Music

Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton: Knives Dont Have Your Back

Dara Kartz

A softer delivery perhaps, but a message that is still sharp as nails.


Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton

Knives Don't Have Your Back

Label: Last Gang
US Release Date: 2006-09-26
UK Release Date: Available as import
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There was much talk in indie-circles leading up to the release of Emily Haines's solo debut: raised speculation about the Metric headmistress jumping ship, raised eyebrows about another dance queen emerging from the shadows of her bandmates like Gwen did from the ashes of No Doubt. In fact, the attention stemming from the buzz for the solo release seemed odd and out of whack given Haines's track record. Her history with the shape-shifting Canadian music phenomenon, Broken Social Scene should have been enough to demonstrate the artist's appreciation for experimentation beyond Metric. Also, her roots in music beginning with the piano were certainly indicative of other interests and abilities. So while many critics have since spoken about the solo record in ways that suggest tinges of disappointment with a release that's so polar opposite from Metric's usual fare, I wonder why on earth they would have expected anything otherwise.

Knives Don't Have Your Back is a far cry from the dancefloor flavors of Metric's releases; that much-hyped sexy front woman with the sultry stage moves is not featured here. This is a bare-bones offering of Haines and a piano. The press release describes Knives as "an intimate and subtle collection of mellow, piano-driven tunes complimented by soft string and horn arrangements". It's certainly about as far as you can get from a description of any Metric track, but actually the two facets of Haines' musical personas are not as far removed as that might suggest.

In fact, Knives reads more like a collection of muted footnotes to those Metric tracks that have come before it. Haines herself notes: "These [solo] songs are still the same. They're the source mood for every Metric tune, but without the benefit of my friends rocking out behind them." Unlike the trendy breakout attempts of other female band leaders lately, perhaps this record is not what was expected. Without the danceable beat or synth melodies of Metric, perhaps it's easy to get lost in the simplicity of the hypnotic piano melodies that surround Haines's voice here. But beyond just being an interesting glimpse into the back alleys of Metric's repertoire for fans of the band, the album is a revealing and refreshing offering for those who are willing and able to pay attention.

Two full length Metric albums, world tours, and living up to the media's rock-goddess status: Emily Haines is a busy girl. So busy that Knives features a collection of 11 songs that were written and recorded over the past four years in four different cities. The album release was mainly a natural evolution of Haines's foremost personal pastime of hanging out with her piano. On the encouragement of friends she decided to give the songs a proper recording before they were forgotten. While there is not a specific moment on Knives that feels out of place, the collective energy of the songs ranging from such extended periods of time and places lends itself well to the themes of transience and displacement felt throughout.

The songs mark pivotal points in the artist's own timeline, covering new levels of success with Metric and the sudden passing of her father, poet Paul Haines. Being privy to these moments in such an unfiltered format provides more backbone for these songs than any backbeat could. The piano simmers in a creeping way, almost passively in and around the verses; the songs seem to envelope themselves. Thoughtful minimalism produces an overall mood that is introspective and intimate without being self-indulgent or uncomfortable. It's a rare combination, and one that should also be attributed to the backing group on the record, a few of Haines's self-proclaimed "favorite musicians" that she calls The Soft Skeleton -- including Sparklehorse's Scott Minor, Broken Social Scene's Justin Peroff, Stars' Evan Cranley, and Metric's Jimmy Shaw.

There is melancholy, there is confusion and there is a general loneliness on this record; there is also hope, optimism and comfort. However, it's the context of the record that makes it more interesting than any one of these things. The confused anxiety felt in "Don't elaborate like that / You'll frighten off the frat boys / Use your baby talk" on "Mostly Waving" and frustrated musings on society's expectations with "All the babies tucked away in their beds, we're out here screaming / 'The life that you thought through is gone!'" on "Crowd Surf Off a Cliff" are infinitely more poignant when you consider it's the voice of a woman who is struggling with the realities of a moderate level of fame and the instability of life on the road.

Haines's voice stays in the near-whisper range throughout most of the album, but the raspy soprano is still such an extraordinary vehicle for expression even in the slower pace she keeps on this record. She obviously has a way with words, but the juxtaposition of the soft, sweet voice carrying such weighty subject matter is an interesting source of strength behind the role-playing that emerges over the course of the album. The disillusionment of "The Lottery" and disdain of "Doctor Blind" up against the bitter hope of "Our Hell" and the comforting lullaby of the album's closer, "Winning" -- it's more than the average piano-songstress shtick. With such sparse instrumentation, these songs are still thick; there may not be a beat here to dance to but there is a lot to grab on to certainly.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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