Strawpeople: Knucklebones (digital outlets)

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Watch You Sleep
Strawpeople: Knucklebones (digital outlets)

That this album – Strawpeople's first in almost 20 years – should enter the chart of New Zealand music at number two shouldn't surprise anyone: there's a lot of affection for Strawpeople who, in their heyday of the Nineties and early 2000s, effortless eased from student radio favourites into mainstream acceptance and onto National Radio.

Now, without scouring student radio playlists for confirmation, Strawpeople – founder Paul Casserly and singer Fiona McDonald with a cast of others – are probably more aligned with the NatRad demographic where many tracks from Knucklebones can slip onto music programmes and in between the interviews.

There's an audience, now in its 40s and above, which is glad to have them back because they remember them and their almost-hits so fondly.

Recently Casserly said of the album “the vibe overall is kind of nostalgic . . . that’s always been the case with Strawpeople songs. They’re kind of a mournful celebration”.

That nostalgia vibe extended to their astutely chosen covers, songs which had immediate recognition factor for their audience but which they cleverly repurposed into something . . . well, sometimes something more mournful.

Songs like the Church's Under the Milky Way, Drive (the Cars), Have a Little Faith (John Hiatt), One Good Reason (Swingers) and Love My Way (Psychedelic Furs) sat alongside wonderful originals like the Silver Scroll-winning Sweet Disorder, the languid Beautiful Skin and the urgent Trick With a Knife.

This was where cool electronica, samples and pop tropes combined.

Although the line-up constantly changed – Mark Tierney, a founder alongside Casserly, left in the mid-90s – Strawpeople delivered studio-crafted songs (they rarely performed live) designed for living room stereos. And radio.

With Knucklebones, Casserly and McDonald again carry the Strawpeople project of thoughtful pop with just enough sonic twists to keep things interesting.

Again Strawpeople present another crafted collection, however it rarely stretches them.

Here are the radio-friendly Second Heart, stridently nagging title track where McDonald at times comes perilously close to her part in Headless Chickens' more aggressive Cruise Control, the rhythmically jerky Paper Cuts and the dreamy-then-dramatic Watch You Sleep.

With Joost Langeveld, Chris van der Geer, keyboard player Matthias Jordan (Pluto), busker Luke Hurley (acoustic guitar on the appropriately titled Busker) and others, Strawpeople have considerable studio experience to draw on, which might make you yearn for more experimentation beyond their accomplished and obviously popular sound.

The edgy Forgot to Forget with saxophonist Nick Atkinson, the most courageous piece here, and the dubadelic Love Diktat with samples of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and Pope John Paul II fulfill that desire. Both are excellent, but its doubtful they'd get much radio play . . . except maybe back on student radio which is usually prepared to take a risk.

This album's cover song is as cleverly chosen as those in the past, tickling the nostalgic, collective memory of their audience.

It is Canadian band Promises' cloud-piercing, emotionally wrought Baby It's You which topped the local charts in '79. So it is familiar, but what we are invited to admire is how it has been remade.

However despite the unsettling and moody sonic backdrop, McDonald's restrained vocal renders the lyrics – which are freighted with anxiety and desperation – bloodless.

Knucklebones mostly offers much that is familiar, only a few tracks which push the envelope and perhaps has you wondering – despite McDonald's fine and assured voice here – if bringing in another vocalist wouldn't have add greater emotional and musical diversity.

But it's not for a critic to say what artists should do, just to consider what they have done.

What Strawpeople have done is Knucklebones.

And it went straight to the top of the charts.


You can hear and buy this album at bandcamp here where it is also available on limited edition vinyl

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