northwest are so cheerful and friendly. At some cities, our audience are more gentle and others are energetic. It depends on cities and venues. I only can say the atmosphere of our show is always happy.
TJN: As a trio with some personnel changes over the years, how do you manage your longevity as a band over thirty years?
Naoko: I never look back and look just forward. I didn’t noticed so many years have passed and I always keep my mind fresh. The present line up is the most powerful.
TJN: ‘Welcome to the Rock Club‘ recalls a similar hardline guitar as found on the classic ‘Rock Animals‘ (1993). When writing new songs how are there certain formulas that work best, and how do you keep your sound fresh.
Naoko: Everything is without conscious. I might be developed and the bassist Ritsuko and the drummer Emi play very well for recording. It’s the one reason why the sound is fresh.
TJN: The fact you chose to revisit Ramones songs on your ‘Osaka Ramones‘ was just a brilliant turn. In many ways your short tunes are similar to theirs, and you brought new melodies to their otherwise quick quips. What was your relationship to the band? Who selected the particular tracks and why?
Naoko: I selected the tracks that are my favorites and wrote about the relationship with Ramones here.
TJN: Of your entire discography, what is your favorite record you’ve made, and why?
Naoko: I like Pop Tune!! It’s the present Shonen Knife.
TJN: Thank you, anything to add about your tour, anything fun, strange or unexpected along the way?
Naoko: I hope everybody enjoy Pop Tune album and please come to our show and get happy!
Originally Published in June 2004
Morr Music and Charhizma recording artist, twenty something Vienna-based multi-instrumentalist Fleischmann is no stranger to cross-bending territory where traditional themes are intercut with uptempo glitch and fuzzy overtones (cf “Guided by Beats”). Microfunk-laden tracks give way to pale harmony and German narrative on “02/00”, and Fleischmann permeates his work with lush and dreamy piano and vibes discourse on “Pass By” (otherwise a bit of fluff with rambling tightfisted drumming). There are even moments of Sigur Rós in the forlorn “Grunt.” Welcome Tourist is a vacillating narrative that’s as sonic (“The Blessed”) as it is cute on the Lou Reed-y “Le Désir”, where he sings as proletarian “have you ever tried to reach the sky on a sunny afternoon…we have dreams and we want them to come true”. Disc one falls to “Sleep” with Fleischmann’s awkward vocal about thinking about a sleeping girl, buying milk and bread and other sundry items. Love the line “don’t get me wrong, it’s just a song.” Drowsy travelogue synths graze over a syncopated backing track like a contemporary update of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts theme. Disc two is a single forty-five minute long track, “Take Your Time”. If static’s what you came for, let Fleischmann reshape it for you. The bent buzz and lapping rhythmics open this long player with blurted, bleached, censored art house vocals. Adding some light guitar strumming and the signature piano, which could be excerpted from anything from a Carpenters love song to the latest opus by Mum, and the mix becomes fuller. It’s something of an urban rodeo record, complete with dust and twang, basking in a midday afterglow like there’s no tomorrow, upright fat jazz basslines and all.
TRADITIONAL ARRANGEMENTS OF FEEDBACK
Former drummer for Union Carbide Productions, Henrik Rylander takes his percussive interpretations to task on this absolute blockbuster: Traditional Arrangements of Feedback is the experimental record of the year (so far). Plug it in, tune up and go-go-go. The funk-industrial “Formations of Feedback” proves hard sounds can have beat without dipping into the vestiges of Goth. Göteborg-based Rylander uses the “Repetition” of saw-toothed pulse-beats and a rocking underbelly to form these techno haikus, part Einstürzende Neubauten, part Peaches (sans four-letter words and no hole in the middle), but wholly enormous walls of controlled sound to be reckoned with. Through the fuzz of it all, like collecting individual hair strands of static pulse, Rylander harvests something gem-like, something awkwardly infinite. There’s instant elation when he tools with materials that could easily lead to haphazard mistakes but which make great sound effects, proving that such obstacles can be both overcome and controlled. “Destroyer” sounds like a small digital press with spikes and loose metal objects that have gone awry inside; the mechanism keeps going, pulping what’s in its path, slowly rolling on with the precision of a diecut machine running over the same tracks with a few imperfections along the way. The post-op version of “Warm Leatherette”? No, “Flange” is like one of those giant Lego robots turned into a smiley-faced clown menacing a Mumbleboy video. Massive and graceless and twice as happy as any Avon lady that may have stepped cross your threshold lately.
