PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Bent Knee's 'You Know What They Mean' Is Another Successful Experiment in Boundary Smashing

Photo: Rich Ferri / Courtesy of Speakeasy PR

Boston art rockers, Bent Knee turn a corner with perhaps their most accomplished album yet in You Know What They Mean.

You Know What They Mean
Bent Knee

InsideOut / Sony

11 October 2019

When you think of a band made up of musicians who met at a prestigious music school, a certain image may come to mind. A group of highly skilled artists, hunched over their respective instruments in utter concentration, spooling out complex notes and unorthodox time signatures, producing music of tremendous difficulty and seriousness.

In the case of Bent Knee, you can put your preconceived notions to rest. Yes, all six members of the Boston-based band met while studying at the Berklee College of Music. Yes, they're all tremendously talented musicians. But while their music may contain a multitude of music theory complexity, it can also be accessible, funky, tender, vulnerable, head-banging, and heavy on guilty-pleasure pop/rock tropes. Bent Knee's latest album, You Know What They Mean, weaves together everything that made their four previous albums equal parts jaw-dropping and, dare I say, fun. For a band so good at smashing boundaries, they've managed to find a few more to tear down this time around.

The album was written largely during 2018, a year that proved to be a trying one for the band. In June, drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth broke his ankle coming off the stage during a gig, resulting in the band temporarily replacing him for the rest of the tour. In November, the group's tour van flipped over during an intense Wyoming blizzard (thankfully, no-one was seriously hurt). Despite these setbacks, and in addition to a grueling tour schedule, Bent Knee soldiered on defiantly and wrote You Know What They Mean in the studio from scratch (a first for the band).

Produced by their multi-instrumentalist/sound designer Vince Welch, the album is a typical Bent Knee stew of styles and dynamics. What they managed to achieve this time around is a remarkable sense of coherence between all the songs. Despite the music's range, the songs literally flow together with little to no space between the tracks. It results in something of a throwback to the days of progressive rock concept albums. Labelling Bent Knee as prog rock, incidentally, is not entirely off the mark. They get a good deal of press in prog publications. But there are also plenty of avant-garde touches, art rock, bits and pieces of jazz (they're Berklee grads, after all), as well as good old-fashioned metal, thanks in part to the pummeling riffs of guitarist Ben Levin.

One of Bent Knee's most recognizable characteristics is the superhuman singing voice of Courtney Swain. She also plays keyboards, and her recent solo album, Between Blood and Ocean, is well worth seeking out. After the odd introductory track "Lansing" - a live recording with a bit of onstage banter and musical noodling - "Bone Rage" crashes the party with powerful metallic riffs as Levin, Welch, Wallace-Ailsworth, violinist Chris Baum, and bassist Jessica Kion provide the head-banging soundtrack and Swain's flawless pipes swirl over the top. "If you got a bone to pick with time / We got a score to settle too," goes the provocative chorus as the band relentlessly chugs along.

Despite the aggressive heaviness of "Bone Rage", You Know What They Mean contains plenty of other musical avenues, and the band explores them deeply. "Give Us the Gold" includes lots of crunchy swagger, but it is offset by electronic pulses and a dreamy middle section that allows the band to stretch out. There's also room for quirky experimentation on tracks like the quiet/loud/quiet "Egg Replacer", the grand, simmering "Garbage Shark", and the blinding, noisy, nihilistic "lovemenot".

As "lovemenot" dissipates, it leads into "Bird Song", an exquisite piano-led ballad with Swain channeling Kate Bush via Lana Del Rey. "Looking for myself / In the bird shit on my car / Rorschach holds a mirror / From their wings to my heart," she sings, with vocal effects and reverb taking over toward the song's conclusion, causing it to spiral beautifully out of control. "Catch Light" is another song that deviates – to a degree - from some of the more intense metallic thumps the band often incorporates. With an almost danceable drum sequence, it sounds like the band is flexing pop/soul muscles. But Swain's menacing voice and Levin's slashing guitar work give the song the band's unmistakable sonic stamp.

You Know What They Mean closes with the dreamy, quasi-exotic "It Happens", and it almost sounds like the band is using the track as a cool-down closer. If that's the case, they've earned it. Bent Knee use their massive musical chops not simply as an excuse to show off but to treat the listener to a sound that's both unique and thrilling. If you know what they mean.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.