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Bent Knee - Shiny Eyed Babies CD (album) cover


Bent Knee


Crossover Prog

4.19 | 218 ratings

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5 stars BENT KNEE's lead vocalist, Courtney SWAIN, might be the bravest woman I've ever heard of. To be able to replicate even one of the amazingly intense vocal performances on this album in a concert setting would wear me out; I'd need at least a day to recover from singing just one of these intensely personal, emotional songs in the incredibly dynamic way that she does. Courtney SWAIN may be the most powerful, emotional vocalist I've ever heard. She sings with the emotional intensity of BJÍRK or a young ALANIS MORISSETTE only amped up by ten. She has the vocal power of ETHEL MERMAN. She has, at times, the tone and timbre of NORA JONES, at others the quirk and tone of EDIE BRICKELL, and still others the stylistic flair of ANNE PIGALLE. At al times she exhibits a fearless, devil-may-care attitude similar to NINA HAGEN. Her lyrics possess a personal and intellectual style similar to RIKKIE LEE JONES. The band's music expresses itself with an originality that I would compare to KATE BUSH or TOBY DRIVER, KING CRIMSON or JANE SIBERRY, with a sound and structural style sometimes similar to DEVOTCHKA and yet with the power packed intensity and dynamic range of EMILY AUTUMN. And the instrumental accompaniment seems to always, always match perfectly the mercurial approach of Ms. SWAIN's vocal deliveries.

