Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

The Knife – Colouring of Pigeons

Wherein we cross Matos’ palm with silver…


Michaelangelo Matos: Hahahahaha, I can read the other blurbs already! (Cibula, Lex, Skidmore: my sympathies.) Me, I have some patience for pretentious shit like this: I enjoyed the time I saw Marilyn Monk, for starters. Eleven-minute suites I have as much conceptual time for as, say, soca: if someone I trust likes it, sure I’ll try it. I know someone, probably a few someones, that will likely enjoy this, and I sort of do too. But it’s impossible not to think this belongs in some larger work, where its quasi-exoticism (not to mention quasi-classicalism) makes it immediately and permanently apparent that this was yanked way the hell out of context.

Martin Skidmore: Bloody hell, an eleven minute single! Sadly it seems much longer than that. The quiet beginning with operatic “ah” and “oh” stabs reminds me too much of an annoying bank advert. Apparently the album is some sort of opera based on Charles Darwin, which sounds appalling. I’d long lost interest before the dreary singing of actual words started.

Edward Okulicz: I’m sure it’s v. important and experimental, but it’s long, boring, unpleasant, wildly indulgent. While hating The Knife, or anything to do with them, is sort of music-critic sacrilege, it’s about time people realised they are at best a middling-to-good group with some decent singles but nowhere near enough skill to get away with this.

Ian Mathers: On the one hand, I love this — far more gripping, eventful and even moving than I’d dared hoped the Knife’s score for an opera about Darwin could be, and not nearly as deadly as most 11 minute tracks. On the other… for goodness’ sake, this is about as far from pop music or a single that you can get without making stuff that your person on the street wouldn’t call music. The part of me that thinks of the Jukebox as a proving ground for pop suggests that this doesn’t deserve a good mark for violating those tenets, no matter how good it is, but you know what? Screw it. It’s probably going to be underrated by most people here anyway, and any time I’m willing to spend 10+ minutes on a song multiple times in a row, there’s something special going on.

Doug Robertson: I could boil a whole hen house worth of eggs in the time it takes to listen to this, but despite the fact that I have such a short attention span that anything over the three minute mark tends to leave me as listless as a disorganised shopper, this doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. It all builds together as naturally as a Lego house, before falling apart as gracefully as a ballerina after too much champagne.

Ramzy Alwakeel: A bastard in every sense — the offspring of that rarest of collaborations that generates something utterly independent of its constituent acts. These 11 minutes represent the more accessible face of their parent Darwin-themed opera: while the sudden mezzo-soprano is slightly hairy after Karin Dreijer Andersson’s more familiar vocals, the same melodic language drives both performers, while the landscape of drones and exotic percussion provides plenty of sonic continuity. The opera itself should be the ultimate focus of this project, but it is noteworthy and appropriate that The Knife have become one of the too-few genuinely experimental pop acts making records this side of the 1990s.

Anthony Easton: Every so often a text comes along and reminds us of how fantastic a vocalist Yoko Ono was, and what we would have lost if she hadn’t recorded. Add this to her anxiety of influence.

Alfred Soto: “Kabuki” is thrown around a lot, but for once it means something. This evokes grown men and women wearing contorted masks and squeezing strange noises out of their throats, to the accompaniment of exotic gewgaws. Not terrible.

Mallory O’Donnell: The Knife should be rewarded above all else for hoeing their own knotty patch of earth. But, loves: please don’t do so at the expense of what little sense of humor you already had. Sometimes it can be hard to hear the little band that had a song called “Lasagna” amongst all this fluttering modern paganism.

19 Responses to “The Knife – Colouring of Pigeons”

  1. Matos, do you mean Meredith Monk?

  2. I haven’t really made up my mind either way on The Knife’s new project – am happy to let the cards fall where they may – but oh my fucking god can we get past the idea that “long” or indeed “indulgent” are automatically bad things?

    this is about as far from pop music or a single that you can get without making stuff that your person on the street wouldn’t call music

    Who gives a flying fuck about any of that? What has any of that got to do with the quality of the music? I’m glad you came to the right conclusion on this but it shouldn’t be an issue in the first place. Singles and pop music come in all forms and formats, we shouldn’t be prejudiced against any of them. And seriously fuck the man-on-the-street “I just want a tune I can whistle” fuckwits, they don’t deserve pop music at all.

