Austin’s Knife in the Water‘s latest release is not necessarily a step backwards or forwards for this fine ensemble. It comes off more like a nice side-step. After albums as pleasing as Plays One Sound and Others and Red River, the core trio of vocalist and songwriter Aaron Blount, singer Laura Krause, and pedal steel player Bill McCullough, Knife in the Water open this record with “Village Fireworks”. It’s a tune that ventures out just a bit more into unknown territory courtesy of a ‘70s sounding keyboard that is subtly placed in spots. The jazz-like percussion and Radiohead-esque effects are unique for this group, as it sounds like they’re performing in traffic in the latter half of the tune. The country tinge is generally non-existent on this song. “This world will float above itself / And sure show it’s fucked itself”, Blount sings, a couplet that says so much with so little.
“Kill a Tiger” has more of a rock sound, slowly building into an “epic” song the listener assumes. And the overall psychedelic hues and dreamy pop harmonies work for the band. Poppy almost to a fault, the band seems to be branching out more from the slower, dirge-like alt.country sound on previous records. However, they aren’t particularly concerned with time restrictions, as this song sails along for just under five minutes. “The Very Air” has a certain Spaghetti Western opening with the guitar riffs only accentuating that notion. It possesses an ample amount of tension that never breaks, although the winding ‘60s effects tend to diminish the effort.
Knife in the Water move into new ground with the marching, military beat of “Massacre”, which has a certain Latin guitar rhythm weaving in and out. Moving into another area of sound, the bridge is much softer and melodic prior to Krause lending her high harmonies. “She doesn’t feel as heavy, as she imagined that it would”, they sing as the song refers to the late ‘60s and Vietnam. “Warped Pearls” tends to miss the mark, unfortunately, a tad too orchestrated and highbrow for some tastes. It’s the type of song XTC would nail as “cars drink antifreeze”. A cello comes off being out of sorts here whereas the pedal steel might work wonders.
The dreamy pop mystique is at an all-time high with “Decoration Day Flood”. But what is oddest about the song is how Knife in the Water sound like their earlier albums on this song moreso than at any other point. Slowing things down, Blount’s voice never sounded better. The pop meets country for a very rich and melodic lullaby effect. That is, if going to sleep in a flood is your idea of bliss. A catchy effort comes from “Biltmora Children”, a creeping ditty that sounds as if Pulp took up residence near the Alamo, having that Brit pop feeling despite being in the heart of Austin, Texas. Without question the sleeper track on this dozen-song album.
Unfortunately, “Lighthouse to the Blind” has the drumbeat that rarely seems to improve a song. Blount again is dark and the guitar work is sparse and sets a dreary mood. The organ in the refrain is too much and the tune is generally not as strong as other songs. Blount lets himself go vocally, which is an asset, but there’s basically nothing he can run with. “My Skin Would Cover the Waterfront” sounds like a love song for the maimed and mutilated. Knife in the Water atone for the last miscue on this track, another candidate for the album’s highpoint.
“Golden Calf Highway” makes you want to saddle up a horse and go for a nice slow trot into town. Having all the trademarks of a Blue Rodeo campfire tune, the duet Blount and Krause deliver is a gem before some spacey guitar and organ are layered softly atop. The two bonus tracks include a brilliant “Bayonet” that captures early songs on the first album especially. And “Threads if Carbon in Watercolor” might be a wordy title, but is near perfect for Knife in the Water. There is nothing on this album to reduce the band’s fan base, but the record might take more than a listen or two to grow on some.