Showing posts with label the knife. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the knife. Show all posts

Friday, August 2, 2013

album review: 'shaking the habitual' by the knife (RETRO REVIEW)

Consider, if you will, minimalism.

Now you might think, with my general appreciation for acts like Meat Loaf and Nightwish and Blind Guardian and The Killers and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, that I tend to favour music that's overblown, overwrought, and generally made with a larger 'scope' in mind. And I won't lie that I do like songs in this vein more often than not - hell, I'll give a pass to Andrew W.K. for his maximalist aesthetic, even though his lyrics tend to have less substance than an empty bucket made of air. And it's not surprising that a lot of critics tend to snub acts that go for broke with a lack of abandon and complete sincerity - these acts are often deemed lowbrow or pandering to baser sensibilities. And sure, in some cases that is definitely the case, but I'd argue there's a method to writing that hyperbolic material well (the difference, for example, between Fall Out Boy's Folie A Deux and their newest album Save Rock and Roll, an album I like less and less as a cohesive whole every time I listen to it).

Likewise, minimalism often shares a similar differentiation of quality, but the distinction of being able to accomplish this aesthetic is a little subtler than its louder counterpart (the line of sincerity tends to be more sharply defined at higher volumes). Minimalism typically works through reduction, scaling back certain elements in order to draw attention and emphasis to others, or in order to create an atmosphere of emptiness and space. One of the reasons Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds succeeded so brilliantly this year with Push The Sky Away is because he utilized the minimalist style to both create a foreboding, expansive atmosphere and to draw attention to the oblique lyrics. It was no surprise that some critics panned the album in response, especially considering Nick Cave spent so much of his career overwhelming the senses that people considered his brand of minimalism dull. In other words, they completely missed the point.

Now that's not to say minimalism can't be done badly. On the contrary, it can be argued that minimalist efforts often have a much greater chance of failure than those that simply choose to go for broke on all cylinders. I've spoken before of my distaste for music in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' or 'white chick with piano' vein, and their poor usage of minimalism is often the reason why. In choosing to pull back and limit their instrumentation, they draw much tighter attention to the singer and the lyrics, and the swathe of trite, pretentious garbage that spews forth is evidence enough that these singer-songwriters just don't have anything worth saying. 

And more often than not, too much minimalist material fails simply because the musical atmosphere lacks texture and thus gets very boring very fast. Let's take James Blake's Overgrown as an example where the minimalism worked - but it only worked because Blake's careful control of the atmosphere and soulful delivery nailed the tricky balance between atmospheric and intimate. And it's a tough balance to nail - I can think of more than a few albums that don't manage to hit that sweet spot, particularly in electronica and modern hip-hop. 

So with all of that in mind, let's talk about the Swedish electronica duo The Knife, a band that takes electronic minimalism and turns it into something else entirely.

Now I'll admit right out of the gate that The Knife had a bit of a steep road to climb with me, as electronica acts (particularly those heralded by Pitchfork and music critics and pretty much only them) that tend towards tight, carefully positioned beats aren't normally my thing. And coupled with Karin Dreijer Andersson's borderline intolerable singing (she reminds me of a cross between Joanna Newsom and a screechier Tegan Quin) and the duo's tendency towards oblique, barely comprehensible lyrics, I was fairly certain this band would wear out their welcome faster than ever. And really, if I was looking to find a band with little-to-no mainstream appeal, the kind that would brand me as a hipster instantly upon mention, The Knife would leap to the top of my list. They certainly weren't doing anything to make themselves accessible or radio-friendly, that's for damn sure.

And yet, going through their discography (particularly their 2006 album Silent Shout), I started to understand the appeal of The Knife. Despite the clipped, clattering beats at the very top of the mix, the band had an expansive sound that sucked me in more often than not. The juxtaposition between Andersson's vocals and those her partner Olof Dreijer's did a fair amount to win me over (although the occasionally off-tune screeching got intolerable more than once). But what ultimately won me over were the lyrics - there's a real bleak darkness and unsettling atmosphere to their poetry that has flavour and real personality, and while I wouldn't call them technically strong lyricists, they are smart enough to convey some potent material. Yes, they've made mistakes - sometimes big ones - but overall, their good material has tended to outweigh the bad (with 'Marble House' being the immediately recognizable standout from Silent Shout and a goddamn impressive song).

So when I heard that the act was, again, accruing critical acclaim from critics and Pitchfork alike for their new album, I was interested. After numerous solo ventures, The Knife had finally reunited for their first venture on their own in seven years. How did it turn out?

Youtube review after the jump