No matter how many albums I review, starting another one is always difficult. So much time and effort went into crafting and producing the particular sonic artifact under consideration that I want to make sure I give it due respect, regardless of how far along in one direction or another it falls on that mythic love-hate critical continuum.
Commencing to write this particular review, however, has proved particularly elusive, daunting even. I’ve been listening to Brent Knopf’s new project, under the name Ramona Falls, over and over lately. I’ve long appreciated Knopf’s work in Menomena, and have been looking forward to this release since I first learned of the project’s existence. When I heard that the couple who own my local record store had a copy, I burned with an envy I’d not previously known I was capable of; when I finally received a download of the album from Barsuk Records to listen to for this review, I stopped what I was working on immediately and started listening to it without delay. And then I found I couldn’t stop listening to it, even when it was time to give one last listen to other albums I needed to write about.
At first, each successive spin was to get to know the album, Intuit, better, particularly since on each previous listen I’d discovered something new and wonderful that I’d missed on the previous visits. At a certain point, however, clicking play on track one yet another time became about something else. There is so much going on in this record that I felt the need to keep going back, to try to train my brain to listen for more than one thing at a time. Each time, though, I’d fail, instead becoming preoccupied with something specific, something small and discreet and perfect, and forget my master plan for conquering this record.
By this point, I’ve probably listened to Intuit two dozen times, maybe even three dozen – far more than I usually listen to any other album I write about, especially considering I’ve only had my copy of it for not yet a full week. (See? I told you I was bordering on obsessive with it.) After each listen – and at many points during – I find myself thinking one thought, over and again: Brent Knopf’s brain works in ways I wish mine did. This is an album made for headphones, for rooms without windows so you can react instinctively, physically, without sheepishness blowing the spontaneity.
As diverse and wide-ranging as Intuit is, there are a few common musical strands that link track to track. Most songs begin with subtlety, a spirit that is nearly always displaced with fury, which rages and rocks until the song abruptly ends and the cycle begins anew. I’m comfortable with that description … mostly. The beauty of this album is so outlandish that I don’t feel quite right using a word like “fury.” It feels too violent, too negative to fit the gorgeousness of Knopf’s creation. Still, the feeling that comes back, again and again, is fury. There is a purposeful, palpable demon in this music, and you can’t get away from it. In many ways, and I hope this isn’t the world’s most awful backhanded compliment, Knopf may have given us the perfect hipster workout tape.
The album begins with “Melectric,” an ideal opening track and what I believe is one of the two strongest songs on the entire album (the other, conveniently, being the closer, “Diamond Shovel”). A fine precursor to the remaining ten tracks that follow, “Melectric” begins with a lonely intro on the keys, paired soon with driving snares that carry an almost threatening ferocity. Quickly, the song swells, pairing a rich and fantastic symphonic cacaphony with Knopf’s lovely tenor. When he sings “don’t you give me false hope/ you’re free to go,” I remind myself to take a breath.
The second track on the album, “I Say Fever,” highlights another common theme found throughout Intuit, a reliance on rhyme and near rhyme with an infectious use of meter and syncopation. Rhyming and phrasing like this is not a terribly hip thing to do these days in the world of indie rock, but Knopf does it in a way that makes you rethink even banalities like moon/swoon/noon/June. Even given this, it might be the guitar work that makes this song – it is, in a word, awesome; in a few more, it is jagged, ripping, riotous. And it works perfectly with Knopf’s vocals, which alternate between frail and full, particularly when he bellows “I SAY FEVER!” The song features a driving dance beat in the middle passage that struck me as a choice both surprising and inspired, and like much of what Knopf does, it absolutely slays and plays. To avoid utter breatlessness here, I will admit that the late-in-song chants of “Four Years” don’t seem quite so brilliant.
Very little of this record makes me think of other bands – the originality score here is impossibly high – but the intro to “Clover” always makes me think within a half-second of Spoon. Britt Daniel loves to begin his songs with simplicity and repitition (witness half the track openings on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), and for a moment I think my computer has malfunctioned and cued up “The Ghost of You Lingers.” Only for a moment, however, until the song becomes more cinematic and lush than Spoon ever gets, even as the bass leads the crew throughout the track’s duration. In perhaps another feint, Knopf provides vocal repitition, and when he sings “you’ll probably forget … to remember it” (and, maybe even more delightfully, when female vocals begin to repeat the same line as Knopf moves on to other lyrics) it provides, for me, the most memorable moment on the entire album.
