The Book Of Knots. Even the name sounds complexing, with the music not being much different. I suppose you could call the New York-based quartet a backdrop supergroup of sorts, consisting of respectable producers and musicians who have worked with their share of respected artists in the studio and on stage. Tony Maimone is best known as the bassist in the underground rock saviors Pere Ubu. He has also worked with the likes of They Might Be Giants, Bob Mould, Frank Black and Lucinda Williams on various levels. He has a reputation of being known as “one of the great unheralded rhythm sections in all of rock”, with his production skills and musical inclimation proving to be prolific and engaging all throughout his several decades in the industry. Guitarist Joel Hamilton has seen his share of talent as well, playing with artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Sparklehorse, with those being only a microcosm of his studio work and production. The band rounds out with Carla Kihlstedt, who is the founder of Tin Hat Trio and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. She is also known for her collaborations with the idolized Tom Waits, who happens to share the same label as The Book Of Knots (Anti-). Matthias Bossi is also a member, primarily known as the drummer of Kihlstedt’s Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. All four members are multi-instrumentalists, with most of their musical paths being intertwined. Maimone and Hamilton both are partners in the Brooklyn-based Studio G, where The Book Of Knots record in addition to Frank Black, Soul Coughing, and other prominent artists. Hamilton had been friends with Bossi for about a decade before The Book Of Knots’ formation in 2004. They both grew up on the coast of Massachusetts and worked with each other periodically throughout the 90s. Hamilton met Kihlstedt through Bossi, and once the three of them came together with Maimone, a new vision was born.
There is no doubt that their second full-length album, Traineater, is a concept album, much like their first. Those looking for straightforward art-pop similar to that of my last few posts will be disappointed. Their self-titled debut was an experimental listen at best, ranging from monotonous failures to brilliant successes. Hamilton states that they made the record “with no agenda, no ulterior motive, no record deal,”. He later explained the meaning of the debut in further detail, as a musical interpretation of “what it’s like to grow up in a rotting sea town in Massachusetts — staring at the ocean when you’re seven-years-old, cutting bait on a dock for your first summer job and smelling the chum”. He even admits that much of the work done by The Book Of Knots is conceptionary, saying, “I know it’s astonishingly cliched to say, it took on a life of its own and became what we called this ‘begrudgingly epic’ concept album.” Traineater now dwells on the topic of the American workingman, describing vaguely the effectiveness of rusting chains and the American Rust-Belt and how the image of American motivation, progress, and industry is now tarnished by greed and selfishness.
I’m going to be honest with you in saying that the only reason I gave this album a second look was because I saw that Tom Waits appears on the track ‘Pray’. He is certainly a recognizable presence, with his signature rough-edged vocal style mixed over a very Waits-esque musical arrangement of oddball brass and keys. Of course, the lyrics are predictably in repetition, though several interpretations can be made for religious overtones and mockery of religion in the public eye. Thanks to Waits, I gave the rest of this “concept album” a listen as well. Surprisingly, there are several tracks that are enjoyable even on first listen. ‘The Ballad Of John Henry’ is a humorous tale of a man with rather unfortunate luck, with Maimone’s Pere Ubu roots shining very brightly. Some will certainly consider it pretentious, though those who find mockery and any form of droning punk entertaining should certainly give it an opportunity. In fact, the only musical change comes about three minutes after the introduction, where a bunch of effectively haunting strings come into play. Consider the rest of the song a build-up of sorts, if that’s your sort of thing. ‘Midnight’ is more pleasant than most of the other tracks on the album, as Memphis-based Megan Reilly displays her powerful vocals over a spellbinding mixture of guitars and strings. The song depicts a struggling family who were unrightfully let go from their jobs, creating a situation of financial peril where they rely on a young daughter for work. Reilly is just one of the few contributors on Traineater, with Jon Langford (former drummer for The Mekons) providing for an interesting spoken-word addition in the entertaining ‘Boomtown’. Acclaimed bassist Mike Watt makes an appearance on ‘Pedro To Cleveland’, which unfortunately turns out to be nothing more than a boring attempt with wasted talent. Carla Bozulich and David Thomas (Pere Ubu) also make appearances on the album, though Bozulich’s appearance is considerably overblown and rather unnecessary. The only advantage about her appearance is the opportunity to display a foreshadowing of The Book Of Knots’ style on Traineater. While one usually recalls upbeat Springsteen tunes when thinking of songs about American working class, The Book Of Knots have knowingly turned the concept into a haunting rendition of America’s contemporary struggling economy. The album, for the most part, is surprisingly dark and eerie. Just like their debut, there are several duds and several flashes of brilliance. The collaborations are also of varying quality as well, with appearances by Waits, Reilly, and Thomas appearing to be very enjoyable, while Watt and Bozulich both seem a bit unprepared and rushed. Obviously, both of their styles are intentionally done but it manages to get frusturating after a few listens. Honestly, considering the potential this group has, I was a bit disappointed. Not by their lack of effort, but moreso by their direction. If they crafted more tracks in the mold of ‘Midnight’ it would have been much more memorable. I could analyze each and every track in mind of their attempted concept, though I’d rather not spoil the fun. Traineater will be released March 20th on Anti-.