[26 March 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
We may be in the final days of the hidden gem. Say what you will about music’s newfound digital democracy, but for all its ability to expose bands that would otherwise go unnoticed, it has still surely diluted the pool. We’ve entered a period where, more than ever, bands are given as much merit for their obscurity as for their talent.
Which makes bands like 31Knots so hard to figure out. They’ve been around nearly nine years. They are backed by Polyvinyl Records. And man, do they got the chops. But, somehow, they’ve stayed under the radar. They seem to be in limbo: not obscure enough to be lauded, not strange enough to flood the blogosphere, not well-known enough to tear down. Perhaps their new album, The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere, will do something to change this. It is a stunning record.
The listener shouldn’t be fooled by the sweepingly vague album title, because this record is damn focused. The title does shine a light on the band’s versatility, more so than their last LP, Talk Like Blood, and last year’s Polemics EP. The guitar work here is impeccable and exciting, backed by an equally impressive rhythm section, and even a smattering of horns and electronic blips and screeches.
One needs to look no further than the opener, “Beauty”, to see what’s going on in this album. It starts with some digital scratches and then some tom-heavy drum work, followed closely by keys and bass, all setting the stage for Joe Haege’s growling vocals. It doesn’t fight this formula long before breaking out. The guitars come in and the vocals come fast and loud, along with cymbals and hard hitting riffs, with some ominous horns settled deep in the mix.
“The Salted Tongue” displays long-running guitar riffs that most obviously display the metal influence the rest of the album hints at. Still, the guitar work here has a buoyancy to it that metal riffs quite obviously lack. It is twists like this that keep the album fresh and free of derivation. “Savage Boutique” gives the first half of this record its most clear departure. The horns take center stage and swing over a light drum beat, lightening up a record that comes on hard and loud. Of course, the vocals don’t let up here, and by the album’s middle track, the six-minute “Hit List Shakes (The Inconvenience of You)”, the album could use a bit of restraint.
To this point, while there have been nice movements in the songs themselves, everything has been played at the same plaintiff level, and that constant noise begins to take its toll. The air starts to come out of the tires and I found myself looking for something different from the record.
Turns out I didn’t have to look any further than the seventh track, “Everything in Letters”. The music is nothing more than the repetition of some simple keys that sound playful and ominous, like an outtake from the Badlands soundtrack. Haege sings just a little softer here (though certainly “soft” isn’t the word for it), and it really builds tension the album had lost. He rises nearly back into his growl in spots, before retreating back into a voice that is surprisingly melodic. This song quickly transitions into “The Days and Nights of Lust and Consumption”, another Spartan arrangement that finds Haege crooning over a simple strum of guitar chords. But these chords are sharp and crunchy, and the timing is just off, not quite 4/4, and this keeps up the tension already set into motion by the previous track. And, with “Imitation Flesh”, the tension pays off. 31Knots launch into their most balls-to-the-wall riffing yet, piling notes on top of churning drums for a minute and a half of unadulterated hard rock bliss.
Rather than use this to shift into more loud riffing, hard-nosed rock, Haege and company try their hand at a piano ballad, or close enough to it. “Pulse of a Decimal” finds Haege using his newly discovered smooth voice over more piano and simple rhythm, and the results are great. It’s catchy and melodic and doesn’t sound like they’re reaching for something out of their range at all, but instead showing their strong versatility. The piano balladry doesn’t last, as the drums grow more forceful, the piano more dissonant, and the transition works beautifully. This brings the album to its closer, “Walk With Caution”, a surprisingly ambient, restrained end to a raucous album. It may dabble a little too heavily in noise and blips for its own good, but it’s still an arresting finale.
The lyrics can be somewhat preachy about modern culture and politics, and sometimes even sound silly (“But now I walk and talk and panic just like a bitch…”). Some of the songs are a little indulgent, running on longer than they should. But these are not the mistakes of a band trying to execute some high-minded, pretentious aesthetic, but more those of a band having too much fun to stop. The lyrics, even when they don’t work, aren’t so self-righteous that they become irritants (like, say, Jay Farrar).
31Knots have given us a fun, varied, and almost flawlessly executed record in The Days and Nights…. Maybe they’re not obscure enough, or weird enough, but people need to hear this record. Plain and simple.