Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox
Chris Knox is one of the pillars of New Zealand's indie rock music scene. Starting with his band Toy Love through his duo Tall Dwarfs and his solo work, he's been making interesting, challenging records for almost 30 years. When he suffered a stroke in late 2009, it was a shock, but soon Knox's musical friends and fans rallied support and Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox was born. Just looking at the list of contributors gives you an idea of how highly regarded Knox's work is. Luminaries of the Flying Nun records stable (the Bats, the Chills, the Kilgour brothers) rub shoulders with American indie rock legends (Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, the Mountain Goats, Lou Barlow), big names like Neil Finn and Stephin Merritt contribute songs, and people who haven't been heard from much lately show up to pay respect (Shayne Carter of Straitjacket Fits, Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel). It's no real surprise that the songs that sound the best are the versions done by the New Zealand acts themselves, there's something sort of magical about the island that gives songs recorded there a feel that isn't easy to re-create. The Chills, the Bats and relative newcomers the Mint Chicks all have that magic. So do the Verlaines, the Bleeding Allstars, and Alec Bathgate (who, as Knox's partner in Tall Dwarfs, also deserves some tribute). A couple of the outside artists like Jay Reatard (who had planned to work with Knox at one point) also do a fine job of capturing it. Most of the North American contingent seems satisfied to just turn in stripped-down versions of Knox's songs, which is fine but also something of a let down. Fans expecting Mangum's contribution to be anything more than him and an acoustic guitar may be let down, too, for example. That being said, Bill Callahan's "Lapse" is a hauntingly beautiful, epic-length take on the song that conjures up the ghost of Fred Neil. Yo La Tengo also turns in a lovely song, and Lou Barlow's "Song of the Tall Poppy" does a fine job of capturing the twin streams of melody and off-kilter production that runs through Knox's career. The compilation is truly a labor of love and the record's producer made the interesting choice to arrange the cover versions chronologically which gives a nice timeline effect to the proceedings. To that end, the two songs that close out the album were recorded after Knox's stroke and feature him on wordless vocals. The tracks are a testament to his will to recover, and also in the case of Tall Dwarfs' "Sunday Song," very moving. Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox is an example of a tribute album done right, and is a must for any fans of Knox or of New Zealand indie rock. Now we just need someone to release a collection of all the Knox originals!