Not that they care, but the Knitters have bad timing. The band—John Doe, Exene Cervenka, DJ Bonebrake, Dave Alvin, and Jonny Ray Bartel (all of whom, save Bartel, clocked time in the seminal punk band X, with Alvin also fronting the roots-rock legends the Blasters)—showed up to the alt-country party too early in 1985 when they released Poor Little Critter on the Road. That album was a loose, fun, seemingly-one-off album, a treat for Americana fans. The ‘90s alt-country boom, such as it was, found the Knitters hibernating, as Doe, Alvin, and Cervenka worked on solo and side projects. Now, in 2005, 20 years after their debut, and with alt-country ebbing… the Knitters are back with the tongue-in-cheek titled sophomore disc, The Modern Sound of the Knitters.
Granted, fame and fortune were never intended for the Knitters, whose members’ legacies are secured thanks to their work with better-known bands. But if that’s the case, then all Modern Sounds had to do for success was sound as fun as Poor Little Critter did. Unfortunately, Modern Sounds comes across as one of those albums that was more fun to make (or at least hear live in concert) than it is to listen to on record.
The Knitters prove they have impeccable musical taste, as they dust off chestnuts like the Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Stranger” and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Give Me Flowers While I’m Living”. In fact, a full half of the album is devoted to cover tunes, the best being Doe’s take on Jimmy Driftwood’s “Long Chain On” and, surprisingly, a footloose take on Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”. The song has been beaten to death by classic rock radio and movie montages, but the Knitters’ rockabilly update makes you realize how truly alive the song is.
Less successful are the album’s “faux covers”; that is to say, Knitterfied remakes of old X tunes. Here’s where the lack of “fun” hurts the disc. Previously available only on X’s Live at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, “Skin Deep Town” is an off-kilter screed aimed at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and its shallow citizens and their spring break debauchery. Maybe I’m missing the joke, but it’s crabby and just plain weird. Meanwhile, “Try Anymore (Why Don’t We Even)” swings along amiably enough but is about a couple who’ve lost their spark. The tune’s been floating around Doe’s catalog for years—it appeared on a 1999 Knitters tribute—and it seems to hint at Doe and Cervenka’s one-time relationship, but again, the tune is a downer. Thematically, the band correctly plucks “House That I Call Home” from X’s back pages—a great rowdy house party tune with lyrics like “See the lady next door/ She’s naked in the street”. Bartel’s bassline, however, is no match for Billy Zoom’s wildfire guitar riff on the original. Really, the Knitters are in a tough conceptual spot revisiting their other incarnation’s tunes: either they pick a song that worked for X but is Knitters-appropriate, or they pick one that isn’t, but is also an unimpeachable, unstoppable X classic. I realize there are bigger problems in this world, but still.
And speaking of conceptual and thematic issues, the band catches up with one of Poor Little Critter‘s most memorable characters, Wreckin’ Ball. When the band last left WB, he was in his glory killing chickens on a farm; on “New Call of the Wreckin’ Ball”, he’s moved up to slaughtering livestock. It’s a one-note joke that wasn’t that great to begin with, but maybe the band knows something I don’t: at their recent concert in Boston, the crowd clamored for both versions of “Wreckin’ Ball” all night, more so than for any other tune.
With all the baggage described above, perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Modern Sounds’ best track is also its most unassuming: the Dave Alvin-penned “Dry River”. It’s reverential to the likes of the Stanleys and Flatt and Scruggs (it sounds about 60 years old, though it only dates back to Alvin’s 1991 album, Blue Blvd), playful and a little dark (sings Doe, “I was born by the river/ It was paved with cement/ Still, I stood in that dry river/ And dreamt that I was soaking wet”), and is anchored by Alvin’s passionate, bluesy guitar lead. And unlike the rejiggered X tunes, the update of “Dry River” sounds like a fuller, natural extension of the original Blue Blvd version of the song.
Would that there were a few more “Dry River”‘s on the album. Doe, Alvin, and Cervenka are incapable of putting out music that is wholly unredeemable, but Modern Sounds pulls off the feat of sounding both like an album that took too long to release and one that was released too hastily.