Originally Published in July 2004
Biotop is the second of Die Stadt’s series of 18 Asmus Tietchens reissues, mostly from originals on Sky. Opening with two bonus tracks that are expected to pop up throughout the catalogue (with “Fast Food” this may be the closest to the pop realm I have heard his sound stretch) and influenced by its era of new wave and punk, it shows Tietchens had a flair for wiggly Moogs and Rolands. This playful piece almost mocks the sophistication and development of his overall oeuvre, though it proves he can develop a sound that draws on the immediacy of new developments of technology (even though some of the mixers, decks and oscillators he currently plays are over thirty years old) – and a cheeky sense of humor. These releases reproduce the vibrancy of the original cover art, here in bright Day-Glo pink and green with geometric text design by Tina Tuschemess similar to the straight ahead boldness of Talking Heads’ 77. Tracks like the asymmetrically rhythmic “Die elektrische Horde” may have predated similar work by younger contemporaries such as John Foxx and David Van Tieghem, but Tietchens’ sound builds a greater tension, excludes unnecessary vocals and choral riffs, then detonates a batch of flavorful short pieces filled with harmony and punctuation. It’s a great look at how Tietchens immerses himself in the sound of an era without pinning himself down to particular trends, and while the equipment sounds a bit dated, it gives the work a documentary/historical rather than antiquated feel. On “Blutmund” you can hear the future of say Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy – “I want your soul……” After listening to this I want to break out my copy of Liquid Liquid to contrast: it’s that good, despite an endearing awkwardness that wanders a bit. Dare I say that Biotop is a fun record challenging his more academic later works? (What will Beta-Menge sound like in 2015, though?) With all eighteen tracks here at four minutes or under, these may actually be a collection of “songs” in the scheme of things. “Sauberland” sounds like a tribute to early Devo and all its spawn – upright, perky and conceptually edgy. The closing title cut’s caustic vibration transcends in a flight of pure, spectral light.
Spät-Europa, the third reissue of the series, was originally released in 1981, and its opening title track starts like a church service, choir angelically chanting until a churning, dark synth rechannels the sphere of menacing sound into a monster movie, bleeding into the corrosive “Frautod Grafitto.” Unlike Biotop this sounds like a lost Jack Smith soundtrack, the intimidating “Poanpo” as a children’s novel gone awry. The electronics are sharp and retro-futuristically sci-fi. Most tracks on this 22-track recording are about two minutes in length and have an archived birdlike alter-persona; the crow is watching, waiting, honing in. Spät-Europa plays like a ghostlike fairground after hours, headless operators on “Bescheidenes Vergnügen” winding the machines with celestial muscle; the amusement is in the absence of rational gravity, the ethereal space is accented only by the wisp of icy cold air and lingering stale beer odors left from the revellers of the day. In comparison, the Lene Lovich-like levity of “Schone Dritte Welt” croons and dips like a schnauzer in heat. The gaiety of it all is like being lost in the swirl of PacMan curves while swallowing a larger than mouth-sized dollop of fiery pink cotton candy on a stick – sensory overload. Once you get your equilibrium back out pops the cold, gray dragnet of drone presented by “Erloschene Herzen” and friskier, yet moderately self-indulgent “Endspannung” and its leisure-suit percussion. The Cabaret Voltaire sound-alike “Ausverkauf” bounces metallically and screeches around the sharp curves of its James Bond theme. The mesmerizing choppiness of “Stille Hafen” presents beats by way of the acoustics presented like an orchestra covered in liquid latex, peering out of their cocoon and emerging like baby rats on the following “Epitaph.” Here a piano caresses the chaos, brings the tension to a standstill. The two bonus tracks rewind the motor, acting more like an encore re-presentation of some earlier elements heard herein. The closing “Zum Tee bei Frau Hilde” sways intoxicated with a boatload of fermented, archival synth spurts that are as quirky as they are refried. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz…
Switzerland-based Jason Kahn teams up with Sirr-ecords to bring us Miramar, recorded in Caudeval, France. Beyond the initial blatant warp of drone a tinkling undercurrent of pixie joy is just barely audible. As time passes, and the tone shifts just a hair, the subtlety is erased into a whirring abyss that throbs and spins. Kahn’s analogue synth bounces off the bevels of space, with an adroit curvature that ends in deadening silence. When track two flares up, it’s more a motor than an instrument, but listen on and the atmosphere quickly erupts into bloated banality with hints of sinister intent. It just hovers, though, mostly balanced, perhaps more focused on the finish line than on the gravity of the moment. The five tracks here sort of act/react in succession: Miramar’s intent is not self-evident – it’s a bit of a dreary collapsing enigma, actually. It has something in common with what has become known as the classic technical difficulty signals, audible and a bit menacing, repetitive and unnerving, but what sets Kahn’s work apart is its very minor tonal shifting that plays with such completely poker-faced dealings. This is complex listening to the nth degree, somewhere in the abyss between dark ambient and electronic noise experimentation, and its retrofit will certainly fend off your casual listener, appealing instead to those specifically interested in perhaps the findings of a forensic acoustician. Let’s say he is on to something, though he has yet to find his map – this is his journey.
