3 out of 5
Produced by: Joel Hamilton with Tony Maimone, Matthias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt
With a roster of musicians plucked from groups such as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Pere Ubu, Tin Hat Trio and more, and dedicating themselves to three conceptual albums – the second of which, Traineater, concerns the American rust belt – if the band The Book of Knots already has you thinking “art rock,” well, yes, yes very much so. This extends to the vibe of the packaging of this sophomore release, which comes with a mini-set of trading card-ish slips, pictures of the signs of industrial decay which’d be fitting for the theme on one side and a rigidly-fonted list of songs and credits on the other, like an index to some dry history book.
The impressive resumes our Knotters (Matthias Bossi, Joel Hamilton, Carla Kihlstedt and Tony Maimone) bring allows for an equally impressive list of guest stars, one per track: Tom Waits, Doug Henderson, Carla Bozulich, Mike Watt, and more.
…And if “art rock” and “list of guest stars” now has you thinking that this might be form over function – that is, the oft downside of art rock, in which the Big Idea prevents the actual music from gelling – well, yes, yes again.
The concept comes through pretty strongly: the group’s general sound is one of industrial clatter and clanging guitars with a folk touch, and this is enhanced by the various shouts or gravelly poems delivered by the differing vocalists, all speaking to tarnished American dreams. But while this works exceedingly well intra-song, it doesn’t work across the album, instead setting up a flow that necessitates starting over on each track, and not always finding a sequence that is at least compelling in juxtaposing differences. Thankfully, the disc opens at its strongest – when it has the chance of making best first impressions – barreling out with terrifying riffs and Bozulich’s snarl, then calming down for a short narrative interlude before unleashing Tom Waits and the junk percussion on ‘Pray,’ but the way that track just ends is suggestive of the choppy ride that follows.
During which, as mentioned, there are undeniably strong songs and ideas, but mimicking Pray’s conclusion, these strengths are just as apt to cut out, and then we gotta gear up again for the next experience.
If any of the various guest stars (or the band members’ previous / associated bands) are of interest, then Traineater should have enough worthwhile soundalike moments. But you might find yourself drifting specifically towards those tracks that cater to those moments, not quite able to connect the remainder of the album.