  3. “Indulgent” can be a GREAT thing. Just not here! At any rate, I know how you feel every time you give a 0 to some guitar dirge.

  4. I wish this was far more indulgent than it is! At least an 11-minute Frank Zappa trainwreck changes the tempo up a few times. It seems oddly tepid to me, about as “adventurous” as a mid-album crescendo-rock instrumental, plus a bit of opera-singin’ and those Knife voices I can’t stand (if they’d been the back-up and the opera singer the lead, rather than what feels like vice versa, I’d be tempted to give it a “6” maybe rather than the “4” I considered before just letting it go). But as it is it feels like a congealed ball of quasi-art.

  5. aw, i liked this a lot.

  6. Ian, I agree with Lex here. Don’t see why “pop” can’t be anything that enough people are willing to engage. That said, the clipped “oh”s at the start are dry as dust in a way that just gets in the way of the tones coming from the instruments. I like Karin doing her quirky talk-sing (more than on some other tracks where she out and out tries to sing), can’t stand the other vocalists including the trained singer. It’s not the length or lack of a dance beat, or the musical vocabulary, but the absence of a good front person that drags this down to a 4 for me. I’m OK with the couple of minutes of instrumental at the end.

    (I love Jefferson Airplane’s “Bear Melt,” which is longer than this.)

  7. Haha fooled you Matos, didn’t even review it! And doggone it I love the hell out of pretentious art music. And full-on hooky pop. It’s the in-between crap, the tired scaredy-pants crap, that I have no patience for. Except when it’s really great, in which case all bets are off.

  8. John C: yes.

  9. Matt: I know you do, but my doubts were with your loving this pretentious art music.

  10. I also like the way Matos has predicted my review when I still have no idea what I think about this, or the entire project! (Think I like this but from a distance, think the album as a whole is rather less likable but possibly needs to be heard in conjunction with the actual opera performance, very suspicious of “ew, arty!” reactions.)

  11. Well, lovers and haters, The Knife is now a front-runner for most controversial track of the year (its score would have placed it 3rd last year after “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and Christina Milian’s “Chameleon”). I can’t help but feel disappointed.

    Lex, I’m not sure if anyone here is saying “ew, arty” exactly — my issue with it is that it’s weak coffee. (I’m drinking weak coffee as we speak and the effect is remarkably similar.)

  12. i quite liked this, but it does seem a bit out of place alongside gold panda and the-dream and yeah yeah yeahs and whatnot. i don’t mean to denigrate the jukebox but this feels like a round hole/square peg kind of problem, and i wonder why you’d bother reviewing it at all. i also sort of wonder why the knife would put this out as a standalone single, since i would assume that the opera is meant to be appreciated in toto.

  13. haha I make no apologies for guessing what anyone might think about anything, however incorrectly

  14. It’s the in-between crap, the tired scaredy-pants crap, the cross between Meredith Monk and Marilyn Monroe, that I have no patience for. Except when it’s really great, in which case all bets are off.

  15. (Actually, I often prefer the in-between crap, but that weakens my argument.)

  16. “Don’t see why “pop” can’t be anything that enough people are willing to engage.”

    We agree on that, Frank – and that’s why this isn’t pop music. A few of us on the internet aren’t “enough people.”

    lex, you’re misreading the emphasis in my blurb (which is partially my fault, yes, but I came to “the right conclusion” because I was a lot closer to your position to start with than you think): the entire point of what I’m saying is that it’s tempting to devalue this song because of concerns about tradition, accessibility, etc, but that those concerns should be and are overridden by how much I like this song.

    You both raise good points; my second sentence should have been rewritten to make clear that I’m talking there about perceptions rather than how I personally feel about this song or pop music in general. The blurb originally said “That’s bullshit” where it now says “Screw it,” and I suppose I should have left that in too (but at the time it seemed a bit harsh).

