BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2009 Various: Stroke; Songs for Chris Knox (Rhythmethod)

 |   |  3 min read

The Mountain Goats: Brave
BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2009 Various: Stroke; Songs for Chris Knox (Rhythmethod)

There's an unstated but obviously very sensible practice that most critics adopt: you never review a show or album which is raising money for a good cause. If the show is lousy and you say as much then that can be misread as you not supporting the cause. Same goes for an album. Didn't like the kiddie choir at the Plunket show means you are anti-motherhood, right?

That kind of thing.

The reason for this album -- an anti-celeb collision of big names in the indie music world -- is perhaps widely known: earlier this year Chris Knox (of Toy Love, Tall Dwarfs, a solo star and latterly in the Nothing) suffered a debilitating stroke and so friends, fellow travellers and those who have enjoyed the hospitality of his home in New Zealand and the support of his family have recorded some of his songs to raise funds for his on-going treatment. And . . .

Here they are on a neatly packaged double disc (artwork by Chris' other half in Tall Dwarfs, Alec Bathgate) -- and quite a line-up it is: Jay Reatard, Stephin Merritt, Bill Callahan (Smog), Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, the Mountain Goats, Will (Bonnie Prince Billy) Oldham, Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr and others among the internationals; the Checks, Chills, Mint Chicks, Shayne Carter, Don McGlashan, the Tokey Tones, the Finn Family and Jordan Luck among the locals.

Appropriately enough given Knox's (mostly) lo-fi career the chronological collection kicks in with Reatard's hotel room treatment of Toy Love's Pull Down the Shades. Thereafter are highlights aplenty: the Checks bringing their Sixties pop sensibilities to Rebel, the Bleeding Allstar's dreamy Ain't It Nice, the jangle'n'orchestration of the Chills on Luck or Loveliness, David Kilgour turning Nothing's Going to Happen on its head and into a slide guitar dreamscape worthy of one of his early solo albums or the recent Clean ambient-pop on Mister Pop, an eerily distant Carter getting into the dark spirit of The Slide . . .

And what is apparent -- and perhaps wasn't when you first heard Knox's songs -- is how malleable they are: he has a keen pop sensibility so some songs are turned in that direction (the Mint Chicks with their electro-take on Crush for example), but equally other songs can morph into drones (Merritt on Beauty) or dense guitar thrash-cum-distortion (Portastatic on Nostalgia's No Excuse, Pumice with the sonic disruptions of Grand Mal). Or acoustic folksiness (Jay and Sam Clarkson on I've Left Memories Behind, and Burning Blue by Skygreen Leopards out of San Francisco).

Hamish Kilgour of the Clean closes the first disc with a kind of Knoxian Revolution 9/soundscape (with Chris samples) on his own Knoxed Out.

But you aren't "Knoxed out" -- and the second disc offers as much again, and in rather more intimate songs.

Boh Runga pulls off The Big And Difficult One (Not Given Lightly) in a delicious treatment akin in parts to lo-fi Cowboy Junkies; the banjos come out for a backporch treatment of Bodies (RedZeke and friends); Callahan brings his barrel-bottom vocals and acoustic guitar to a spare version of the beautiful Lapse, Yo La Tengo go to the Incredible String Band as much as Knox for their folk-take on Coloured, AC Newman takes Dunno Much About Life towards the Billy J Kramer/Merseybeats axis . . .

The emphasis on the second disc falls on Knox's lyrics where they shine (a starkly pragmatic view of the failings and strengths of human emotion and the body) and in the light-touch treatments there is real beauty here: McGlashan on Inside Story; and Sean Donnelly, Lambchop, John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats), the Tokey Tones, Bats, Will Oldham and others remaking Knox material in their own image. And much more.

It is moving to hear Darnielle's spoken intro in which he recalls Chris in the back of a van in '95 then launch in to the life-affirming and righteous Brave. 

This 20 song disc closes with the Nothing's Napping in Lapland and Tall Dwarf's Sunday Song, both recently recorded with Chris post-stroke.

This is an impressive double disc (it is inevitable a few songs don't work) and not just for what it tells you about Chris Knox (lotsa friends if nothing else) but how it offers an opportunity to reconsider and re-hear his music.

chris_1   His has been an impressive and singular body of work, and that so many diverse artists can find something in it to express themselves is testament to its inherent quality also.

   Wide and deep, we might say.

But no one covered anything off the Friend album?

That's a joke. Chris'll get it.

PS: Trevor Reekie hosted an interesting roundtable discussion on National Radio about Chris and this album. His guests were Roy Martyn of the Nothing, Roger Sheppard, Don McGlashan, Shayne Carter and myself. Everyone spoke well and Trevor hosted with his customary wit, generosity and intelligence.

We all said the truth as we saw it about Chris. That programme is here

Share It

Your Comments

Angela Soutar - Nov 25, 2009

This would be good for someone like me who wasn't in NZ much when Knox was producing so much - I heard it's sold out though so might be waiting a while.

Angela Soutar - Dec 17, 2009

This is the only one of the 25 I rushed out and bought but I enjoyed sampling all the others - thanks for enlarging our sensibilities and tastes Graham both here, in print and on other media - have a good rest - I am now starting on one too so will enjoy more of the site's goodies!!

post a comment

More from this section   Music articles index

Mel Parsons: Over My Shoulder (Cape Road)

Mel Parsons: Over My Shoulder (Cape Road)

Many local singer-songwriters have found their voice in what we know as, but Parsons (originally from the West Coast) goes one step closer to more traditional country music and an... > Read more

Danny McCrum Band: Awake and Restless (McCrum)

Danny McCrum Band: Awake and Restless (McCrum)

Here's a guess, this smart pop-rock album from an Auckland singer-songwriter and his tight, crackling band won't get much attention. The reason? There's not been much sympathy or space for... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

THE BARGAIN BUY: Clarence Carter; The Dynamic Clarence Carter

THE BARGAIN BUY: Clarence Carter; The Dynamic Clarence Carter

One part smooth Otis Redding, one part the more sedate end of James Brown and steeped in Southern soul, the great singer Clarence Carter was one of the finest interpreters of a song, even if he... > Read more



Some years ago I was walking down Queen St in central Auckland and stopped outside the Body Shop. There, along an exterior wall, was written one of those thought-provoking and inspirational quotes... > Read more