|CD Review - Various Artists - "Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox"
||[Nov. 22nd, 2009|02:25 pm]
I've always been rather ambivalent about tribute albums; a lot of the ones I've heard are more along the lines of "slavish devotion" than "respect". Let's face it, if an artist is worthy of a tribute album, their songs are strong enough that they can survive being done in all sorts of different styles. Another thing making actually reviewing these CDs a practically pointless task is that in this case, with its proceeds going to A Good Cause (assisting with Chris Knox's recovery from a stroke he suffered during the winter which has left him unable to speak), most of the people likely to buy it will already have made up their minds to do so without worrying about minor details like whether it is actually any good.
First I should probably explain who Chris Knox is. If his Wikipedia entry doesn't give enough information, you may be familiar with his work from this beer advertisement:
This isn't really an accurate representation of his main body of work, though; this video here is a better example. He's also experimented a lot with his music (background noise, tape-loop percussion, etc.) and with his videos (stop-motion animation and working directly on the film itself; in places it seems he's quite inspired or influenced by Len Lye). I could put up a lot more You Tube links, but I'd rather get on with actually writing this review.
Anyway, the most important question about the music itself is: is it any good. The answer would have to be a robust, but not unqualified, yes. Most of these versions of Knox's songs are at least interesting, although in some cases they aren't quite as interesting as the original was the first time I heard it. This probably was inevitable; a case in point being Peter Gutteridge's version of Don't Catch Fire. While it starts off well enough, it doesn't build up momentum as well as the original Toy Love recording of the song did so well.
The first of the two CDs, arranged in rough chronological order of the original songs, starts off interestingly enough; Jay Reatard's acoustic Pull Down The Shades and the Checks' Rebel are both perfectly good in their own right. The Bleeding Allstars are the first group that I recognise some of the members' names; two of them having been Sneaky Feelings back in the distant past, and they give new vitality to Toy Love's Ain't It Nice. But the first real stand-out track is the Chills' version of Luck or Loveliness. The original of this song was really a bit of a disjointed mess, the weakest track on the Tall Dwarfs' Three Songs, but the Chills take the song, open it up, smooth it out, polish it up and make something quite good out of the whole thing. The other two songs on said Tall Dwarfs EP also appear; the more interesting of the two being The Crying Wolfs (George Henderson from the Puddle, Graeme Humphreys from the Able Tasmans, and Duncan Bruce who I haven't heard of before) performing All My Hollowness To You.
Another good version is the Mint Chicks (who have apparently, according to their Wikipedia page, skipped the country entirely and are now hiding somewhere in Portland, America; and to think that this time last year all I knew about Portland is that it was where the cement came from) doing a faithful, if somewhat sped-up rendition of Crush. Jay and Sam Clarkson take the vicious fake country-and-western of I've Left Memories Behind and actually perform it in a real country-and-western style, which I'd almost be tempted to approve of just for the irony value. The Sky Green Leopards (a band name which makes me think that they pulled random words out of a hat to name themselves, Look Blue Go Purple style) make a good job of Burning Blue, as does Shayne Carter with The Slide. The last track on the first CD, credited to Hamish Kilgour, is fairly much a collage of Chris Knox samples.
The second CD of this set, covering songs from 1990 onwards, starts off with Boh Runga of Stellar* (not a footnote, that's actually part of the band's name) performing a fine rendition of the infamous Not Given Lightly. From that point, things get rather weird; next up is what appears to be a bluegrass-with-banjos version of the Tall Dwarfs' Bodies. Genghis Smith (of whom I have never before heard) do a good version of Growth Spurt while Yo La Tengo don't do quite as well with Coloured. Don McGlashan's Inside Story keeps quite close to the spirit of the original (production credits being: Recorded by Don at home on a clapped out Casio MT65); the Mountain Goats (who, according to the spoken-word intro, hail from North Carolina or somewhere like that) supply another stand-out track, performing a blistering acoustic version of Brave. The Tokey Tones and Friends, featuring Ed McWilliams, late of the vastly under-rated Bressa Creeting Cake, do a rather weird performance of Round These Walls while the Bats, who after a quarter of a century together couldn't put on a bad performance even if they tried, perform Just Do It.
The third of the three stand-out covers on these CDs are The Pyjama Party, a mum-and-dad-and-the-kids band performing It's Love, the song off the above Heineken ad. (It does help the musical quality somewhat that dad has been close to or at the top of the music charts in most countries in the known world, and that the elder of the two kids already has a long musical career of his own). Again, this actually improves on the original, with the somewhat sterile ambience replaced by a warm musical atmosphere. Next up, Jordan Luck flirts perilously close with disaster in choosing to perform the intensely personal Becoming Something Other, and probably only gets away with it because he's the local music scene's very own golden retriever (seriously, his whole career persona is of being limitlessly enthusiastic, a friend to everyone and expecting the same in return). The Verlaines dissect and rearrange Driftwood, adding some strings and making a new song out of it.
But the most amazing music of all is on the last two songs on this CD: the Nothing's Nappin' in Lapland and the Tall Dwarfs' Sunday Song. These are songs performed by Knox's two current bands, with Knox on vocals. Although as can be seen on the TV3 news article here, he can't actually speak much in the way of words, he can still sing, and on these tracks he performs in a style I've seen compared with Yoko Ono. He's also still got a lot of control over his facial expressions, as can be seen by that TV3 news footage.
So, all in all, while not being perfect, this album is definitely worthwhile from a musical point of view. In fact, the biggest issue I have with the entire product is nothing to do with the quality of the music itself, but of the packaging. While the slip-case with its cut-out bars is an interesting idea (one can slide the CD cover backwards and forwards within the slip-case to show either the album title or a photo of Chris Knox), the cover itself is one of those cheap cardboard sleeve type cases with the two CDs just slipped into a cardboard pocket at each end. Not only are they difficult to insert and remove from the pockets (which means that the CDs will no doubt very quickly accumulate fingerprints at the edges), but I've found that CDs packaged in cardboard have a very short useable life (the CD single of Distant Sun became unplayable within a matter of months. I take enough care of my CDs that they're normally playable forever - I've got CDs I bought over 20 years ago that still play perfectly well).
By way of comparison, or if any of this review interests you, the album's official web site includes samples of all tracks, plus complete versions of the original recordings for comparative purposes. In all, this would be a worthwhile CD just from a musical perspective, even if it hadn't been done for A Good Cause. And it's a testament to Chris Knox's talent that a lot of the music here, while good, just isn't quite as good as what one skinny little bugger can do in his spare room with some antique stereo equipment.