Too Odd, Knox

One Chord Wonder

CHRIS KNOX Meat CD (Communion) The reissues just don't let up: this week, Chris Knox, who's spent the last decadeplus in his native New Zealand as half of Tall Dwarfs, the cruelest-minded, most inventive, funniest, and possibly the most interesting duo on the 80s-90s global rockscape. (Before that, Knox fronted NZ's premier punk bands, the Enemy and Toy Love.) Meat contains most of his two solo albums, Seizure and Croaker--solo records in the literal sense, since there's no backing band and no studio musicians. Instead, it's Chris Knox singing, playing his loud'n'fuzzy guitar, then going back into the studio and playing a bass track, an organ line and/or a drum machine. (Sometimes a friend plays the cello.)

"But what's it sound like?" you ask. Initially, a din: Knox is just one guy, but he can be just as aggressively distorted as any six-piece overamplified noise band. Listen again, though, and the songs get very clear: over twenty of them, almost every one with its own simple chord structure, a single, simpler, cycling rhythm, and a riff likely to burrow into the average listener's inner ear and take up permanent residence. (Chris Knox himself favors disgusting metaphors, too--check out some of his cover art.)

The songs are "about": love; epilepsy; only children; self-punishing wives; the New Zealand music industry; philosophy; rape; being married; getting old and losing your sex drive; and "liberal backlash angst" (a song so nasty that Knox felt compelled to write, in his liner notes, that the fictional person whose thoughts it expresses should probably kill himself). Chris Knox has something neat to say about every single one of those topics and more, and a range of vocal melodies to match. "Not Given Lightly" is one of the most sincere and moving love songs I know; I've personally seen it captivate at first hearing people who don't normally know, or care to know, anything about "punk rock" at all.

Knox's live show normally ends when he makes up, on the spot, a song from one line offered by an audience member. At the Paradise last week, he came up with "Riding on the Green Line"--the on-the-spot song sounded great, though Knox wasn't sure if "Green Line" was a means of transport or a way to get high. But that was just perishable improvisation; Meat holds five years of his best proper songs, and I can't think of a better investment, or of something we'll more likely be listening to when the rest of all this rock stuff has blown away for good.

SPINANES Manos (Sub Pop LP/CD) The Spinanes are a duo from Portland, Ore.: Rebecca Gates sings and guitars, Scott Plouf drums. (He used to play the trumpet, too, but he seems to have stopped doing that since their last tour.) They're part of what must be the second, or third, or fourth wave of Pacific Northwest "minimalism" since Beat Happening decided around `83 that rock and roll could do without bass guitars for a while; at the moment--and as their show last week at the Middle East proved--the Spinanes are THE most talented exponent of this particular brand of stripped-down pop.


The songs take chord structures simpler, even, than Lois Maffeo's--simpler than anything; sometimes only two chords will do for a whole song, switching back and forth in sinuously uneven rhythms like the ghosts of hobo-laden freight trains switching tracks. There are no guitar "pyrotechnics" allowed, or even possible, here; there's not even much distortion, despite the Sub Pop name on the label (though recording at AmRep Studios in Minneapolis must have helped to put an electric edge on the guitar sound, an edge that's developed only since last year). Rebecca Gates' playing has to carry the instrumental melody, the chords and the counterpoint for each song. The Spinanes date back only to 1991, but (both live and on Manos) Gates sounds like a practiced expert at this kind of multiple-tune/one-instrument balancing act. Scott Plouf works similarly subtle tricks with a fairly big set of drums; some neat tracks (including a ridiculously-titled instrumental) show off the duo's instrumental interweaving, but the best ones make it a slightly-faded backdrop for Gates' movingly worried singing.

The songs with one-word or one-phrase choruses ("Spitfire," "Sunday") slide into my head and won't let go; the songs with more complicated lyrical setups ("Noelle, Jonah and Me") actually have to be deciphered, but it's worth it. The Spinanes have something to say about restraint, about the blank spaces--in a band, in a life, in a romance--that pop up where you expect music, or words, or approval, or love, to be; anyone who thinks pop music can't be emotionally subtle needs to hear this record yesterday. Lately its less hummable songs have been reminding me of my first visit to the Textile Museum in Washington, DC: when I walked in I was wondering how an "art form" so well-adapted to backgrounds and backdrops, so "feminine," so subtle, and so often faded, could possibly have anything to say to me. I spent over three hours in there.