Originally Published in May 2004
Alejandra & Aeron
THE SCOTCH MONSTERS
On The Scotch Monsters Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman, who run Barcelona’s Lucky Kitchen label, rework this selection for the third time (earlier versions were presented in installation format – “Revisionland” presented in Scotland and curated by Diskono – and a limited vinyl run on Germany’s Bottrop-Boy) in the form of sixteen tracks. None is longer than four minutes and each is dedicated to an individual spirit entity, and they combine to form a larger narrative. Softl Music’s Frieda Luczak creates exquisitely simplified CD sleeves folded in and around like a brain teaser, kind of a peek-a-boo pop-up book (here a muted Day-Glo orange) with no real way in unless you destroy the jacket. Compellingly secretive. So was the installation, in which, in accordance with Scottish folklore, the duo buried mushroom shaped speakers that relayed their field recordings and atonal static directly into the soil, a forceful electronic barrier to ward off evil spirits with names such as The Red Caps, Trooping Fairies and The Gray Man. There’s something holistic and wise in Salinas and Bergman’s deconstruction of their work for presentation, a distance that throws into relief the creativity of the composition, which mixes an organic, handmade love of sound – a baby cries, water runs, random chimes tinkle, cowbells clang – with the eerie whistling inventions of the laptop. Call it fictional docu-audio. The primitive nature of The Scotch Monsters is engrossing in its depth, tribally poignant and totally conceptual.
Originally Published in May 2004
Concert is American composer Brandon Labelle’s collection of installation soundtracks for works created over the past few years. On “Automatic Building” a wooden structure is assembled / disassembled, a slow dragging sound of planks scraping on concrete structures in a 15th Century Florentine villa (see the album cover) with organic echo full of musty cobwebs and soot. “Transportation & Recycling (proposal to the mayor)”, the lengthiest track on offer at 22 minutes, was originally presented at the Ybakatu Espaco de Arte in Curitiba, Brazil, and speeds with the sounds of zooming motorcars and rush-hour traffic, Labelle’s intention being to converse with his audience by mirroring the city outside by using sound and other elements including pieces constructed of PVC, fabric, wood and sound devices. In Denmark, he presented “Event and its Double” where a specially created structure replicated color and shape elements at the local Museum of Contemporary Art in a sonically spacious homage of sorts to Cage’s celebrated “Black Mountain Event” (1952), while “Learning from Seedbed” refers to Vito Acconci’s famous 1972 Sonnabend Gallery living performance sculpture/installation. Labelle uses the original ramped gallery floor, though allows the viewer to get one step closer to the unknowns below the surface: instead of Acconci’s antics – mysteriously heard but not seen – Labelle contact-mikes the meandering of the audience itself and this crawling exploration of discovery is then relayed into the room as a broken, contorted and minimal collection of pops and excerpts.
Originally Published in May 2004
Iris is an enigma from its first inhalation. Broken into three lengthy sections, Auckland-based Rosy Parlane plays guitar, piano and other digital entities to craft something from another cosmos. The dreamy electronic drone has the chill of a church organ with variable weights and scales. Shadowy layers wander through a torrent of tiny electronic branches chafing the peripheral tunnel of sound. Cool tones emerge, crispy, like ice melting away to leave a vague hiss and diminishing, translucent debris. Part two opens like a cautious winter day, the title Iris seemingly informing the choreography of its snaking tonalities. Its use of field recordings throughout is like some type of reference (memory) chip reading information faster than Evelyn Wood. It’s a sheer rapturous ambient coast, with distant squirming as if characters were repeatedly dropping silverware and ceramic saucers on marble-topped tables in a high-ceilinged café, heightening the sur-reality of memory, over and over again. The atmospheric light produced becomes open, free, and lush. In the last segment of the trilogy, dusk falls and the room darkens, bringing a peculiar sense of dread / repose / change. Maybe a reflection of the short life cycle of the luminous blue flower (or deep visionary inner eye) of the album title. Depending on the space you play this in it could have a hushed, background quality (your own lil’ secret) or become an all-encompassing surround-sound drone mutating all other ambient noise. The nearer we come to the conclusion, the more ominous things become, until the final few minutes when the 0s and 1s seem to be edited into something akin to a waterfall breaking up into smaller bodies of water, broadening, spread with sparseness. Iris polarizes its sound the way acupuncture can completely reallocate the axis of your reflexes.
Originally Published in April 2004
Meat Beat Manifesto
Dub is alive and well in the hands of the incomparable Jack Dangers, a.k.a. Meat Beat Manifesto. Complete with his signature low bass beats, the Jamaican rhymes on In Dub are lip-quick and smack of dread and rebellion.
In collaboration with DJ Collage, “Spinning Round Dub” is peppered with samples of MBM of yore, with the familiar yelping “oooo, alright!” from “Radio Babylon” making an encore performance. “Super Soul Dub’s” Wolfman Jack-like DJ ending make for a perfect precursor to “Caramel Dub,” which references latter-day Kraftwerk’s “Musique Non-Stop”. The piece features reverb and all-out funk that both touches on trance and plays on simple techno riffs. Dangers uses the beloved vocoder in a way that shows a fond reference to the former electro giants of the computer world; while far from “Radio Babylon” or “Psyche Out,” it is infectious nonetheless.
As prolific as they have become, Meat Beat Manifesto has in essence developed into the adjunct lil’ brother of Cabaret Voltaire, with a penchant for techno-pop doom.
By TJ Norris