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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Bent Knee: Shiny Eyed Babies


1) Shiny Eyed Babies; 2) Way Too Long; 3) Dry; 4) In God We Trust; 5) I'm Still Here; 6) Dead Horse; 7) Battle Creek; 8) Untitled; 9) Sunshine; 10) Democratic Chorale; 11) Skin; 12) Being Human; 13) Toothsmile.

On their second album, Bent Knee pull all the stops and unleash their full power on the world, or, more accurately, on the tiny percentage of humankind that has willed to learn of the band's exis­tence. And while I still cannot say that I am totally sold on this sound, I am totally sold on the intensity of their burning desire to sell it to me. Yes, very few people overall have heard this album, but, as far as I can see, the majority of those who have were floored, overwhelmed, devastated, and all set to dump their girlfriends, divorce their wives, and spend the rest of their lives camping under the windows or hiding in the dumpster of Courtney Swain. (Unless they were female, but somehow methinks that even girls would sway over Courtney rather than Ben Levin, the all-important, mostly-silent sidekick).

Progression is clearly visible here in that it is no longer that easy to deconstruct the record into the sum of its influences: somehow these new songs, while preserving all the fury and controlled chaos of the debut, feel more independent of the past to me. Most likely, they have simply tried out a more complex synthetic model: where Bent Knee sounded like a hybrid of the 1970s with the 1990s, Shiny Eyed Babies throws in elements of 21st century electronic genres and even modern R&B, with a truly all-encompassing palette that celebrates total freedom of choice — without, however, making the music seem like a pretentious mish-mash of complexity for com­plexity's sake, which would be all too easy.

Because Bent Knee still have the same agenda, and while they are clearly interested in the tech­nical side of trying out new sounds and styles, their chief purpose is to stun the listener emo­tionally. Subtly alternating between the horrors of life as a whole and the horrors of personal relationships, they portray a schizophrenic, psychopathic mode of existence as the default one to exist in — at least, for people like Courtney Swain's artistic character. Moments of beauty and tenderness flash through their lives only in suspense-thriller mode, because danger, violence, aggression lurks behind each corner. The final prognosis is voiced quite discretely in the final song: "And I will rot / Screaming behind my thick hair / With a toothsmile on my face". Every single musical motive they have in these songs, every unexpected change of key or style works towards confirming that prognosis, one way or another.

Does it work? Does it work better than it used to? I am not sure, and here's why: despite all the unquestionable talents of the band's musicians, Shiny Eyed Babies does not have the feel of a proper indie-rock, or art-rock, or prog-rock «band»: it feels like a solo project of singer-songwri­ter Courtney Swain, supported by a talented, but humble bunch of sidemen that intentionally make camp in her shadow. Although the songs (and the album as a whole) are usually quite lengthy, there are very few instrumental passages, except for occasional noise or ambient codas: most of the time, the music, no matter how complex or inventive it is, is primarily a backdrop for Courtney's singing, and I have a hard time replaying any of the guitar riffs or cello or flute parts in my memory (unlike, say, the situation with Portis­head's Dummy, which would still be a great musical record even if you wiped out all of Beth Gibbons' vocals).

And that is not necessarily bad, given how fine Courtney Swain is as a singer, and even how cre­dible she is as a modern day Lucia di Lammermoor, throwing out one mad scene after another as a distinguished patient of a luxurious, one-client mental hospital. Or perhaps a modern day Ophe­lia would be an even better comparison: the brief, tender, and monstrous opening title track, supported only by her voice and a deceivingly caressing piano part, is the 21st century sophi­sti­cated madman's symmetric response to "he is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone". It does not particularly matter whether she rants and raves about the environment (ʽWay Too Longʼ), about sexual contact (ʽDryʼ), about religion (ʽIn God We Trustʼ), about drugs (ʽSkinʼ), or about death (ʽBeing Humanʼ) — a mad rant is a mad rant, and all that matters is whether we allow ourselves to believe in the mad rant and be scared by the mad rant, or whether we think of the mad rant as a ridiculous way to attract unwarranted attention.

In Courtney's case, the strong argument in favor is how technically endowed and downright cool she is as a vocalist — listen to her wind herself up, banshee-wise, in the middle of ʽDryʼ, for in­stance, where she is that close to scaling the epic heights of Clare Torry in ʽGreat Gig In The Skyʼ. But there is an almost equally strong argument to the contrary, namely, that for all her pre­dilection toward madness, Courtney Swain is most definitely not mad: she is a talented actor who puts on an intriguing and insightful show, yet I do not get the sense that she herself is actually part of that show. When I hear her solemnly belt out "my right side is twisted, numb, dead, dis­tant" on ʽI'm Still Hereʼ, and then coo out "I still love you in my heart" in the refrain, I interpret this as more of a theatrical gesture than a straightahead cry from the bottom of said heart. And no, this is not a crime and it does not make the songs any less interesting or artistic: this is just an attempt at explaining why I do not find myself shaken to the core of my spiritual being every time that Courtney unleashes one more of her raging fits.

