If you’ve never heard the band Knievel, you might think, because of their name, that they’re some kind of flashy, spectacular punk rock band who, perhaps, feature fire-breathers and/or cage dancers at their shows. Popping The Name Rings a Bell That Drowns Out Your Voice into your player, you’ll find that nothing could be further from the truth (if the extremely non-punk rock cover didn’t tip you off first).
This is pleasant, subtle indie-pop of the highest order. Although relatively unknown in the states (Name is the trio’s third album, following ‘98’s Steep Hill Climb and ‘95’s We Fear Change, but their first that has seen proper stateside release and distribution). Knievel has been making a name for themselves in their homeland since the early ‘90s.
The band is even more entrenched in Aussie rock history than that: singer/guitarist Wayne Connolly has been a fixture of the Sydney scene since the late ‘80s, distinguishing himself as a member of such combos as John Kennedy’s Love Gone Wrong, The Welcome Mat, and Fragile. Although quite the accomplished musician, Connolly is probably even better known for his production and engineering work: over the last decade, he has worked with some of Australia’s finest bands, including You Am I, The Underground Lovers and Glide.
On their first release, 1995’s We Fear Change, Knievel showcased a relatively standard but extremely likeable brand of indie rock: all fuzzy guitars, candy coated hooks and mid-tempos. At that time, Connolly’s voice bore a strong resemblance to You Am I’s Tim Rogers, which, while hardly a bad thing, underscored the fact that the band had yet to come into their own. Five years later (although just released in the states last month, Name was actually recorded in 1999 and 2000, and saw release in Australia in October of 2000), Connolly and co. have produced a record that truly showcases the depth and breadth of their talents. Although much more subtle and quiet than the hooky, guitar-heavy pop of We Fear Change, Name shows a band that has grown into its own skin quite admirably.
The tone is set from the first track, “Don’t Explain”. The song begins with some brief electronic squiggles before Nick Kennedy’s simple, pulsing drumbeat and Connolly’s insinuating guitar enters the picture. Soon enough, Connolly and bassist Tracy Ellis lend their voices to a verbal sigh of resignation: “Don’t say it if it’s not true/In some way it comes back to you/Don’t explain anymore/It’s all the same as before”. The pair’s voices intertwine so effectively that it almost sounds like one voice.
From there, the band moves on to the slightly poppier “We Can Identify”, which features jangling guitars and Ellis’ ultra-catchy bassline laid atop a bed of mellow keyboards and assorted other sounds. This song also introduces a lyrical theme which Connolly mines consistently on Name, that of people struggling to overcome the mundane nature of everyday life. “Sometimes life’s a chore/A slow revolving door/...We go down the same roads everyday/A step forward’s just a step away”, sings Connolly, the chirpiness of his voice belying the seriousness of his words.
Connolly revisits this theme of coping with the mundanity of everyday life several times throughout the record. He also touches on such themes as communication difficulties within relationships (“Need to Know Basis”, “Who’s On My Side”) and the uncertainty involved in trying to forge a path for ones self (“The End of Trying”, “Faces on the Journey”). Like the music that goes along with them, Connolly’s lyrical concerns are very subtle and adult, and fall into gray areas of emotion: malaise, uncertainty, nagging self-doubt. These are not the cut-and-dry, black-and-white sorts of things that most pop music trades in. These are the feelings that come to you in that foggy state between sleep and lucidity, feelings that burrow into the far reaches of your brain and stay with you, although half the time, you don’t even realize that they’re there.
Connolly also has a tremendous knack for describing the minutiae of everyday life; dragging a small, seemingly insignificant moment out into the light, and thus investing it with much more importance than it would otherwise possess. Witness the following line from “Chance Meeting”, perhaps the strongest track on the album: “Watching the set with the sound down, sifting through clothes on the floor/Cradles the phone as he talks and quietly closes the door”. It’s not a terribly attention-getting description at first glance, but the way it’s woven into the context of the song, and the way it leads perfectly into the chorus—“I’ll never believe it again/I feel like you needn’t pretend/The chances of meeting again are so remote”—is simply masterful.
Meanwhile, Connolly and Ellis’ harmonizing on said chorus, as well as the beautiful ambiguity of the words they’re singing, creates what might be best described as a “great pop moment”. You know how certain parts of certain songs hit you just so? Maybe it’s a particular guitar part that makes your heart thump just a bit quicker, or a particular drum fill that makes you sit at the edge of your proverbial seat. Here, it’s two voices entwined over a propulsive, almost morotik drumbeat that pricks up my ears and makes me shout “There! Right there!”
The rest of Name Rings a Bell is likewise chock-full of moments that very nearly equal the perfect chorus to “Chance Meeting”. Most of these have to do with the beautiful interaction between Connolly and Ellis’ voices, or one of Ellis’ basslines that sticks in your head the way a lure catches an unsuspecting fish. You’ll note that throughout this review, I’ve pretty much abstained from drawing comparisons to other bands that Knievel may or may not sound like. This is because, for the most part, Knievel is unique. Sure, you can detect the lift of a few of Kaye Woodward’s swoony lead guitar lines from the Bats’ amazing Couchmaster. The subtle use of electronics is somewhat akin to the Underground Lovers’ landmark LP Rushall Station (which, incidentally, Connolly engineered). And anyone who’s ever dug on Death Cab for Cutie’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes will quite likely feel very much at home with Name Rings a Bell‘s general ambience. However, Knievel are nothing if not their own band, and Name Rings a Bell finds them in absolute top form.