Knife in the Water is one of those obscure pop bands that i like, a band that makes strange, mellow pop music. Apparently, they consider what they do to be "country", but aside from the fact there is a pedal steel guitarist in the band, they have very little in common with Carrie Underwood or anything that i hear called "country" these days.
Long term readers of this site (yes, all three of you) will remember that i raved about Knife in the Water back in 2003 through 2006. Well, the band went on a sort of hiatus for a while. If you are to believe their marketing material, during the intervening 11 years the band built their own recording studio.
And changed lineups. Vocalist and guitarist Aaron Blount is still in the band, and really it wouldn't be Knife in the Water without his sweet, slow delivery. Pedal steelist Bill McCullough is still in the band, but the rhythm section and female voice / organist have all been changed out. It is a damned shame that they lost a drummer who called himself Cisco Ryder! I mean, where are you going to find someone with a name like that? I suppose that now they need a drummer named Juniper Uhaul... But anyway, the (revised) band marches on.
Reproduction sounds, well, like a Knife in the Water record. This is slow, sparse pop with lots of vocal harmonies. The music echoes in a wide-open space. Every drum hit, every word sung, every guitar strummed, every bass thrummed -- all have their own space and are separate and distinct, and yet all work together. What i am saying here is that the recording is pristine and wonderful. It is like something that Albini would do -- put on headphones and you feel like you are there in the studio with the band.
And, really, the type of sparse pop that KITW does requires that sort of clarity in recording. The mixing works to emphasize the beauty of the Blount's compositions, the way that voices and instruments slide in layers against each other, building a density of sound that reverbs clearly.
The record starts with slow guitar strumming in faint layers. There is an inhalation, and the vocals start: Blount and current backing singer Shelley McCann harmonizing through Call It a Shame. The drums tap a lazy hit as the song oozes forward. And then, at the bridge, the music parts, an acoustic guitar picks a faint melody, and then the band comes in with a faint, echoed Western guitar riff like something out of a Tarantino film, just a moment where the guitar and bass reverb deeply. It is an achingly beautiful moment, simply sonically perfect, and no one does it like Knife in the Water.
The next tune starts off like a lullaby with a faint guitar riff, then Blount and McCann harmonize some rhythmic aahing before Blount starts singing. This song has a great title, Beware a Holy Whore, and one of Blount's best lines: "Trouble always waits up late for thee". The harmonizes here are Beach Boys-esque and the guitar picks a walking melody, driving the tune along nicely.
Sex Change features some of my favorite guitarwork of any Knife In the Water release. Blount picks and strums, then the guitar goes all chiming in the middle. Really beautiful, and a nice accompaniment to his voice, which sounds at its most fragile here.
Pedal steelist Bill McCullough and drummer Matt Strmiska dominate Pain to Burn a long slow tune that begins with Blount addressing Charlemagne. I find it odd that this long, somewhat difficult name is mentioned by at least two bands that i like. But i suppose that Chris Lopez was singing about a cat with that name... At any rate, this song lumbers along nicely.
Choosing a favorite tune on this record is a hard call to make, but i am going to go with Sweet Gene. The guitar strums and chimes, the drums tap, and voices twine in harmonized layers. It moves along at a good clip, the pedal steel whining and the drums thudding as the song builds to a gorgeous harmonized chorus, the band going at it densely and loudly, but still minimal. That is, even at their densest and loudest, Knife In the Water still make delicate slowcore. The chorus though, the guitar chugging and the bass warbling as Blount and McCann build their vocals, spiraling upwards. Wonderful.
Mary Alice is slow and chiming, Blount singing at his most delicate, faint and light. Morgellons keeps up the slow pace, here McCullough's pedal steel chiming in a way that is almost melancholy as this tune moves slowly.
And finally, I Can Go On starts with a challenge from Blount, "Though it really hurts me / I want you to know / that i can go on" and the band steps in with a slowed down honky tonk tune, bassist Mark Nathan thumping mightily as dusty cowboy boots shuffle happily. It is a joyous song from a band that can, at times, seems a little dreary. The slowness of their music can be seen as sorrowful, but this song totally belies all of that.
The feel of this record, like so much of the feel of Knife In the Water, is similar to another, obscure, delicate pop band that i mention on here somewhat regularly: Felt. Lawrence of Felt and Aaron Blount are kindred spirits, people who care about crafting personal music and with deep harmonies, lethargic paces, and aching beauty. This is one of the things that draws me to them both -- the aesthetic spirit with which they look at the world. Their vision of reality is the haze of a foggy day, or a slow sunset.
I love this. I do not understand why more people are not impressed with the beauty that Blount creates, but i know that few people have the patience for these long, slow, pretty tunes. And even I find that this record, that Knife In the Water itself, is sometimes too much to take. With every one of their records I must absorb it slowly. Reproduction is eleven months old as I finish this review, and I have been living with it since just before it came out. In fact, I bought the record on vinyl to listen it in that format. I find that one side of the record at a time is the perfect amount – it soothes out life’s rough edges. But the pretty mellowness can be a bit much, so patience is required here. Of course, Knife In the water are, at heart, a slowcore band, and patience is required for that entire genre.
But i encourage everyone to go and give Knife In the Water a listen. Give their music time to work on you, and you will not regret it.