I cannot remember being this excited about an album since I heard MAGMA's MDK for the first time back in the summer of 2009. I feel like I could write paragraphs about each song they are each so diverse, so powerful, so fascinating, so unusual, so complex and driven by such an amazing collaborative effort! Instead let me wax rhapsodic about one song that epitomizes the unique and unusual product and effort that is BENT KNEE. Song 7 is entitled, "Sunshine." Barely recognizable before the final stanza (which is repeated three or four times at the end of the song), this is actually a remake of a popular song that was written by Georgians Paul Rice and Oliver Hood around 1933, performed for years in the American South--mostly in Louisiana--by the Rice Brothers Gang, but only first recorded in August of 1939 by The Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey)--though the February of 1940 version recorded for Decca Records by Jimmy Davis (later governor of Louisiana) and Charles Mitchell was the version that brought popular attention to it. When it was then covered four times in 1941 by no less than the likes of Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Mississippi John Hurt, and Lawrence Welk, "You Are My Sunshine" became permanently embedded in American popular culture. The song has been covered numerous other times--so often, in fact, that according to Wikipedia it is "one of the most commercially programmed numbers in American popular music." Originally performed in a country or folk music style, "Sunshine" has, over time, been adapted into many musical styles--and is most assuredly familiar to most every natural-born American. But, I will go out on a limb here to declare that most Americans have never heard this song in the form or with the power or intention that Bent Knee now gives it. With Courtney Swain at the helm, the band give "Sunshine" a feel of desperation and longing and regret and vengeful anger at an act of perceived betrayal the likes of which I have never heard before. Ms. Swain sings it with a kind of jilted young girl crazed mournfulness that is entirely unsettling and yet emotionally engaging to the listener. As in many of these songs, there are multiple moments in which I find chills of emotional resonance racing through my bodymind. The song opens with 40 seconds of instrumental upbuild as first muted electric guitar strums his muted strings, then piano adds a repeated single note, then cymbal play mimics the edgy, tense syncopated rhythm before bass and violin join in with their tension-building contributions, coming to a near-frenzied mini-crescendo before utterly disappearing--leaving behind the one constant throughout the song: an unsettling two- and sometimes three-note chord being picked by Ben Levin's plastic pick on his slightly-muted electric guitar. Soon Courtney enters with her voice singing the first verse in a plaintive NORA JONES-like voice while occasionally hitting a piano chord to provide a little harmonic fill to the otherwise eerily spacious background soundscape. After Courtney stops singing the first verse, the violin, drums and bass make a very brief dramatic appearance before just as quickly dropping out to allow the spacious emptiness to present Courtney's singing of the second verse. (The renowned chorus is skipped--saved for the end). At first she sounds quite positive and upbeat--even seductively innocent, but then her tone switches subtly but unmistakingly for the last sentence: "..but if you leave me, to love another, you'll regret it all someday," she sings in a slightly ambivalent, yet perceptively menacing, even threatening, tone. Piano, pounding toms, creepy violin and thumping bass immediately take center stage before Courtney's reverbed voice enters from the background with "ooo"s that provide an unsettling, ghost-like effect--all in the space of 22 seconds! Silence--save for the constant plucking of the same muted electric guitar notes--and then the girl comes at us again--each time feeling a little less in control, as if she is coming a little more unglued with each verse. The addition of some well-placed, well-timed high-pitched squeals from the violin and Courtney's purposeful use of off-key, sliding vocal notes, only adds to the effect of showing us that this girl is losing her grip, is going psycho, as she sings, "You once told me you really loved me and no one else could come between, but now you've left me to love another," and when she sings the final line, holding the last word for 20 seconds before turning it into a vehicle for her unbridled shrieking, "you have shattered all my dreams," I believe her! I get chills! Every time! And I find myself wanting to get as far away from this psycho murdering bitch as possible! The full band has been supporting her while she shrieks and shrills with some brilliant play that Robert FRIPP would be proud of and then just as suddenly, at 3:16, they disappear. We are once again, left alone, with that eerie single-note guitar picking and all of that empty space--and this time for an extended wait of 12 long seconds! When Courtney finally enters for the final chorus--sung in a high octave fragile, whispery, wavering, single, though, eventually, sliding note--she is accompanied by the sound of a snapping of a guitar string! "Twank!" Incredible! As she reaches the final words of the chorus, "Please don't take my sunshine away," the full band joins in pumping out their jam at full decibels over which Courtney goes straight into a second singing of the chorus, this time in a full belt Emily AUTUMN-like voice. As the last strains of her descending hold of "awa-a-a-y" fade, the sound of the band morphs into a frenetic, "Day in the Life" type of psychedelic cacophony. But wait! They're not done! They all come together in a PORCUPINE TREE-like metal chord-pulsing support of Courtney's last SCREAMING run through the chorus, each instrument pounding out their loudest possible sound in perfect synchronization with each syllable of the lyric, finishing early with, "how much I love you?"! Wow! What an incredible, exhausting journey. All in just five minutes and twenty seconds! And if you watch the YouTube videos of the band's live performances you can see how totally engaged and into the song each band member is. This is why I can't believe that Courtney or the band can do more than one song per concert performance: they give SO MUCH to each SONG performance that I can't imagine digging deep to do it again for one much less ten to twenty more songs! It must be exhausting! And how I would LOVE to be in the same room for such a performance. There are not many bands I would pay or make the travel effort to go see, but this is one of them. Maybe the only one. And the most amazing thing of all is that every single song on this album is equally powerful, equally well- designed, orchestrated, impassioned, and produced as "Sunshine"!! There may be songs that I don't give 10/10 ratings to but there are none that don't deserve it for effort alone!

The album opens with a brief Broadway/Billy Joel-like piano-based song, 1. "Shiny Eyed Babies" (1:47) which serves as a vehicle for Courtney's singing which, for some reason, reminds me of the unapproachable ETHEL MERMAN. (9/10)

2. "Way Too Long" (4:59) is a powerful song which reminds me a lot of Alannah MYLES' 1990 Grammy Award- winning heavy rock, Annie WILSON/HEART-like hit version of her country song "Black Velvet"--voice, pacing, and musical style. (9/10)

3. "Dry" (6:07) is an awesome and beautiful song presented in a wild, frenetic torch song style that reminds me of Trevor HORN's Zang Tum Tum molding of French chanteuse, ANNE PIGALLE (1985 Everything Could Be So Perfect). (10/10)

4. "In God We Trust" (5:21) sounds like a great JANE SIBERRY (or perhaps k.d. lang) song. This is so quirky progressive like a song from Jane's brilliant masterpieces of progressive rock music, The Walking or Bound by the Beauty albums (1987 and 1989, respectively). A great lyric that makes an awesome commentary on modern society. (10/10)

