King Crimson: Construkction Sukcs … Knox, Johnston: Tell-Tale Hearts

King Crimson: Construkction Sukcs

I bought with my own money–well, money I stole–my first Beatles album in 1967. The Beatles were the perfect band for a 5-year-old to get interested in rock music. By the way, I’ve always hated hippies, especially pot-smoking hippies. Marijuana and socialism were the evils of the 20th century.

In 1974, I bought with my own money–well, money I stole–my first King Crimson album. It was their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King , which had been released five years earlier. Almost 25 years later, I would use a track from that album, “Moonchild,” in my masterpiece film, Buffalo 66 . The song and the album are modern classics.

You know, in the 60’s and early 70’s people under 25 years old controlled only a small portion of the economy. They didn’t spend so much money on things that would be mostly insignificant in their lives. Bands could sell only 100,000 copies of an album and have major impact worldwide. By impact, I mean that because a band or person or thing existed, the world changed in a real way–in a way that enabled people to move forward in their language and ideas. Ronald Reagan had great impact. So did King Crimson.

When I started listening to King Crimson and some of the better progressive rock bands then, it really felt like the ideas, sensibilities, aesthetics and certainly the music were complex and new and had a real relationship with the most interesting younger people of the time.

Certainly all the work that I’ve done in my life was affected by my experience with music at that time, in a real way. I’m sure Robert Fripp, the rest of the guys in King Crimson, and the members of Yes and, certainly, Genesis had idolized several heroes from their childhood. It doesn’t matter who those heroes were, because these groups were able to transcend their influences, even their ideas about being in a rock band.

That doesn’t happen so much anymore. When a dwarf rich kid from Nashville like Harmony Korrine flies first class and moves to a plush, safe apartment in Soho, then runs around town quoting Godard with lines like “Fuck the bourgeois,” it’s insincere, it’s calculated, it’s unoriginal and it’s–the worst thing in the world–trendy. He already knows that he and his boring girlfriend Connecticut Chloë Sevigny are going to be on the cover of The Face . He knows he’ll get his run at the Angelika and be hip in Japan. But no one will ever make an important film because they saw Gummo or Julien Donkey Boy .

Where do records go now? Who buys them? And why do they buy them? Do they listen to them? The whole thing? Or just the song on the radio? And why don’t they listen to them anymore? Don’t they love their CD’s? Man, when I hitchhiked from Buffalo to New York when I was 16 years old, I didn’t bring any food or clothes, I didn’t bring my football trophies or a pair of my girlfriend’s underpants. Instead, I dragged 700 record albums in wooden milk crates. You try hitchhiking with 700 record albums, and then you tell me what bands you love.

People do a lot of shopping today. Shopping to shop, shop shopping, shopping shop, shippity-shop shopping. I had a storefront on Elizabeth Street one time, for one month. As a conceptual joke I put some items in the window for sale: a one-legged pair of jeans, an empty Evian bottle, a box of dirt, a rotten banana and an unused, but unwrapped, condom. Everything sold.

The new King Crimson album, The Construkction of Light (Virgin), will not have real impact. It will not change a thing. It is not a move forward in art or music. It’s not a classic and it’s certainly not trendy or contemporary. The closest thing would be the song “Into the Frying Pan,” which sounds like a radio song–from five years ago.

The rest of the record is not worth writing about. It’s clear that Mr. Fripp and his bandmates are out of touch. It has nothing to do with age. Mr. Fripp probably doesn’t spend a lot of time listening to new records, or seeing new bands, or making himself available to younger people with more modern ideas. You know, in the 20 years I’ve been hanging out in New York and in London, I’ve never seen Robert Fripp anywhere. Doesn’t he see bands? Doesn’t he go out? Success, money and people telling him for so many years what a genius he is have disabled him. He’s a disabled veteran. Construkction of Light is a release by a band of disabled veterans. The only problem is, the war isn’t over.

–Vincent Gallo

Vincent Gallo is the producer, director, writer, composer and star of Buffalo 66 .

Knox, Johnston: Tell-Tale Hearts

New Zealand post-punker Chris Knox and Austin, Texas-based cult figure Daniel Johnston are as indie as indie gets. Both write unflinching lyrics about love, life and madness. Both record their ditties on low-fidelity four-track tape recorders. Both have danced on the fringes of sanity. Mr. Knox used to like to carve up his skin. Mr. Johnston is a diagnosed manic-depressive who once did time for defenestrating a 68-year-old woman he thought was the devil. (She lived.)

And yet, and yet–as much as their work terrifies radio programmers and unsettles listeners throughout our great land, Mr. Knox’s and Mr. Johnston’s music undeniably qualifies as pop.

Despite their respective associations with the punk-indie scenes since the 80’s, both Mr. Knox and Mr. Johnston are students of the golden age of AM radio (circa 1965 to 1975), and they have absorbed every sugary lesson that era offered. You’re more likely to hear echoes of Neil Sedaka, Tommy James and Paul McCartney in their songs than the Buzzcocks or the Clash.

The cover of Mr. Knox’s latest album, Beat (Thirsty Ear), is adorned with his own illustration of a heart that’s a hybrid of the human and Hallmark varieties, and judging from the opening track, “It’s Love,” that heart belongs to David Cassidy. The song is an unabashed lo-fi emulation of songwriter Tony Romeo’s work with the Partridge Family, accessorized with plinky-plink piano and a stripped-down Jesus and Mary Chain guitar sound.

