Friday, March 05, 2010

Various Artists: Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox = Spectrum Culture = one of the finest indie sites around. Go check it out. Tell your friends and enemies.

The shitty tribute album has long been a staple of the music industry; the fact that the majority of the listening public has no real interest in such travesties hardly deters some labels from spewing out such trash with alarming frequency. Still, a sucker is born every minute, and there will likely always be a few clueless souls jonesing to hear a bluegrass version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Even a cursory internet search makes a compelling argument for the overall uselessness of the tribute album: symphonic versions of classic singles, the dreaded Pickin' On series and third-rate punk bands paying "homage" to their grandfathers appear in distressing numbers (and, not surprisingly, most often at bargain bin prices).

Of course, occasionally a gem sneaks through this grimy garbage. In the span of less than a year, indie fans have been rewarded with two such products. 2009's Dark Was the Night, though not a tribute release in the strictest sense, was perhaps the finest compilation album since No Alternative, with some of indie's leading artists contributing to an effort whose proceeds went to the Red Hot organization. Likewise, Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox includes outstanding tracks from an impressive number of indie musicians united in a worthy cause; namely, to assist the Tall Dwarfs/Enemy/Toy Love leader in his recovery after recently suffering a stroke. Not every song on this two-disc behemoth will appeal to every listener, but taken as a whole it is almost every bit as good as the higher-profile Dark Was the Night.

Stroke's greatest charm is that its cover songs never sound forced or overdone. Even better, most tracks cover both Knox's band and solo work from every possible angle while remaining true to the musician's original versions in both spirit and tone, if not always in execution. Knox's pop sensibilities are represented right out of the gate, with the now-deceased Jay Reatard opening with "Pull Down the Shades" and the Checks turning in a bouncy, infectious take on "Rebel." Knox's lo-fi and experimental leanings are also given proper attention, via Pumice's dissonant spin on "Grand Mal" and Lou Barlow's reimagining of "Song of the Tall Poppy."

There is strength to simplicity, and throughout Stroke, a handful of songs that feature minimal instrumentation and assured vocals are the most memorable. Jeff Mangum's version of the Tall Dwarfs' "Sign the Dotted Line" features nothing more than a guitar and the singer's wonderfully flawed voice; at a shred over two minutes, it's altogether too brief, but it's nice to hear something from Mangum all the same. Peter Gutteridge reduces "Don't Catch Fire" to whispered vocals and funereal keyboards; the effect is chilling. Elsewhere, Bill Callahan strips down "Lapse" to only guitar and occasional hums of fuzz, Sean Donnelly offers an aching redux of "The Outer Skin" and Will Oldham's plaintive stab at "My Only Friend" could turn even the most cold-hearted bastard to mush.

If Stroke confirms anything, it's that Chris Knox's music has influenced a wide variety of musicians whose styles are quite diverse. A large contingent of New Zealand bands like the Chills, Verlaines and the Bats are included and speak to Knox's impact in his home country, certainly, but the number of American artists included here demonstrates how influential Knox's music has been worldwide. There is nary a throwaway among Stroke's 36 songs; the highlights are simply too numerous to mention in this review and it's hard to imagine any indie fan not finding at least a handful or 30 songs to like here. For once, a record label got a tribute album right.

1 comment:

Quran said...

Well I am one fan of Eric music and Musing. But at the same time I also like the very slow songs.