Jeff Mangum, Yo La Tengo, Will Oldham, Stephin Merritt, the Mountain Goats, the late Jay Reatard, and dozens more pay tribute to one of the best songwriters no one has ever heard of -- and what a joy it is to listen to.
Chris Knox -- this is John Darnielle, out here in North Carolina, sending you all the power, any reserves of power I might have that'll help you up the hill, but I know you can go there because I used to watch you every night, in 1995, when we were in the back of a van together, and I'd think 'That guy's got some power', so I know you have it, and I know that you will climb up ... on your two magnificent feet.
-- John Darnielle, intro to the Mountain Goats' "Brave"
There's something genuinely wonderful about listening to Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox, and part of that is knowing that by the end of it, a hell of a lot more people are going to know who Chris Knox is.
This boldly-named Stroke lets you know right off the bat what this double-disc compilation is all about: raising money to help singer-songwriter Chris Knox with the medical expenses that have stemmed from the crippling stroke that he suffered in 2009. Having been a staple of the New Zealand rock scene for decades -- first with the more polished rock sounds of Toy Love (and to some extent that group's previous incarnation The Enemy) and later as part of the delightfully unhinged duo Tall Dwarfs (with Alec Bathgate) -- Knox has been known for placing radio-ready rock melodies in the center of gritty DIY-styled recordings, with his remarkably vulnerable lyrics often belying the lo-fi surroundings that they emerged from. His mixture of the playful and the poignant resonated deeply with the '90s indie-rock boom in America, greatly influencing the likes of the Elephant 6 collective and the Merge Records stable, just to name a few (the fact that Stroke was released on Merge should surprise no one).
Of course, much of the pre-release buzz about this album centered around the fact that the ever-reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel mastermind Jeff Mangum had come out of hiding to record a track for the album (a simple, to-the-point cover of "Sign the Dotted Line"), which, along with contributions by everyone from Yo La Tengo to Will Oldham, made this one of the biggest underground rock events since last year's Dark Was the Night compilation. Things took on a bit of a bittersweet tone, however, following the passing of Jay Reatard, whose cover of Toy Love's furious "Pull Down the Shades" (the album opener) was one of the last recordings he ever made, making Stroke become a monument to more than just the songwriter at the center of it all.
Yet as easy as it would be for Stroke to rely on sheer star-power to drive its point home, the compilation producers instead give about half of the tracks to lesser-known New Zealand bands like the Checks, the Chills, and the Bats, many of whom outshine their more-famous peers to turn in some of Stroke's biggest highlights. Take Boh Runga, for example, the powerhouse vocalist behind NZ's long-running pop-rock outfit Stellar*, who transforms Knox's 1989 lo-fi ballad "Not Given Lightly" into a fully-blown "Earth Angel"-styled prom number, something that Knox's original very much wanted to be but couldn't quite reach. Runga's sweet, forceful vocals give the song a new perspective without trampling the spirit of the original -- the way a cover song should be done. The very unknown Peter Gutteridge, meanwhile, takes the early guitar strut of Toy Love's "Don't Catch Fire" and transforms it into an absolutely haunting piano ballad that battles Bill Callahan's gorgeous re-do of "Lapse" for the album's Best in Show title. Even with the big names attached, it's the smaller gems that prove to have the most staying power.
That's not to say that Yo La Tengo's drastic acoustic reworking of "Coloured" or Will Oldham's utterly heartbreaking rendition of "My Best Friend" aren't worthy of inclusion here (quite the opposite, actually); it's just that for every big-name artist that stumbles (A.C. Newman's take on "Dunno Much About Life But I Know How to Breathe" doesn't really add much to either the original or Newman's own catalog for that matter), one of Knox's own peers delivers a deceptively simple cover that manages to wisely expand upon the original to create something altogether new and exciting (like the Mutton Bird's Don McGlashan doing a wonderful Casio-keyboard driven take on "Inside Story", a minimalist pop moment of sheer joy). Knox fans can take solace in the fact that all of Knox's well-known songs are covered (the Finn Family do a great take on "It's Love"), and even some lesser-known tracks wind up getting the full cover treatment (Knox's Tall Dwarfs songwriting partner Alec Bathgate does a very straightforward version of "Glide" that sounds as lived in as it does unbelievably sweet). Although there still remain numerous Knox originals that are dying for proper cover treatment, this is as solid an overview of Knox's body of work as you're likely to find anywhere.
Furthermore, for those curious about Knox's past recordings, this album is best experienced in conjunction with Knox's official website, wherein just about every single song off of Stroke (with a few notable exceptions) is streaming in their entirety, right next to the original Knox version, so listener's can compare and contrast exactly what each artist decided to do with their rendition (a bold move by the label's producers that pays off in droves).
Each of Stroke's two discs end with some unheard Knox recordings: the first disc with the Hamish Gilgour's meandering/frustrating mash-up of unreleased Knox tracks called "Knoxed Out", the second with a pair of brand-new Knox recordings: the Nothing's noisy/surprising piece of pop art "Napping in Lapland" and a wordless (but vocal-filled) Tall Dwarfs number called "Sunday Song", which sounds as warm and friendly as just about any song Knox has ever done (reports indicate that this is the direction he's going to be taking his recordings in once he's recovered). And as good as these new tracks are, they only serve to be the icing on the cake for Stroke, which is as smart, funny, and memorable a tribute album as you're likely to find all year. Get better Chris -- we can't wait for your return ...