The Young Knives make for an odd juxtaposition of both the mundane and the pretentious. While their thrift store look and stripped-down sound give them almost-instant indie cred, the band comes off as if they’re trying too hard to be “abstract and mild”, as their song “The Decision” attests. There is a fine line that exists between youthful energy and rank amateurism. The Young Knives are one of those bands that skates the edge of that divider, playing catchy post-punk that borders on the overly-arty.
Comprised of brothers Henry Dartnall and The House of Lords (née Thomas Dartnall) with longtime friend Oliver Askew on drums, The Young Knives were founded 1998 in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire. In 2002, the band’s demo found itself in the hands of Gang of Four’s Andy Gill who liked what he heard. So much so that Gill ended up producing not only the group’s first EP, Junky Music Makes My Heart Beat Faster, but also their second album Voices of Animals and Men.
Noted for their bargain basement stage threads and exuberant live performances, The Young Knives have a dedicated following in their native England and are looking to break out Stateside. Throughout their latest disc, it’s hard to decide whether or not they’re being tongue-in-cheek or that to some degree, the young upstarts have bought into their relative amount of UK hype. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, the band’s ambiguous attempts at humor may or may not go over big with American audiences.
Voices of Animals and Men is split down the middle on its merits and its faults. Vocalist Henry Dartnall has a similar shriek to The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins and heavily utilizes several of the same Freddie Mercury-esque falsetto on the album. Whereas The Darkness riffs on ‘70s and ‘80s arena rock, Hawkins vocal stylings work within that realm. On the flipside, The Young Knives’ Dartnall breaks out the high-pitched voice at inopportune moments that seem glaringly out of place with The Young Knives’ post-punk ethos. It borders on irritating, particularly when lyrics are refrained over and over on many of the songs.
Simplicity and straightforwardness in music are highly underrated. A few words can effectively convey melody and message. However, a bunch of songs with choruses repeating a maximum of five words ad nauseum can get old pretty quick. I dare you to find one song on Voices of Animals and Men that doesn’t repeat itself continuously.
“In the Pink”‘s opening guitar riffs beat out the melody line while hinting at an insidious darkness that creeps up on you despite its pleasantly hued title. Although it’s incredibly catchy, the entire track—from music to lyrics to vocals—becomes monotonous by the end.
Similarly, the low-key “Tailors” turns from being a quirky novelty piece offset by an ambiently treading hum of a sewing machine in the background, to an exercise in tiresome bludgeoning. The lyrics start out charmingly droll, extolling that “Tailors are the best /Tailors get you dressed.” Things quickly deviate to plain old grating with Dartnall dog-whistling out the chorus of “Button, button, button / Needle, needle, needle / Cotton, cotton, cotton”.
The single “She’s Attracted To” scampers down a similar path. Witty and rife with British humor, things start out on the right foot with searing punk guitar and a throttling bass line. All that quickly disintegrates with several rounds of yelling “You were screaming at your mum / And I was punching your dad” alternated with “She’s attracted to!/ She’s attracted to!” Okay. We get it. Pass the Excedrin.
The issue lies not so much with lyrical minimalism as it does with creating well-constructed songs. The Young Knives seem to use repeating several words per song continuously as a lyrical crutch that spills over onto the musical end of things. While this may stand as one school of songwriting, putting emphasis on a singular concept throughout a given piece, it seems more like artistic negligence when it’s done on nearly every track on the album. Variety is the spice of life, especially when it comes to the relatively short life of an album.
All gripes aside, there are, however, several very finely-crafted songs on Voices of Animals and Men. Reminiscent of classic Talking Heads, “Another Hollow Line” may be one of the best tracks on the album. Spartan guitar riffs and Dartnell’s falsetto works well on this track with the tune’s harmonies and conveys bleakly deadpan emotion.
Another single, “Here Comes the Rumor Mill” manages to sound both sonic and raw with some nice guitar breakdowns sprinkled throughout.
In spite of the tedious nature of the bulk of the album, The Young Knives have a sound that creeps up and grows on you. If you can get past the first listen, repeated spins of Voices of Animals and Men are oddly catchy in spite of themselves. While the disc is not completely irredeemable, it’s certainly music you have to be in the mood for.
Then again, maybe I’m just not artsy enough.