Monday, August 11, 2008

KQED Music: 31 Knots - Worried Well

Being different is hard work; at least, it must be considering the amount of musicians who fail miserably to excel in the department of individual distinction. Few artists would ever admit that they actually want to sound like someone else (other than the members of Nearvana and Ironically Maiden, perhaps), but the fact that so many never seem to fully escape the orbit of their influences speaks for itself.

Thankfully, 31Knots haven't been afraid to put in a bit of hard graft in their pursuit of idiosyncrasy. Their new album Worried Well is a peculiar beast in the best possible sense, a great leap into the upper atmosphere that strains at the seams with new ideas and unexpected changes of direction.

The album opens with "Baby of Riots," just 43 seconds of clicks, whirrs, hand claps, shouts, and yelps that steadily builds momentum before jumping without a pause into the guitar rush of first track proper "Certificate." From here all the way through to closer "Between 1&2," which sounds like a recording of a Jamaican steel band being played at half speed from the bottom of the ocean, there is little that seems recycled or predictable. Songs stop, start, deviate, and turn, all the time using strange noises and samples that seem more in tune with the world of experimental electronica than rock.

And yet this three-piece probably couldn't be more pedestrian in composition: Portland-based singer/guitarist Joe Haege and bassist Jay Winebrenner are backed by San Francisco's Jay Pellici on drums. Together, the three of them sound like a fairly recognizable indie pop band one moment, before becoming speeding, screaming, feedback-driven noiseniks, lurching back to become the house band for a midnight cabaret show in Berlin, then metamorphosing again into some infernal, clanking machine of the gods (often all within the space of a single song).

But wait, it gets better. They have all this, and brains too. Song titles such as "Statistics and the Heart of Man" and lyrics like "Better to know your place and to take it / Better to fail the test than to fake it" from "The Breaks," point towards real intelligence at work in the midst of the chaos. And wit, too: "Compass Commands" at one point breaks into a call-and-response sequence that starts out sounding a little like OutKast's "Hey Ya!" ("Ladies? Yes? Are you ready?") but then quickly shifts tone: "So who can tell me the universal rule of thumb? Kill or be killed."

Snatches of other unexpected influences pop up now and then. "Upping the Mandate" has an eighties R&B synth sound that is pure Prince, while there is a Queen-like theatricality to tracks such as "Strange Kicks." The combination of metronomic bass and angular guitar that crops up more than once (for example on "Certificate" and "Opaque/White") recalls The Cure's early days (think "10:15 on a Saturday Night"). And near-title track "Worried but not Well" has moments of Beatlesque guitar, but in a chopped up way that is more closely related to the left field genius of Danger Mouse's Grey Album than any boring, Oasis-style homage. And few of these moments are allowed to hang around long enough to distract before 31Knots lurch onward once again.

Someone was obviously paying attention at Weird School. If you want to stand out from the crowd, it isn't enough to merely copy someone else who sounds a bit strange. No, 31Knots are ringmasters of their own circus, creating an exciting dramatic space full of theatricality, menace, and humor. They also have an ease and assuredness that comes from maturity. With five previous albums and several EPs already under their belts, 31Knots have had the time and space to grow into themselves, and are now thoroughly convincing in their conviction. They succeed in drawing you into the world they've created because first and foremost they seem to believe in it themselves.

'Worried Well' by 31Knots is released August 19, 2008 on Polyvinyl Records.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.