Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to a talented underground band is they get noticed, particularly by a major record label. Still, where avant-pop geniuses Bent Knee were concerned, it was only a matter of time before they got noticed and a major label got involved.
The Boston quintet has been hard at work, touring and writing relentlessly behind their first three independently released albums. Their fourth, called Land Animal (out June 23), is their first on major label Inside/Out.
For the uninitiated, Bent Knee’s sound and style are, for the most part, undefinable. This aspect is a major part of their appeal. The Berklee-trained musicians draw on a wide variety of influences, creating songs that fail to fit neatly into anyone’s pre-defined categories. Now that a label is involved, the possibility of a watered down, compromised sound filled my heart with dread, given my love for the path this band has been walking. I needn’t have worried.
Land Animal is a confident step forward from the band’s previous album, Say So. The feeling I get with the new album is that Bent Knee is taking this major label out for a spin to see what it can do. The band’s sound is tighter than on the previous album, while remaining stylistically eclectic, much like my favorite record, Shiny Eyed Babies. The band wastes no time digging in, firing on all cylinders from the first notes of “Terror Bird.” Once the groundwork is laid, lead vocalist Courtney Swain steps in and takes over, her voice as dominant and earnest as ever.
That’s not to say Swain overwhelms the band. Quite the contrary. Swain’s singing may front the band, but every other member is equally essential to the Bent Knee sound. Guitarist Ben Levin, bassist Jessica Kion, violinist Chris Baum, and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth put and keep their formidable chops on display, playing notes on, in front of, behind, and between the beats. Still, each member is adept at getting out of the way, allowing everyone an opportunity to shine without overplaying or muddying the mix.
Songs like “Holy Ghost” have an almost carnival-like feel, showing a playful side the band doesn’t always put on display. It’s one of the more spacious songs on the album, giving each band member an individual pocket, with Swain’s voice serving as the lifeline that holds everything together.
The title track is a bit more urgent, bordering on the Bent Knee-equivalent of metal. The song chugs forward in fits and starts, with the tempo shifting back and forth. The listener is rarely given time to breathe or fall into a musical rut. There’s too much going on. But, in true band fashion, this information is presented without being overwhelming.
The closet the band comes to a “conventional” sound probably comes from a tune called “These Hands.” But even that number is given a shot of a avant-garde cool, lest we think Bent Knee has compromised its sound. That simply is not happening. This band is giving its collective all toward following its own muse, which it does with remarkable assuredness.
I’ll be the first to admit the music of Bent Knee is an acquired taste. Having said that, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to grasp what the band is doing. Rather, it takes the will to set aside any preconceived notions of what pop music should sound like. This is music designed to drive a radio consultant crazy. It is precisely the shot in the arm modern music needs.
While Bent Knee has never sounded tentative, there is a definite air of confidence coming from Land Animal. Swain’s vocals are sassy and full of swagger, while the rest of the band plays parts that are both unconventional and groundbreaking. Given the opportunity to flourish (and barring any label interference), this band will be making major impacts on the industry for years to come. This is music that would make the Grammy awards relevant again.
It’s easy to declare a band’s most recent effort as its best to date, so I won’t do that. What I will say is Bent Knee has proven with Land Animal that the previous albums were not flukes, but definite signs of what lay ahead. As long as the label is smart enough to stay out of the way, the sky’s the limit, and the music of Bent Knee — present and future — will echo for years to come.