By Brent Ables | 25 May 2012
When Brent Knopf is on, he’s on. None of his songs are perfect or close to it—they are, almost without exception, too busy and disjointed to qualify—but his earnest musical restlessness is worth the work; the guy’s capable of fleeting passages of exceptional heartbreak and pathos. There’s a moment exactly two minutes and fifty-four seconds into “Divide By Zero” that illustrates this principle well. After the song sort of clunks along for a few minutes on a swinging piano line and some of Knopf’s trademark cutesy couplets, it abruptly takes flight and soars beyond whatever is beyond the stratosphere. For this last minute or so, Knopf finds a thrilling balance between the disparate movements of the music and his voice, and the euphony is nearly perfect. And then, just as abruptly as it began, the moment is over.
It seems to always be this way with Knopf. He’s capable of annihilating your emotional faculties with small moves and brief passages, but can rarely sustain such momentum even for the length of a song, never mind an entire album. And herein, I think, lies the crucial difference between Menomena, Knopf’s former band, and Ramona Falls: Menomena was conceived and developed as a commune, and Ramona Falls as a dictatorship. Which is to say that creative collaboration was at Menomena’s core; their well-known songwriting process was adopted specifically to guarantee that no one member’s voice or style would dominate, and the music bore this out, skipping from idea to idea and instrument to instrument with glee. Knopf thrived in this environment because he was able to put his own best ideas alongside the dependably stellar contributions of Danny Seim and Justin Harris. The paradox of Ramona Falls, then, is that Knopf has left behind his collaborators—having officially bowed out of Menomena since releasing Intuit (2009)—while largely maintaining Menomena’s schizo-aesthetic. The results, as one might expect, have been mixed.
With Prophet, Knopf does mark some progress over Ramona Falls’ debut. Intuit was a showcase, as Dom noted in his review, for Knopf’s virtuosic skills as a musical editor, but as a platform for his songwriting it often fell flat. Working with a smaller crew of musicians this time around, he has succeeded in maintaining a more coherent tone, and in some cases—particularly the lovely, ramshackling “Archimedes Plutonium”—the music sounds downright casual. But this is the exception, to be sure: “Bodies of Water,” which kicks off the album with a jolt, is more representative, with its layers upon dynamic layers of guitars, keyboards, and other pretty instruments I can’t quite identify all rubbing up against each other. This kitchen-sink approach to composition is, again, fantastically successful when it works, but too often you end up with a bunch of less-than-great ideas stacked uncomfortably up against each other. On “Brevony,” for example, where some very Knopfy piano lines lead into an inexplicable heavy metal breakdown. And it’s a shame, because the song also features a guitar solo that leaps out of the mix and snatches your breath away, all in the space of about fifteen seconds.
With so many golden moments like this, you could argue I’m being a bit overcritical in focusing on the ones that don’t work. And it’s true, I hold this guy up to some very high standards—standards he himself set on Friend and Foe (2007) and I Am the Fun Blame Monster (2003), two of my favorite records of the last decade. To say that Ramona Falls hasn’t yet ascended to the greatness of Menomena is hardly a criticism, then. Prophet is still a record worth listening through, and if you’re the kind of listener for whom a killer chorus is reason enough to push play, you just might love this. I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you; I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Knopf’s lyrics, which are almost uniformly kitschy and emo. Just focus on the music. When it’s good, it doesn’t get much better.