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Japanese Catnip

Osaka's Shonen Knife cuts a pretty slice of alternative pop

Of the many rock-culture legacies left in the wake of the late Kurt Cobain, the most lastingly important may be neither his music nor his sad self-martyrdom. Because when Cobain and Nirvana opened the floodgates of an underground musical spectrum that had, before Nevermind, been accurately described as alternative, he had the foresight, the historical vision and perhaps just the simple modesty to realize that the alternative subculture he and so many others embraced neither began nor ended with Nirvana. It stretched back before Cobain to the Melvins, Captain America, the Vaselines, Greg Sage and the Wipers, ad infinitum. And it stretched out in front of him with such Cobain-championed bands as the Breeders and Shonen Knife.

Cobain and Nirvana may indeed -- as has been beaten into homily -- have opened the door for the latest, greatest new wave, but Cobain did more than just walk through. He held the door open and ushered in as many of his favorite bands as would fit in the room, then introduced them all around.

Cobain had, for the most part, remarkably broad taste, and in the case of the Japanese all-woman trio Shonen Knife, it's easy to guess the source of Cobain's admiration: with its propulsive mixture of tunefully classic pop songwriting and mildly abrasive guitar rock, Shonen Knife -- lacking Cobain's unbridled angst and ultimately self-destructive rage -- probably sounds a lot like Cobain would have liked Nirvana to sound, if only he'd had access to the genuine innocence and naivete and unsullied wonder that infuse that trio with its almost infinite charm.

Like a lot of the bands that found their names suddenly and widely circulated by post-Nirvana explorers, Shonen Knife is nothing new. The band -- sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano on guitar and drums respectively, and Michie Nakatani on bass, all of whom contribute vocals -- debuted in its hometown of Osaka way back in 1982, naming itself guilelessly after a Japanese brand of pocketknife. A string of independent releases and Japanese tours followed before the band signed with Virgin Records in 1992 for a debut American release called Let's Knife, and the surprise praise started rolling in.

Part of the appeal must surely lie in the novelty of three young Japanese women singing songs so obviously dependent on '60s girl-group pop and so thoroughly filtered through everything from British punk circa The Jam to Judas Priest. There's a definite Go-Go's parallel to be drawn, not just in gender terms but in the sweet exuberance of the presentation. Unlike the band's stateside alternative counterparts, Shonen Knife doesn't turn indulgent on stage. They stand close to their mikes, sing in tune and bop their way through their repertoire with tastefully restrained energy.

But novelty doesn't explain everything. Where most retro-oriented acts on the indie and ex-indie circuits layer their tributes with irony and instrumental scuzz for the proper attitude of detached distance, Shonen Knife goes straight to the heart of its pop obsessions and faithfully re-creates the pretty parts for its own use. The songs follow a stylized verse-chorus-verse format, the singing glides in an almost-falsetto wave and the crunchy guitar chords and elementary solos punch without so much as a hint that the band is using its pretty-song building blocks for anything more or less than the construction of pretty songs. It's a quality that contemporary pop-rock -- much of it either commercially slick or dripping with marginalizing attitude -- has been starved for, and Shonen Knife's recent release, Rock Animals, delivers it with style.

"Quavers" opens the disk with a Ramones-ish rocker about a fave boy, and from there on in, things get weird. "Concrete Animals" is about just that, cement statuary in a local park, and "Catnip Dream" offers a lyric that -- if inimitability is a reflection of genius -- ought to place Naoko Yamano in the Norton Anthology: "Catnip is a kitty cat drug / One puff two puffs -- high in a dream / Funny kitty's got very sleepy eyes / I wonder what he's dreaming of / Catnip Dream Catnip Dream Catnip / Dream meow meow meow." "Another Day" rides a Brian Wilson wave like it was born to the water, and "Brown Mushrooms," which documents the search for, you know, the perfect brown mushroom in a New York restaurant, is set to a chord progression ripped straight out of Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight." When the band played the song during its last Houston appearance, opening a bill at the AstroArena for the Breeders and Nirvana, a crowd of frat boys two rows up insisted on singing the Priest chorus over the tune -- which, believe me, made for an awfully weird psychic dynamic. "Johnny Johnny Johnny," an ode to the "cleanest boy in town" and his bowling, archery, dominoes and ping pong prowess, shows that Shonen Knife has been listening to contemporaries and polar opposites L7. Disk closer "Music Square" celebrates the joys of seeing a concert in the town square.

It's a shame that there's no equivalent of a town square in Houston to house this show, but the outdoor deck at Toad's Tavern, framed by urban decay and overlooking Buffalo Bayou, will likely serve as the next most surreal setting. It used to be that up-and-coming acts of this caliber would be seen first at a tiny bar like Toad's, and only later would they open at arenas. Shonen Knife, thanks largely to Cobain's championing, hit the American arenas first, and is only now making the club circuit. The clubs, of course, are where the real memories are made, and if you want to make some of your own, you might want to be there. Because next time Shonen Knife comes through town, later this summer, it'll be as a featured second-stage act on Lollapalooza.

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