5. "I'm Still Here" (5:08) opens with a very spacey, ambient feel as only treated keyboards provide the background for Courtney to sing over. Then at 1:50 things shift--music and vocal style. Then at 2:10 we get to the meat of the song, a tom-tom-based rhythm with all kinds of high-pitch keyboard and violin notes screeching away above Courtney's voice. At 3:15 a new, more prog-like pulsing rhythm-and-bass-led section ensues to play out to the end as Courtney sings in a high crystalline voice, over and over, "I'm still here!" Very KATE BUSH-like in this extraordinary song arrangement. (10/10)

6. "Dead Horse" (5:18) opens with an ALANIS MORRISSETTE "Thank U"-like staccato piano chord sequence being bounced about. Courtney's vocal even sounds like it could be Alanis. A very scratchy, distorted sound is given to all keyboard sounds until at 1:40 an orchestrated clear rock sound is presented. The Alanis MORISSETTE comparisons continue--though, once again, there is a strong presence of JANE SIBERRY within. The keyboard and drum interlude mid-song is so cool and so beautiful. This is so Jane! The piano and steady background synth washing that fill the final 75 seconds are gorgeous! And haunting! (10/10)

7. "Battle Creek" (5:43) opens with a bluesy treated PINK FLOYD "Wish You Were Here"/"Pigs--Three of a Kind"-like guitar before Courtney's quiet, almost background voice begins to sing. The song is constructed so unusually, so ingeniously, again, very much like a KATE BUSH or BJÍRK song and yet with so much more emotional dynamism. Times ten! It's brilliant! (10/10)

8. "Untitled" (2:01) starts "Side Two" much in the same way that the title song started "Side One"--with a brief piano-based "show tune" showcasing Courtney's more classical side--this one sounding a little more like a stark 1920s/30s KURT WEILL/BERTOLDT BRECHT lieder. (9/10)

9. "Sunshine" (5:20). Shall I recap?! STAY AWAY FROM CHICKS LIKE THIS!! (12/10)

10. "Democratic Chorale" (1:42) is another late-night solo-piano bar-styled piano-based GERSHWIN-like jazz song complete with background television (or radio) noise. (10/10)

11. "Skin" (5:59) opens with a couple of soft piano chords before a frenzied violin plays a high-speed, high- pitched arpeggio, repeated over and over. The first half of the song is a powerful rock song in the tradition of hard female rocker JOAN JETT but at 3:12 Courtney sings, "Everything went wrong" and the rock music stops and a KING CRIMSON "One More Red Nightmare"-like sound and vibe ensues. Violin screeches a low- end note that throws all key-tuning out and off. Keys, industrial-sounding drums, build until they suddenly give way to a jazzy piano-bar like piano solo. Awesome song! Totally unpredictable and ingenious. (10/10)

12. "Being Human" (6:28) is the first song I ever heard by the band--a live YouTube video of a live performance at Hand Forged Works. Hearing that opening line, "I imagine your dead body lying in my bed," and then "You never liked the thought of being human anyway," and "Death is one more option to explore" had me hooked even before the incredibly powerful music of the full band kicks in. I love this arrangement, this music! And when Courtney fills a space in the music at the 1:45 mark with a shrieking, "But it feels like PAIN!" she kills me! Amazing, amazing song that rivals even "Sunshine" for Song of the Year! Every instrument is worth studying, all of their contributions are so amazing! And listen to the way in which the guy running the sound board will play with the effects on Courtney's voice. Mid-song! Amazing! And then the ambient band play for the song's last minute. (11/10)

13. "Toothsmile" (7:23) opens with a cheesy organ over which Courtney sings a gorgeous, emotional BJÍRK-like vocal. For the first half of the song the other band members add a variety of odd orchestra-like sounds and incidentals to the song. But then a dramatic PETER GABRIEL ("3")-like power section takes over--over which Courtney's treated voice continues to belt away. Then, at the 4:30 mark Courtney's heavily treated speaking voice starts to chant out what seems like a list or poem or spell or something deranged as the band winds down its tempo very slowly in a kind of slow portamento or as if the electric equipment is slowly losing its battery power. (10/10)

This album is no joke! This is the best album of 2014 and the best album of the 2010s (so far)! I have never heard such a powerful and refreshing album. And there is so much to hear--each time I listen I hear tons of new things--incredibly clever nuances and incidentals. And GREAT production! This album will most certainly take its place in my Top Ten All-time Favorite albums. The only question is where?

BrufordFreak | 5/5 |


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