Monday, August 21, 2006

young knives LP review

The wait for the debut album by The Young Knives has been long, and worth every minute. After a several years old mini-LP, a collection of demos and a cracking run of singles, they finally unveiled their Voices of Animals and Men LP today, and not at all surprisingly it is a tremendous collection of pristinely recorded, ultra-energetic and mostly familiar punk-pop songs.

At first glance the Young Knives template looks either calculated or nostalgic; their appearance - what the Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon might call 'forest casual, for the leafy gent' - their sense of humour and their fondness for angular, arty riffs all summoning up references to literal and metaphorical forebears, whether XTC, Adam and the Ants or just the Futureheads. But it doesn't take long to figure that the perfect packaging of the record - the cover depicts the Whittlesey Straw Bear - is the last thing but paper over the cracks. Conceptually, stylistically, lyrically and musically the Young Knives are a complete, and pretty flawless, package.

It all starts with 'Part Timer' and staccato bursts of guitar and a pulsing bassline. It's immediately tighter and fiercer than anything I was expecting, the lyrics painting a picture of a bored Henry trying to write a song and failing in a bout of indecision. Yet the sense of frustration and ennui he feels in songwriting is a metaphor for much of the focus of the album. You get it when Henry, after a delightful, unexpected and teasing pause in the music, which is in itself a shockingly confident step a minute and a half into a debut album, sings - or rather spits - "Back down, it's the best you can hope for. Back down again". The album thrives off the fury of not achieving, yet Andy Gill, who produced the record, teases twelve stunning, fierce vocal takes out of Henry, who has a really beautiful, loaded voice.

'The Decision' is sung by House, however, and his performance - vocally and musically - is not to be underestimated on this splendid album either. His tracks are lovely and his now familiar couplet "I'm the Prince of Wales, I'm the Prince of Wales / And if all else fails, I am the Prince of Wales" probably remains the most instantly memorable thing about the Knives thus far. There are a good many of us fervently hoping that 'The Decision', with it's charming 'ba ba' refrain and sweet chorus ("the horses in the New Forest are running in their Sunday best") will be the band's first genuine HIT single when it's released at the end of September.

That hit should, of course, have been the next song, 'Weekends and Bleakdays' - key lyric: "what I feel, it's not important" - and you wonder if the band would not have been better rush-releasing it - with it's "hot summer, hot hot summer" chorus - when the country was still spread eagled on the grass in the midst of a now-distant heatwave. No matter. Quickly following the splendid harmonising of House's 'In The Pink' and the rather weaker 'Mystic Energy' is another lost would-be hit, the super, frenetic 'Here Comes The Rumour Mill', telling of "Tall tales, cliques and whispers" and secret kisses.

And it's now, with the end of side one in sight, when a debut album often begins to drop off, that it becomes apparent just what a tremendous record this is.

'Tailors' is the first hint of how special the Knives are. An absolutely irrestistable little folk song sung in a disconcerting falsetto and driven by the rhythmic snapping of a pair of scissors, Henry begins with the lines

Tailors are the best
See them running with their brollies.
Workmen of the week".

It's strange,
slight and throwaway, but hints at a real variety and vision beyond the punky pop of the singles; in fact, far from being a 'post-punk' band there is much subtlety on this record which recalls Robert Wyatt as much as it does Howard Deveto. The Knives build on this flexibility from hereon in.

Yet the second half actually opens with the silliest song here, 'Half Timer', which sees the band with work on their mind once again as they noodle around a half-formed idea in the studio. "A salary!" they cry. "You need a salary if you want to get through". "For money and emergencies", one suggests. "Bloodsuckers!" shouts House. What else? "New carpets", perhaps? "I had a job once", House reminisces, "It was awful". Quite.

On to 'Dialling Darling' then, once the near-hit 'She's Attracted To' has been negotiated, and once I've shouted myself hoarse with Henry's "You were screaming at your mum / I was punching your dad" sign off. And 'Dialling Darling' is really magnificent, three minutes of delicate, twin vocalled punk with thrilling "whoo-oo-ooo-ooo" backing vocals. The change of direction for the chorus is masterful, I'll tell you that much.

And then 'Another Hollow Line' and it's much changed from its early incarnation and initially disappointing 'til you learn to wear the new approach, where the delicacies of Henry's acoustic guitar are replaced with crisp, melodious riffs. The vocal is typically gorgeous, though, Henry musing on a shallow girl and the hopelessness of love;

A lonely smile in the clouds
And the smell of foreign bodies
He waits for you to ask him out
Three hours sitting in the lobby".

The guitar break in the middle would melt my spine if such a thing were possible. And the lyrics evolve from bittersweet to hilarious - witness the following:

One day you’re sitting very still
And repeating a faburden
The next you’re wearing Faberge - oh dear -
On your way to Covent garden"...

'Coastguard' - stop me if I'm getting repetitive - is tremendous too; fierce in every respect - violent and brittle, driving, furious at loss. "At the table", Henry screams, "is an empty place". It's even fiercer when he repeats it. And then House takes over, intoning:

She couldn’t swim she couldn’t see
The current pushing out to sea,
Down estuaries and tributaries.
On benthic rocks.
She’s wrecked on Benthic rocks."

After twelve songs of this, The Young Knives (who, incidentally, didn't even bother using a whole host of songs - 'Current of the River', 'Kramer Vs Kramer', 'Kitchener', 'Elaine' - which would stand out like pearls on any of the albums of their contemporaries) unleash the best two songs in their catalogue. The first up, 'Loughborough Suicide', is perhaps the best encapsulation of the Young Knives ethic, a (lyrically) ferocious, pent up, beaten-down hymn of small town angst which brings to mind The Jam at their most caustic. The music itself - particularly the kinetic, angry riff which explodes half way through as a kind of counterpoint to Henry's desperate admission: "I'll never go down fighting" - is superb and yet dominated, despite the beauty of the tune, by the words. As Henry repeats his despairing refrain House rants:

"Well it is cold, cold, cold
And I think I’m going to die in here.
Considering Loughborough suicide
Which I’m definitely going to do this year.
And if you take a look outside
Then the answers to your questions seem quite clear...
That you may as well leave,
Because there’s nothing else to do around here."

Somewhat purged, the album closes with 'Tremblings of Trails', which finds Henry battling on but worn down. Musically, it's by far the most interesting thing here, a metronomic, loopy, languid slice of melancholy good enough to recall Wire at their most tuneful without the comparison embarrasing them. Having boarded a bus "to anywhere", Henry finds that there is no comfort in being absent either: "
We come undone in foreign parts / Our home is heavy in our hearts".

And yet the fury is there too, as the searing but momentary lapses into violence attest. Having sounded resigned throughout, the moments where the frustration breaks through are thrilling. "We've got the same decrepit stars!", he screams. "
My plan has failed! / Tremblings of trails! / Yearning comforts of the dales!"

It's ironic that the ceaselessly good-natured public persona of this band, and their endearingly daft videos, runs the risk of painting them unjustly as a novelty band. But bands only really suffer from that caricature if there's nothing but the laughs to back them up. Anyone who spends three quarters of an hour with Voices of Animals and Men will attest that riotous good fun and existential angst are handed out in roughly equal, and equally satisfying measures. Even more ironically, given the furiously excitable reaction in evidence above, the band have been playing most of these songs to half-empty venues for the last few years. Recent b-sides and live tracks seem to suggest that there is a folkier, more lyrical side to the band to come. And the hype is building. If they can produce another album of this quality in a couple of years then, frankly, the mind boggles.


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