Chris Knox: Beat

Chris Knox
Thirsty Ear

From his native Invercargill, New Zealand (described by that noted travel writer, Keith Richards, as “the asshole of the world”), to France (where he was once dubbed “that gentle psychopath” by Rocksound magazine) to the Americas and beyond, Chris Knox has come to occupy something nearing legendary status among indie-rock aficionados.

To employ a cricketing metaphor, he’s the consummate all-rounder. Beginning his career as the self-mutilating vocalist for seminal New Zealand punks The Enemy, Knox went on to play a major role in the development of the mythical Flying Nun label (that spawned the Verlaines, the Chills and the Clean). He continues to be a co-conspirator with Alec Bathgate in Tall Dwarfs and, rivaling Howard Stern for the title “King of All Media,” Knox is also known for his work as a music and TV critic, a magazine editor, and a comic-strip artist.

And on top of all that, of course, Chris Knox is an accomplished performer in his own right. Following up 1997’s Yes!!, Beat is his eighth solo album and — arguably — it finds him in one of his most accessible moments. Although its tone alternates between upbeat satirical wit-and-wisdom and more downbeat, heart-felt, good old-fashioned sincerity, the emphasis falls largely on the latter. As the man himself puts it, this album is “quieter, more reflective, less of an angry rant.”

Characteristically lo-fi in its design and execution, Beat centers around Knox, his guitar and sundry bits-and-bobs from his gear box, occasionally fleshed out with brass courtesy of Neill Duncan and Kingsley Melhuish (AKA the Salivation Army Horns) — most notably on “Ghost” and “The Hell of It.”

Describing his equipment as state-of-the-art — albeit in 1968 — Knox has traditionally kept his feet firmly on analog ground, a decision rooted in his writing and recording habits and his approach to the creative process: “The idea of using computers for music is still somewhat abhorrent for me,” Knox observed in a recent interview, “I can see how it’s very valuable for mastering, but for recording I like choice to be really limited because I’m such a technophobe. If there’s too much choice there, I’ll lose track of exactly what the original idea was and my philosophy is that the original idea is probably the most powerful.”

A perfect example of a song that keeps the original idea intact — and to near sublime effect — is “Becoming Something Other,” one of the tracks on Beat that deal with the illness and death of Knox’s father. Making no effort to dress the experience in metaphor (lyrical or musical), this song tells it like it is — or was — recounting a deeply personal experience via sparse, unobtrusive rhymes and a taut, one-note bassline, subtly embellished with slide-guitar and a smattering of piano. Beyond saying that this is intensely moving and has you hanging on every word and note, any further attempt to characterize the song wouldn’t do it justice. Just listen to it and you’ll hear what I mean.

Another of the songs about Knox’s father, “Laughter,” puts the emphasis squarely on melody. Singing in a fragile, high register, Knox crafts a naive, ornate ’60s pop sound with clavinet and clarinet (the latter provided by Neill Duncan). Although this song is listed — on my copy of Beat at least — at three minutes and 24 seconds, it eventually goes on for 24 minutes, comprising a suite of songs, one of which is backwards.

No less poignant is “My Only Friend” — a no-holds-barred love song. “As naked as I get” is how Knox describes this simple number, much of it consisting only of voice and guitar — and that’s a fair description. Both lyrically and musically this track doesn’t beat around the bush but, rather, gets right to the heart of the matter: a sweetly guileless tribute to trust and vulnerability.

The introspective cuts are balanced, of course, with numerous upbeat, less personal songs. “It’s Love,” with its tinkling piano and cute vocals, is perfect college radio fodder. The 6/8 strummer, “The Man in the Crowd,” might smack of Dylan with its tumbling, free-associating lines, but it’s much funnier than Dylan. “What Do We Do with Love?” is a lyrical tour de force built around myriad clever variations on the theme in question. And there’s even a sing-along anthem, perfect for drinking to, in “Everyone’s Cool.”

Knox strays, inevitably, into rock territory on “Denial Song” and “I Wanna Look Like Darcy Clay.” The real winner, though, is the epic “Ghost,” a track that bounces and grinds along like a stripped-down “Lust for Life,” complete with warped horns.

In the greatest-living-New-Zealander stakes, Knox might come in third after Sir Wilson Whineray and Colin Meads — but he sure makes better records than either of them.