Album Review

Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

by Various

A Major Label
9 / 10
21st November 2009

Reviewed by Paul Gallagher

I think most people have a Chris Knox story or two tucked away in the back of their minds – whether it be his duet with Neutral Milk Hotel recluse Jeff Mangum at the Kings Arms, or awakening to a whole ‘new’ New Zealand music at your first listen of Tall Dwarfs’ Hello Cruel World, or seeing him at the conclusion of a live show by some folk seamstress who had just sewn a rich tapestry of earnest music to which Chris, afterwards outside the show, would respond to with a smile that was seven parts genuine admiration, two parts cheekily mordant and one part just taking the piss.

The sheer scale of the contribution that Chris Knox has made to music both in New Zealand and offshore cannot be underestimated. A stalwart of the Flying Nun years, his discography contributes an impressive percentage of the label’s back catalogue – one that has reverberated around the globe without diminishing in relevance, to the point where the recent cacophony of lo-fi buzz bands in the United States (Wavves, Vivian Girls, etc) have been referencing Chris and his peers with unadulterated adulation.

Stroke is a double album that reflects everything that Chris Knox means to so, so many people throughout the world. The list of contributing artists is simply staggering – notable locals including the Finn family, the Chills, David and Hamish Kilgour (the Clean), Pumice, the Mint Chicks and the Verlaines are met in effort and love by incredible cohorts and fans of Chris from afar, including Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace, etc), Bill Callahan (Smog), Jay Reatard, Stephin Merritt (the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, etc), Yo La Tengo and Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr, the Folk Implosion, etc). Even Knox’s long-time collaborators the Nothing and Tall Dwarfs contribute. Such is the level of talent and commitment in this project that it’s hard to pick standouts.

Will Oldham’s take on My Only Friend is astonishing – it’s a raw, quiet, earnest rendition that could never fail to evoke real meaning for the musician who wrote it, the gentleman who covered it and the listener who adores it. Stefan Neville’s (Pumice) cover of Grand Mal - one of the standouts on Knox’s fantastic 1989 album Seizure – is a rowdy, fuzz guitar-driven, noise ensemble relating to the DIY ethos that Chris Knox has inspired in so many of his peers. Stephin Merritt’s cover of Beauty is just good goddamn fun. The Chills’ take on Luck Or Loveliness is simply an emotional tribute to a good man and a great song. And the Mountain Goats’ Brave has John Darneille contemplating the sanctity of life before launching into one of the most earnest tracks he’s sent out in years.

It’s true, not all the songs in this tribute work as well as they should, and in a couple of cases they’re even slightly less than convincing – but that in many ways is what Chris Knox inspires: raw effort, forced diligence, a perfection found in the process and perhaps not in the finished product, an experience. This double album is filled with the love and sacrifice of dozens of people who understand what love and sacrifice actually is – and all for a man who at various times has enabled them to feel it.

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