REVIEW: BENT KNEE – “You Know What They Mean”
Their record label describes Bent Knee’s sound as “avant-garde rock” which may be entirely reasonable, yet it still feels misplaced somehow. Is “indie-math-prog-noise-alt-jazz-pop-rock” a thing yet? For the uninitiated, this is the kind of band that locates boundaries merely for the purpose of blurring them – or in some cases, fully wiping the line out that’s been drawn in the dirt. With the release of their newest album, ‘You Know What They Mean’, Bent Knee continues this propensity of blurring/shifting/melding/obliterating, not only just as their approach to music, but as a band.
‘You Know What They Mean’ is far more riff-driven and less technical than all previous releases. While this may make them a tad more accessible to the non-prog lovers, it may also leave veteran fans wanting. Album opener, “Lansing” seems to signal this fact with the rough live recording of amp feedback and static as the band explains their current technical difficulties, yet their intention to carry on with an amazing performance. In short, whatever it is that you’re expecting, just stop. Bent Knee is taking you into something new and unexpected.
This is actually the first album that the band has written as a true collective, as opposed to their tradition of each member bringing bits and pieces to the table to assemble into a complete work. Violinist Chris Baum states, “Everything that’s been generated for the album has been from the six us going through improvisational and compositional experiments in the studio. It all started together. We haven’t allowed ourselves to bring in any outside musicians either, so it’s the first record we’ve made with just the six of us.”
Also different than the band’s preceding albums, ‘You Know What They Mean’ has a decidedly overdriven and somewhat harsh production overtone at times. As if your speakers are just beginning to reach their limit, even at low volume. It’s a conscious artistic choice, I’m sure, but also notable as being a bit grating or unpolished at times.
Honestly, this album does not feel completely cohesive as a whole. Not like the smooth and sensical experience of Bent Knee’s previous album, 2017’s ‘Land Animal.’ That said, the songs themselves still manage to stand tall in their own ways.
“Bone Rage” is a grungy new wave rocker with some quirky sonic elements and dynamic vocals that immediately bring bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs to mind. The soft, loud, soft approach is certainly strong in this one as well. “Give Us The Gold” is pointedly hook-laden with a catchy chorus that will undoubtedly prompt live crowd (cans of White Claw in the air) singalongs. “Hold Me In” is a total dreamy club banger (do the kids still say that?) material, and probably the most radio-friendly of the bunch.
“Egg Replacer” is a rather disjointed track, especially highlighted as so by its immediate placement after such a commercial sounding track as “Hold Me In.” “Cradle of Rocks” is a straight-ahead driver that occasionally gives way here and there to staccato synths and violins. A brief and crudely recorded track full of cymbals, chugging guitar and creepy wailing tape sounds pops up here in the form of “Lovell.” It’s portrayed as a behind-the-scenes sort of track but doesn’t lend itself to much value to the album or any kind of longevity in the mind of this listener.
“Lovemenot” is dripping with a twisted, slow sense of anger. It gets heavy and foreboding with an interesting soundscape that weaves in and around the almost doom-like guitar riffs. This song ends up in a fury of the overwhelming chaos that melts into something out of a Hitchcock film. Maybe this is why the next track is entitled “Birds.” Completely countered to ‘Lovemenot’, this one is a tender and nostalgic feeling with a warmness that stands out from the rest of the collection.
Next up, the album’s first single, “Catch Light” is soaked in reverb and dynamics that easily tap into inspirational anthem territory. I can see why this song was chosen as the first one to highlight, but I don’t feel as if it’s the strongest.
“Garbage Shark” is a bit of a slow burn with elements seemingly lifted from horror movie soundtracks interjected throughout that creates a huge sense of tension by the end. This track manages to gracefully dissolve into the next with the faint sound of what sounds like a shower which then blooms into the gorgeous and eerie ambiance of “Golden Hour.” At first, it seems perfectly fit for a post-battle scene in an epic movie about Vikings, but soon enough it transitions into a memorable and soaring indie-pop tune with a huge glimmering crescendo. Truly, these two songs come together to create one of the best moments on ‘You Know What They Mean.’
Tying up the album is “It Happens.” Although very restrained in presentation, there are as many ebbs and flows in this one song as there are in the entire album, yet manages to leave a clean finish.
There are waves of all kinds in this newest offering from Bent Knee that undeniably take the listener on a journey of evocative emotions and may actually be the best entry point for someone not familiar with the band. For longtime fans, ‘You Know What They Mean’ will probably require a couple listens to wrap your mind around where the band is right now and where they may be headed. Change isn’t always bad, it can be a sign of evolution, and I’d like to think that this current point of experimentation for the band will prove to be a fruitful one.