Mr. Knox, the founder of the Tall Dwarfs and a 20-plus-year veteran of the New Zealand music scene, is primarily a formalist. An excellent mimic, he can capture the feel of even the most overproduced music of the past on a four-track recorder. “Becoming Something Other,” a stark, wrenching song about his father’s losing bout with brain disease, sounds like a demo song from Pink Floyd’s The Wall with its ghostly synthesized keyboards and vaporous guitar wails. It’s easy to listen to until you realize what the song’s about. Then it’s hard to forget.

Meanwhile, the tortured Mr. Johnston emphasizes classic rock on Rejected Unknown (New Improved/Which Records), his first album in some time. Producer and former Glass Eye guitarist Brian Beattie indulges Mr. Johnston’s deep love of the Beatles by contributing George Harrison-style guitar stings on “Favorite Darling Girl” and getting Mr. Johnston to play tack-sounding piano on “Thrill.” Mr. Johnston even swipes melodies from both Sting (“Davinare”) and Squeeze (“Love Forever”).

And while the music on Beat and Rejected Unknown is haunted by the melodies of the past, Mr. Knox’s and Mr. Johnston’s painfully self-aware lyrics wrestle with their personal histories. The death of his father has clearly set Mr. Knox, who is a father himself, to thinking about his own mortality and the circle of life. On “Everyone’s Cool,” he sings, “Everyone cries at the birth of a child / Everyone sees in the eyes of the newborn / A glimpse of the dawn they’ve ignored and defiled.” And on “When I Have Left This Mortal Coil,” Mr. Knox, his voice sounding sweet and clear like a Merseybeat star, instructs, “When I am gone do not revere some phantom lie / Do not make more of me and please do not deny / That I was nothing more or less than what you saw / That in my scaling of the heights I usually failed to leave the floor.”

Where Mr. Knox indulges in the luxuries of irony and wordplay, Mr. Johnston lays it all on the line in artless confession. Lyrically, he sways between the poles of naïve optimism and fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism, and in the past he has been obsessed with such odd subjects as how a boy named Casper became a friendly ghost. But Mr. Johnston is nothing if not self-aware. “She invited me to a pity party / Every hour everyone / was making fun of me / I told her it really didn’t matter / You can’t imagine what it’s done / to my personality,” he sings in a quavering high alto of perilous pitch on “I Lose”–and what do you say to that? It is not pretty in the way that a Volkswagen advertisement is pretty, but it is achingly expressive.

One of the reasons the pop of the young is called “ephemeral” is that youth, not music, is fleeting. A teenager can know this, but he can’t comprehend the ramifications of this inevitability until it’s too late. The old cliché is true: You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. With their music, Mr. Knox and Mr. Johnston seem to be working hard to recall that moment when, as Mr. Knox sings on “Everyone’s Cool,” “Everyone feels there is nothing to fear / While their bodies appear to be forever young.”

–D. Strauss

Elastica? Fantastica!

Listening to the first two songs off of Elastica’s long-awaited new album, The Menace (Division One/Atlantic), makes it feel like 1995 again. You remember 1995–that was the year Monica Lewinsky first bared her thong for the President. But it was also the year that Elastica’s calling-card single, “Connection,” became the most brash, thrilling song to grace the airwaves, even if it did crib the signature riff of Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba.”

Elastica’s jagged, jumpy art-college music–and their punky, sexy front woman, Justine Frischmann–did for alternative music what Ms. Lewinsky did for Mr. Clinton’s stagnant love life, and at that midway point of the decade, Ms. Frischmann’s band was poised to be the great British band of the 90’s, not to mention one of the few U.K. acts that had found substantial crossover success in a pre-Oasis America.

And then, for five years, there was nothing. During that time, the band toured relentlessly; Ms. Frischmann’s love life with Blur’s Damon Albarn disintegrated, and bassist Annie Holland quit, as did guitarist Donna Matthews. Various lineups of Elastica made several failed passes at the songs that eventually landed on The Menace .

Ms. Frischmann and the current Elastica lineup, which once again includes Ms. Holland, finally finished The Menace during a six-week sprint that, ironically, coincided with what appears to be the final death throes of Oasis. Given the fine results, one can only speculate why the band didn’t just get on with it three years ago.

Where the band’s first effort, Elastica , was more or less a pure guitar record, the follow-up dabbles with sensual electronic textures, particularly on “Miami Nice,” “My Sex” and “Image Change.” But some things haven’t changed. Those first two Menace tunes, “Mad Dog” and “Generator,” are happily cut from the cheeky, lurching cloth of “Connection,” with kidney-rattling drums and bass, clipped guitars and half-screamed vocals. “Don’t want you on your back, I just got on my feet,” sings Ms. Frischmann in her sultry punk’s voice on “Mad Dog,” suggesting that the road back has been rough.

And Elastica hasn’t burned through its fondness for Wire, either. “Human” uses the eerie vamp of the original art schoolers’ “Lowdown” but substitutes an insinuating, if disaffected, melody in place of Wire’s obtuse ranting, and the chorus of “Nothing Stays the Same” recalls Wire’s “Kidney Bingos.”

On the pogo-able “How He Wrote Elastica Man,” another one of Elastica’s heroes, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, contributes vocals to Ms. Frischmann’s homage to his great band (“How I Wrote Elastic Man” is the title of an early song by the Fall).

By explicitly evoking its predecessor, The Menace benefits from recalling a moment when the notion of an exciting rock ‘n’ roll band didn’t seem as exhausted as it often does now. But Elastica is no rote revival act devoid of an identity. Sheer energy and charisma can count more than rarefied originality in today’s thoroughly bastardized pop-music arena, and Elastica has those qualities in spades. The Menace demonstrates that Elastica is firing on all burners, however familiar the fumes.

–Rob Kemp

Contact Manhattan Music at fdigiacomo @observer.com