One particularly bad decision in this respect is the band's cover of ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ, done in precisely the same style — alternating between quietly psychotic and loudly psychotic, with a delayed-echo guitar rhythm of Floydian origins (think ʽAnother Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1ʼ), tur­bulent string arrangements, and an almost power-metal-like climax at the end. In a bizarrely iro­nic twist of fate, this is the second non-standard reinterpretation of this song that I know of for 2014 — the first one was on Cat-Yusuf Stevens' Tell 'Em I'm Gone; and both are failures, be­cause the song's inherent cheerfulness does not allow any revisions of it that try to magnify and inflate its tiny speck of potential darkness to be perceived as anything above a bizarre musical joke. Bottomline: the band should stick to original material (and, for that matter, this is but one of the many, many, many examples of classic oldies treated very poorly and unconvincingly by otherwise competent and interesting musical acts of the 21st century).

Overall, I think the record loses my intent attention at about four songs into it. I love the thrashing hard-rock-meets-match-chamber-pop style of ʽWay Too Longʼ; am at least theoretically impres­sed by the dramatic crescendos of ʽDryʼ; and appreciate the schizo-pop (no other term that I can think of) of the multi-part ʽIn God We Trustʼ. From then on, the record does not offer any parti­cularly startling ideas — as unpredictable as the band is in terms of specific ideas, the style stays the same: a big, sprawling sound, more dependent on strings, keyboards, and a powerful rhythm section than on electric guitar, and always pushing «Theatrically Mad Courtney» to the front... nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered, including the one of getting quite actively bored by the time we get around to the last three songs.

Still, if you think that it all points to a thumbs down rating, you could not be more mistaken, because, for all their flaws, Bent Knee have almost succeeded here in inventing a new musical genre — call it anti-post-rock, if you wish, because they take all the atmospheric trappings of post-rock, inject them with a new sense of dynamics, yet instead of returning to the «pre-post-rock» era, actually move one step forward. I am still not sure if this is necessarily a good, working thing, and the band has not made enough of an impression on the world to make their example infectious anyway... but, love it or not, this is an outstanding achievement for 2014, and fully deserving of an intellectually respectful thumbs up.


  1. An incredible album by a criminally underrated band, and I fully agree with the thumbs up rating. However, I'll never understand interpretations of "You Are My Sunshine" that take it as having any sort of "inherent cheerfulness"- it's really quite a dark song, and both Bent Knee and Yusuf/Cat seem to be getting at this in their covers (although I prefer Bent Knee's version by a country mile). After all, here are a couple of the verses:

    "The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
    I dreamed I held you in my arms
    But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
    So I hung my head and I cried"

    "You told me once, dear, you really loved me
    And no one else could come between
    But now you've left me and love another
    You have shattered all of my dreams"

    These look like they've got a good deal more than a "tiny speck" of darkness to me. Overall, I see the feeling of love expressed in the song as an obsession over a long-gone relationship- the speaker dreams about holding their love one last time, but the object of their affections has left them, much to their own personal anguish. The use of the present tense in the chorus is just a refusal to accept reality- they still think of this person as their "sunshine", even though their love has long since stopped thinking of them in the same way. Overall, I think it's a perfect fit for the Bent Knee brand of psychosis- the screaming climax turns the song from something sad to something utterly heartwrenching.

  2. I loved their take on You Are My Sunshine, almost more than the original tracks on the album. With that being said, for all her talent, Courtney Swain still has to grow a lot as a singer. A song like I'm Still Here exposes her lack of phrasing and the attack is also too harsh for that kind of song. At the same time, I guess, most of the 'grit'(like the last verse of You Are My Sunshine) is actually a sound enhancement by their expert producer? So it's like she's neither here or there. Is she a top notch hard rock singer like Beth Hart? No. Nor as good at serene balladry as the Annies and the Agnethas and the Karens. Wait, I don't even think she is as good a singer, in the sense of getting you to connect with the words, as Fiona Apple who certainly doesn't have her seemingly volcanic range. But Fiona knows how to sing a phrase, Courtney is still singing melodies. Of course, Fiona is also an incredibly witty lyricist so that helps.

    I THINK the musicians are actually quite talented but they want to place a talented vocalist like Courtney Swain at the center of their sound which is understandable. It did work (for me) on this album. Not so much on the ones that have followed.