Bent Knee Bring Their Intense, Unpredictable, Explosive Art-Rock to Bed-Stuy
Imagine a female-fronted Radiohead. Boston art-rockers Bent Knee don’t sound much like Radiohead, but their esthetic is the same, catchy hooks within arrangements that are endlessly surprising and often epic. Unease and anger pervade their enigmatic lyrics. Frontwoman/keyboardist Courtney Swain sings with an arresting, sometimes angst-fueled voice that trails off with a brittle vibrato. They’ve got a new album, Say So – streaming at Bandcamp – and a 10 PM show on August 24 at C’Mon Everybody. Cover is $10.
This band never bores you. Most of the tracks seem completely through-composed. Very little if anything ever repeats; the hooks come at you fast and frantic, kaleidoscopically. The amount of memorization this material requires for live performance is staggering. The album opens with Black Tar Water – as in “dumping out the black tar water,” be it bongwater, asphalt, drug residue, or strictly a metaphor. Catchy and shapeshifting at the same time, it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Swain’s dramatic flights to the upper registers contrast with chilly, techy keyboard timbres over tricky meters, negotiated nimbly by bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth.
Guitarist Ben Levin nicks a droll Beatles trope as Leak Water opens, Swain lamenting that “I try to speak, but I only leak water.” A brief mininalist intro hardly foreshadows the punchy, ornate neoromantic crescendos in store: Wounded Buffalo Theory comes to mind. Counselor is a dramatic mashup of creepy circus rock, funk, roaring arena rock and hints of horror film cinematics. “Give me kisses, something squishy,” Swain entreats – yikes!
Eve begins as a Kate Bush-style tone poem of sorts, awash in tongue-in-cheek echo phrases until the crushing guitars kick in along with violinist Chris Baum’s crazed swipes and spirals. Stomping peaks alternate with Pink Floyd lushness and lustre as it goes on; an ominous spacerock interlude that haphazardly balances guitar and strings ends this ten-minute monstrosity. From there, an early Bill Frisell-tinged miniature segues into The Things You Love, Swain musing caustically on the emptiness of materialistic excess, over still, starlit ambience that eventually gives way to more horror film textures, pouncing King Crimson-esque ornateness and eventually a funny, faux-dramatic outro.
Nakami hints at tinkly lounge jazz, then moves toward dissociative Peter Gabriel-era Genesis intricacy, with a long, explosively sweeping Japanese-language outro. From there they segue into the sarcastically bustling Commercial, Levin’s bombastic guitars matching Swain’s fake-cheery vocals and keyboard sarcasm.
Hands Up comes across as a case where the satire cuts so close to the bone that it’s hard to tell whether this is a spoof of American Idol cliche-pop, or a halfhearted stab at a genuine Radio Disney hit – although the band seem far too smart to believe they’d ever get corporate radio airplay. The album winds up with Good Girl, rising out of Levin’s darkly spacious solo guitar intro to Swain’s most caustic lyric here:
Don’t be a hassle
Don’t be a rascal
Great minds think too much
But you’re not a scholar
Nor a philosopher
Turn that little light of yours off
Sing with me
And count to three
Soon it will be
A dis at a wet-behind-the-ears limousine liberal, or feminist empowerment anthem? Swain leaves that trapdoor open. Count this beguiling, unpredictable, wickedly smart album among the very best of 2016.