AMN Reviews: Bent Knee – Say So (2016; Cuneiform Records)

Every once in a while, the ostensibly prog-rock / avant-jazz Cuneiform Records label comes out with something totally different. In 2013 it was Chrome Hoof, and three years later we have Bent Knee.  This Boston-based six-piece art-rock band seamlessly blends genres across the spectrum – from pop to hard rock, to something resembling free-improv. Layered over the music are lyrics that describe a twisted, dark Americana.

Vocalist / keyboardist Courtney Swain has a strong presence throughout. While her inflections are reminiscent of Alanis Morrissette from time to time, she moves in her own direction. And she can sing – in a way that makes me think that if she were a contestant on one of those reality television singing contests, she would easily mop up the competition. Joining her on backing vocals is Jessica Kion, who also plays bass. Rounding out the group are Ben Levin on guitars, Chris Baum on violin, and Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth on drums. Session musicians contribute woodwinds and brass, which gives the compositions a thick, orchestral presence.

One of the more notable aspects of Say So goes beyond just the writing and playing – the production is modern and superb. Crisp and clear, you can easily pick out each instrumental voice, even as the dynamics vary up and down. The unique irony, though, is that the guitar, keyboards, and violin are often blended in a way that makes it hard to identify which is contributing to what. Vince Welch is credited with production and sound design, and appears to be a full-fledged band member.

Each of the tracks are moody in their own way, often beginning slowly and building to crescendo before returning to someplace near where they began. Favorites? Leak Water, with its strident guitar intro, detailed overlapping rhythms, orchestral keyboard and violin breaks, and slowly ascending vocals. Hands Up is another one, intelligently describing a longing for a (likely doomed) modern suburban life over infectious melodies and broken rhythms.

While catchy and appealing, if you listen carefully, this is not necessarily joyful music. But it explores uncomfortable emotional situations in a compelling fashion, and thus draws you in. Highly recommended, even if your usual cup of tea is further off the beaten track. There is a lot to like here.

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