    All that being said, though, one of the other things I was thinking about/trying to get across was the idea of context when it comes to songs – I may love this track, but do I want to hear it on the radio while I’m driving? Or in a club while I’m dancing? Plenty of writers here have referred to the functionality or lack thereof of various singles, or even just of the notion that a track may be a good song but not necessarily a great single. Which leads into the question of what, exactly, we’re trying to evaluate here – just the quality of the music, as nebulous a notion as that is, which seems to be what you’re both arguing for? I think the conception of you both seem to be pushing here goes a bit too far and loses something interesting and important about the way we experience and categorize music.

    I love, for example, Excepter’s twenty-minute “The Open Well” off of their new album. Adore it. But is it pop music? If everyone embraced it, maybe, but I don’t think it’s wrong to note that people aren’t likely to do so on a mass scale (one of the beautiful things about popular culture is that sometimes it surprises us, of course, but that doesn’t always happen). If it came here, would I give it a 10? I don’t know if I would. And I don’t think that’s somehow weirdly anti-pop or prejudiced of me. If this is just a forum for talking about pieces of music, fine. But the fact that we’re “The SINGLES Jukebox,” not just “The Jukebox,” and the way a lot of people on here write about what we cover suggests that there’s something else going on. With the death of singles as a physical format, there’s certainly some latitude about what’s a single, which is nice, but there’s also this stubborn insistence (especially among people who DON’T write about music on the internet) that there’s a distinction between “singles” and other songs (I guess we used to call them album tracks). That’s not an unproblematic notion, and I’m not wanting to just adopt it uncritically or wholly, but I’m also not willing to just assume it’s totally bankrupt and toss it out.

    Or, to put it another way: Not every piece of music I love is pop music, or a single. I think using those categories as mere superlatives (“this is good, or at least lots of people like it, so it’s pop music”), while true to an extent, gets rid of something interesting.

  17. Good response, Ian. I’d say that the fact that the track is by the Knife makes it at least “semipopular” (Xgau’s very loose term that I vastly prefer to “indie” or “alternative,” though it doesn’t map the territory the same way as those two words, which is why I prefer it). And of course the way that enough people come to engage something they hadn’t previously is if some people engage it first. And also, there’s no reason the Singles Jukebox should limit itself to pop anyway. I assume you’d fundamentally agree with this, that there be great singles that are resolutely unpopular, only of interest to a specialized audience – or singles that are just plain popular failures, wherever they’re aimed.

    However, I suppose the Singles Jukebox should limit itself to singles. So is this a random album track? Then it’s not a single. If it’s an album track that’s getting some special attention somewhere, then it’s a single, even if it isn’t pushed as such. And if it is getting pushed at such, then it is a single. (Anyhow, I haven’t been paying much attention to the Knife, so I don’t know how this is getting pushed, or by whom.)

    And (to be circular in my logic) maybe if Will thinks that something should be getting special attention, as if it were a single, then our reviewing it can be a way to create it as a “single.” I’d be very loose about such crieteria, as long as we’re not failing to cover a lot of other tracks that are high profile and unequivocally singles.

  18. that there be great singles

    Um, didn’t intend to speak in dialect there; I merely recast the sentence and forgot to change “be” to “are” or “can be.”

  19. Bit late, but I guess my points re: “pop” and “singles” are: whether or not a song makes a good single has no bearing on whether or not it makes a good song; to judge a song on that basis alone seems a touch limited. And a single isn’t necessarily something that has a verse-chorus-verse structure and gets played on the radio, especially now when the “single” as such barely exists; that’s an unnecessarily conservative definition that excludes a ton of stuff. “Colouring Of Pigeons” was a track made available for free download ahead of the Tomorrow In A Year project, trailing the full album; if that’s not a single, what is? Obviously it’s not meant to be played on the radio, so even bringing that into the equation grates a bit.

    As for “pop”, well, I have my issues with that word, and it seems that everyone has a completely different conception of it anyway. But are we really using a song’s length as a reason to dismiss it?

    More concisely: sure, it’s a million miles away from being a “radio single” or a “pop song”. So what? That doesn’t tell me whether it’s worth paying attention to or not. And if the Singles Jukebox only limited itself to new music that fits into those categories, it’d be much worse off for it.