Dramatic, bleak, impish, bold, epic, flirtatious, lost, surprising, operatic, thrilling, adventurous…are some of the adjectives that could, and indeed do apply to the second album from Boston based Bent Knee, a band who defy categorisation. Those last two words are often thrown about in a trite and offhand manner in the hyperbolic world of press releases and reviews, but Lawdy Mama, ’tis as true as true can be in this exceptional case.
This album opens with the title track, every inch a schmaltzy show tune, introducing the theme of the record, reflected in the cover art of love gone awry, bad sex, associated (Catholic?) guilt, environmental concerns and the human condition. Just the thing to listen to on the daily commute then!
Musically, the track Shiny Eyed Babies is about as different from what follows as can be. The monster crushing riff introducing and underpinning Way Too Long could easily have come from a White Stripes record, but amplified a dozen times to become something that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Kayo Dot camp. Courtney Swain’s strident tones, beamed in from the wrong side of a megaphone angrily invoke a tail of environmental catastrophe from the point of view of a feathered victim.
Courtney is blessed with an unusual set of tonsils, similar after a fashion to Ann Magnusson of Bongwater fame, but less sleazily arch and of a higher register. What else have we got? Well Dry, a bleak tale of a libido withered by cynicism goes for a Gothic operatic feel, Courtney’s vibrato on the edge of cracking atop the band’s massive soundtrack. With his suitably thespian moniker, drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth manfully bashes the life out of his kit to keep the train on the track, and the song fades to a marvellously controlled yet chaotic solo from the sticksman. In God We Trust is almost “pop” in a Bjork style gone epic, this time bemoaning the groupie’s lot. It won’t get played on the radio.
Credited as a sixth member, producer Vince Welsh has made a vast sound painting in three dimensions, wherein the humble listener will gladly let him or herself get completely lost, gazing in awe at the multi-faceted hues of the ever changing scenery. A good example is the all-encompassing mini-orchestra that swamps I’m Still Here, in a good way I hasten to mention.
Sunshine, a desperately sad tale of a broken relationship, is a musically clever amalgam of charging folk-jazz violins from Chris Baum, with the vocal melody skirting around the much-covered tune My Only Sunshine, ending with the most well-known verse of that song, playing out to a cacophonous avant-metal ending but with the string section playing the power chords. Marvellous!
Breaking up the intensity are two short pieces: Untitled is a charmingly childlike plea for requited love, and Democratic Chorale is a short classical piano interlude. The latter precedes Skin where Mr Wallace-Ailsworth leads the ensemble with his hard insistent rhythm, the counterpoint provided by first delicate violin, and later by another infectious pop riff from the band.
The opening salvo from Courtney on the initially musically menacing Being Human sums up where the album’s lyrical intent was headed:
I imagine your dead body lying on my bed
and I note the details why you had to go.
You never liked the thought of being human anyway.
Death is one more option to explore.
This is sung in the most innocent Judy Garland style imaginable, and the swoonsome epic tune that follows belies the subject matter entirely. Closing epic – I know I keep repeating that word, justifiably it has to be said – Toothsmile slows and slows and fades to a complete full stop and is a fitting way to end an album that it is both disturbing and as loveable as can be. Shiny Eyed Babies is an album of stark contrasts, and a true group effort where both music and lyrics are communally written, and it is a triumph in both departments. You need it in your collection.
Here at TPA Towers we do not normally review albums from the previous year, but I missed it last November when it was released, and this dark and bewitching slab of musical mischief is so good it would be a crime to let it pass unnoticed. A word of thanks to Ian Beabout, without whose marvellously eclectic podcast Prog Rock Deep Cuts I would never have heard of this fabulous band.
Blimey…and I did all that without mentioning K… B…!
The band are currently on a short tour in the USA, dates on the Bandcamp page, so all you USA readers, catch them if you can.
01. Shiny Eyed Babies (1:19)
02. Way Too Long (4:59)
03. Dry (6:07)
04. In God We Trust (5:20)
05. I’m Still Here (5:08)
06. Dead Horse (5:17)
07. Battle Creek (5:42)
08. Untitled (2:00)
09. Sunshine (5:19)
10. Democratic Chorale (1:42)
11. Skin (5:58)
12. Being Human (6:28)
13. Toothsmile (7:23)
Total time – 62:45
Ben Levin – Guitar
Chris Baum – Violin
Courtney Swain – Vocals & Keyboards
Jessica Kion – Bass & Vocals
Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth – Drums
Abby Swidler – Viola
Abigale Reisman – Violin
Guy Mendilow – Berimbau
Matt Hull – Trumpet
Matthew Consul – Violin
Rach Azrak – Flute
Rachel Jayson – Viola
Rachel Panitch – Violin
Ro Rowan – Cello
Rob Krahn – Trombone
Sam Morrison – Baritone Saxophone
Tyler Kion – Alto Saxophone
Valerie Thompson – Cello
Record Label: N/A
Year Of Release: 2014