Bent Knee - You Know What They Mean
I’ll be completely honest; while I’ve been following the exploits of guitarist Ben Levin on Youtube for what seems like years (probably by way of his spirit brother Adam Neely), I actually haven’t given previous Bent Knee efforts the attention they likely deserved. After hearing this album, however, I won’t be missing a single release from this implacable prog-pop group. You Know What They Mean spans genre, instrumentation, production, and tone seemingly without care, while maintaining a purposeful direction and cohesiveness that I sincerely hope I can achieve in an album of my own. Let’s start off (as is becoming my style here) and just go through track by track…
We’re greeted at the opening of the album to some live show technical difficulties as Levin’s guitar feeds back, resonating abrasively through Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth’s set. There are a few candid moments like these sprinkled throughout the album, and although on my first listen I found them a bit unnecessary, I think I understand the desire to include those moments. Bent Knee is by all counts a “band’s band”, and these little vignettes serve to effectively ground the band as genuine performers while also treating certain listeners (like myself) to a bit of nostalgia right off the bat. I doubt this was the intention; producer Vince Welch probably just thought they were fun moments, but I wanted to point out the parasocial component there. Anyways, we’re one track in and I’m already in the weeds!
That first track gracefully transitions into one of the album’s singles, Bone Rage, which sets a rampaging tone for the top of the album with distorted brass stabs and a delicious unison riff. Vocalist Courtney Swain’s absolutely manic lyrics soar over this groove and into the chorus break where she lets loose like she’s about to have a back-alley brawl. I love everything about this track, and it sells the band’s ethos as experimental musicians well, especially in the back half of the track where the band swells in chaos, taking a moment to breathe before Swain melts our faces again.
Give us the Gold departs immediately from the previous track’s high energy, setting expectations for how variable the album will be. We get some lovely strings from Chris Baum throughout the track, and a gloriously arranged second verse. I can’t say I was satisfied by the way they chose to end this one, though the very Kimbra bridge freaking slaps and the chorus won’t stop getting stuck in my head. Speaking of catchy choruses…
The following track, Hold Me In may very well be my favorite single of this year. From front to back, this song is pure musicianship. Wallace-Ailsworth’s drums steer the listener through a cloud of ambience and some unison attacks from the keys and guitar as the vocals swirl around in the verse. Everything falls into place in the chorus, before truly spiraling out in the next verse in a cacophony of fuzzy synths and vocal modulation. This track also features bassist Jessica Kion’s cherubic vocals during the bridge, providing an (almost naive?) innocence to the break before the crushing emotion of Swain’s vocals come barreling back in to close out the track. The end of this one has brought tears to my eyes nearly every time. (It’s perfect that way *wink*)
Egg Replacer holds true to the album’s established dynamism with simple, building verses breaking into gut-wrenching choruses. This time building not only layers of instruments with each reprisal but also vocal harmonies. The song abruptly ends, fading (with some more tasty sound design work) into another of the album’s singles, Cradle of Rocks. One of the more straightforward tracks, I think this may be one of my least favorites on the album, but it’s at least an effective and interesting single.
We get what sounds almost like a reality show confessional and some more behind-the-scenes banter before the next installment, Lovemenot. With brazenly belted vocals crying out over a trashy and distant instrumental, I had no choice but to fall in love with this track. I’m struggling to think of what other artist this particular noise-ballad reminds me of, but the soundscape feels vaguely nostalgic. It’s just… very, very good?
A completely different kind of nostalgia is explored on Bird Song, which is the best Sylvan Esso song I’ve ever heard. I’m being facetious here, but this is yet another track that absolutely ruined me on the first few listens. The layered, lofi vocals that carry the track out are the very sound of happy memories being grasped by desperate fingertips as they flutter away. Exceptional songwriting and execution.
The next track, Catch Light, is a sexy and powerful statement of intent. Dry, strummed bass and electronic drums provide a backing track to the first verse, breaking into the full band in what could genuinely be a soundtrack to a blockbuster movie from the late 90’s/early 00’s. If we don’t hear this song in a YA novel adaptation within the next year, then Hollywood is just doing it wrong. The chorus of this song is such an honest and open expression of passionate love (or more likely, obsession), executed with a cinematic flair by Swain. We also get a straight-up joyful bridge, before the song breaks into its final and most epic chorus, ending abruptly and leaving plenty of headroom for Garbage Shark.
Track eleven begins with eerie synth tones and plucked strings, met soon with Levin’s dramatic guitar and Swain providing even more of her operatic vocal stylings. The band joins in on driving eighths as each member dances around a barely-defined key center, building for what feels a painfully long amount of time before opening into a theme that wouldn’t feel out of place on a John Carpenter score. All in all, this is a fun little scene on the album, setting an anxious tone before…
Golden Hour relaxes the tension built up across the album up to this point. I cannot say enough good things about Swain’s vocals on this project, and here she shines undoubtedly bright. Pulling out of whatever strange eldritch well from which Adelle and Sia may have received their gifts, she continues to deliver emotional passages with fantastic control here. The outro brings in more heavenly strings from Baum before the band jams their way to a surprisingly gentle outro.
It Happens caps the project in another jarring genre hop as the band relaxes into a sort of west-coast radio-rock sound. Of course it can’t be that simple with Bent Knee, as this song eschews a radio chorus for detuned guitar riffage and a vocal sample simply stating the track’s title through megaphone level distortion. I also get some strong whiffs of Kimbra from this track, between the vocals on the first half and synths that carry the track out. The bridge on this one features more of Kion’s gentle vocals, guiding the listener into some warm chords and synths that steadily destroy themselves. I wish this final passage of tonal noise was a few minutes longer, because it’s one of my favorite textures that the album achieves.
Feeling I’ve said more than enough about this album, I’ll end it here. You Know What They Mean gets a stellar “why the hell have I slept on this band” out of 10 from me. I didn’t say anything about the actual lyrical content or much about the production, but both were spectacular here. Bent Knee truly knows what they’re doing and (perhaps more importantly) what each member of this project is good at. I’m eager to see them live, but until then I’ve got their YOUTUBE videos and their recent interview series on PODBEAN to pore over. What did you think? You can shout at me about it on TWITTER or INSTAGRAM, or if you want to leave me a strongly worded message about how wrong I am or how this is less of a review and more of a reaction video in a less interesting textual package, fuck off! Or use the CONTACT page, that also works. Thanks for reading, and have a fantastic whatever day it is!