“Clover” is followed by “Russia,” the key single of Intuit. A tale of global travel and heroic deeds (including the taming of Komodo dragons!), the hero’s adventures in places like China, Egypt, and the titular nation always yield the same unimpressed response from his target audience of one (“she said … too little, too late”), though the listener can be forgiven for missing the point of the story as he or she becomes fixated upon the previously unimaginable, priceless pairing of orchestral strings and an absolutely rocking electric guitar.
On the other hand, if the narrator had simply played the next track, “Going Once, Going Twice,” his fortunes, if not his frequent flier miles, would have undoubtedly grown. Beginning simply, as per usual, with drums and descending chords – the latter of which nicely presage Knopf’s vibrato vocals, which are paired with sludgy guitar under-notes – Knopf is soon plaintively suggesting he is “desperate just to find a respite for my mind.” The situation is dark and seemingly destined to remain so, but with about two minutes left in the song (which at 5:41 is the album’s longest) an unexpected transition begins, and the assembled guest musicians (of which there were nearly three dozen at work in different parts of the album) efficiently segue through key changes to a sense of uplifting antithetical to the foreboding the listener was only seconds before ensconced within. The last ninety seconds are a totally different song, with Knopf singing “On the way to heaven, my forwarding address…” with masked pleasant vocals underneath that these concert-damaged ears just couldn’t quite make out.
The uplift doesn’t last long, with accusations of attempted drowning, depictions of a sea-borne disaster, and the greeting of a miraculous survivor with a crown of thorns dominating the narrative of “Salt Sack.” This song may well be the most intellectually confounding track on an incredibly complicated record, and at no point is the confusion greater than when, after the narrator claims he “found the strength of will/a hate I couldn’t pacify” and the music swells with building, majestic horns, the swimmer who, against all odds, has almost made it to shore, instead chooses to turn around and swim back into his certain demise, rather than return to the safe yet loathsome arms awaiting him on shore. Wrap your mind around all this AND the fact that Knopf croons the tale so positively and sweetly and you are a far smarter man than I.
About the point at which you are certain your mind will blow, the song abruptly ends and the listener is greeted with “Boy Ant,” a simplistic instrumental palette cleanser, the mid-meal sorbet between heavy dishes. “Boy Ant” reminds me of a recital by a school-aged child with a handful of years of piano lessons under their belt, with just a smidge of John Wesley in the refrain. The starkness and ease is gone when the song concludes, however, as “Always Right” presents what is arguably Intuit‘s most challenging track. When I hear it, I instinctively think back to the eponymous album The Dresden Dolls released a handful of years ago, with heavy lower register piano and an ever-building melliflous discordance, contradiction intended. The dissonance is magnified with the backing vocals and the upbeat march portions. The only thing consistent about “Always Right” is that it appears to be sung from the perspective of a despicable, emotionally abusive tyrant, though I’m never clear whether that tyrant is a lover or a parent. Something for every damaged listener, I suppose. Regardless, Knopf is again fierce and furious, and at one point about two minutes in, his voice seems to choke with emotion.
“The Darkest Day” brings us momentary relief, beginning with some laudable guitar work, soon joined by orchestral backing. Neither the vocals nor the narrative are as dark as in “Always Right,” although about a minute in to the song a new sense of intensity returns, equally as powerful as the previous track though not as foreboding. On an album riddled with brilliant arrangements, the scoring work truly stands out here, particularly with the work done by the horns and strings. In fact, for a rock album, all this works much better than it ought to. If I were to craft a thesis on the genius of Brent Knopf, this song would be the CD-R I taped to the binding. The song ends in a momentous, triumphant blast, and leads to “Bellyfulla,” the other most pop-identifiable track on the album (along with “Clover”). “Bellyfulla” starts with a simple guitar and kick drum interlude, and soon effects-heavy vocals join in. Somewhere underneath all the production effort and instrumentation in this song is a radio-friendly quirky 90s alt-rock tune, one I could see Barenaked Ladies or The Rembrandts or some group of such ilk butcher.
The album concludes with my personal favorite track, “Diamond Shovel.” Knopf’s voice is on display here, dulcet and fine, and the lyrical structure and syncopation perfectly carries the tale of exploration and escape (or, rather, the proposal of such a tale, as the adventure never leaves the realm of suggestion). Just as “Melectric” provides the ideal opening to this album, grabbing the listener by the collar and dragging him into the record’s splendor, “Diamond Shovel” ends it with sweetness and gratitude. The only thing left to do, when Knopf and his guest musicians wind the song down, is hit repeat.
Ramona Falls – Russia