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|Seth Knappen Gets Naked|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Tuesday, 27 May 2003 18:00|
Minimalism in rock music is a big risk. When an artist chooses to keep it simple – with pared- down instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals, and songs that move with the energy of a funeral procession – only the best material survives scrutiny, because there’s nothing to fall back on.
No speed, no dense production, just the material itself, presented as plainly as possible.
In that context, it’s not a stretch to say that Seth Knappen’s new Leaving Sound record (out this week on the Future Appletree label) is a brave affair. Knappen seems positively naked on the CD, with a glacier-like pace and simple, airy settings that are as vulnerable as a fresh wound.
The sound shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given Knappen’s background and the production credits. The singer-songwriter is a veteran of the self-described “slow rock” group Darling, and seven of the album’s nine tracks were produced and recorded by Alan Sparhawk of the slowcore outfit Low. (Knappen is also a member of Driver of the Year and Multiple Cat, to give some sense of his diverse interests.)
The instrumentation on the album primarily consists of muted guitar and piano and dreamy synthesizers under Knappen’s voice. The album is almost all tension, and listeners will anticipate releases that never happen. “Carrying You Through” sounds, with it distorted guitar strums and muffled bits of drum, like a band tuning up until Knappen starts singing. Here one keeps expecting an explosion that Knappen skillfully withholds.
Songs don’t follow conventional structures and sometimes just die like an aborted thought. This lends the work an organic feel, open and honest in the way it’s written and put together. It’s an album that has the unique ability to sound simultaneously complete and unfinished – perfectly executed fragments. Once you’ve gotten your head around the opening track, “Absentee,” you’ll have no trouble navigating the rest of Leaving Sound.
The aptly titled “Tumbling” is a great example of how to construct an interesting soundscape with as little going on as possible, as a slinky bass provides the main line of the track, over piano, guitar, and the occasional gong.
Knappen’s voice should be considered primarily an instrument, because the sounds coming from his throat seem more important than the words they’re creating. Like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Knappen doesn’t have much range but draws his considerable power from the way he strains and yearns. And his lyrics are just as indecipherable as Yorke’s, full of emotion but vague. They have a universal quality in their generality but also feel intensely personal and impenetrable.
As compelling as much of the album is, some might find it a frustrating experience. I got the feeling of being able to see the colors of Knappen’s psyche but not the shape or textures of his thoughts or feelings. As a result, the record has the weight of a cloud. I mean that as a criticism, and understand that it’s part of the point; Leaving Sound is clearly designed to replicate dreams and sensations rather than concrete thoughts or events.
The album is also noteworthy for what it says about its label. Leaving Sound is the third release in a little more than a month from Future Appletree, with The Marlboro Chorus’ “Good Luck” album and Driver of the Year’s Some Girls Would Say … EP. This output represents a coming-out party for the fledgling local label, and at this juncture it seems safe to say that Future Appletree has set its bar high. The three CDs suggest the label has wide-ranging tastes, and that its primary interest is quality. Leaving Sound might not be fully satisfying, but there can be no doubting that it’s a challenging, elegant work made with considerable skill.
Leaving Sound is available at local Co-op stores and online at (http://www.parasol.com). For more information on Knappen or Future Appletree, visit (http://www.futureappletree.com).
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