Music Reviews
Shiny Eyed Babies

Bent Knee Shiny Eyed Babies

(self-released) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Boston-based sextet Bent Knee hasn't a cure but rather a dynamic new sound for what's ailing them on their latest Shiny Eyed Babies, an album pregnant with harsh themes of loss, guilt, and fear of an uninhabitable future. Their self-titled debut record from 2011 pushed American avant-rock into uncanny new venues with meandering song structures of widely varying lengths, Ben Levin's equally contemplative acoustic guitar-picking and crunchy electric leads, pop hooks, and electronic vocal manipulations that rendered lyrics indiscernible (courtesy of Vince Welch's off-kilter production). At times their sound even collapsed into something carnivalesque, traversing the territory between the twisted progressive metal operas of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and cabaret-infused chamber pop of Rasputina.

This latest effort is undoubtedly shinier-sounding, downplaying the experimentation a bit while amplifying accessibility through the idiosyncratically tuneful voice of Courtney Swain, and moments of reprieve by way of intermittent ambient passage. Continuing to creatively fuse disparate musical worlds, it's a dramatic evolution from their debut; on this mellower go-around, they evoke elements of St. Vincent (Annie Clark's) early studio material and Norwegian wunderkind Susanne Sundfør, who have both united baroque influences with dark electropop. The adaptable instrumentation of guitars, drums, keys/synthesizer, and violin allow the band to fully explore sound dynamics and harness an altogether invigorating tone that is at once familiar and remarkably innovative.

Despite forming at Berklee College of Music, their sonic inclusiveness may be attributed to wide-ranging musical and regional backgrounds; native Japanese vocalist/keyboardist Swain and violinist Chris Baum have classical study on their resumes (most prominently heard towards the end of the record), while percussionist Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth shares affinity with Genesis and King Crimson (showing off his soloing chops on the jazzy art rock weirdness that is Dry). Through the more centered method that Shiny Eyed Babies takes to its songs, the band gracefully and ambitiously fuses these two estranged worlds. Its own singular, angular universe sneaks in exotically detailed snippets to tease the senses, like the sudden burst of polyrhythms on Dead Horse or the introductory electric guitar phrase of the adjacent song, Battle Creek, that recalls Pink Floyd's Animals, soon giving way to plucked strings tinged with an Eastern flavor.

One of the record's most soaring showcases for Swain's pipes, In God We Trust, feels like it's on a perpetual crescendo, vocally backed by the youthful ring of bassist Jessica Kion and then a literal children's chant momentarily in the second verse. Lyrically, the song suggests fear of the future regarding the nuclear family and American Dream that clashes with the upbeat rhythm and melody to produce a most infectious earworm. Analogous is the deeper cut, Skin, which compellingly juxtaposes a similar musical tone with ominous lyricism, commanded by violin shuffle-bowing and vigorous drumming as reverberating guitar substitutes the violin during the verses. Over its running time, Swain sings about escaping the pressures of reality through drug use, which brings the themes on the record to an achingly personal level. At one point she attempts to find a redemptive response in the act of performing the song itself, "Show me how to navigate harsh relationships that poke me, prod me, castigate a mistake I made long ago." Between these two tunes is an eccentric, erratic rendition of Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell's standard (You Are My) Sunshine, that most strongly characterizes the band's M.O. of warping the recognizable. It may not hit one of the album's bright spots, but it meshes well with lyrical themes regarding the daggers of nostalgia and vulnerability of love.

On the surface, Shiny Eyed Babies' songs may possess a rather polished presentation, but through intensive listening, propelled by the strength of their atmospheric arrangements, a grim social portrait of a community and personal struggle comes into focus. The album's artwork, featuring Bree Lurver's black and white ink drawings of two youngsters holding balloons, one in a gas mask, evoke polarity in the band's approach while also characterizing something postmodern about our condition, eternally swinging between the extremes of superficial glee and compulsive panic. It's Bent Knee's aspiration to capture this feeling through a chameleonic protest of musical conventionality. The album's Untitled piano interlude, a charming 4/4 number, concludes with a personal plea from guilt-ridden isolation, "Please, won't you just raise your voice; I need to know I'm worth an ounce of pain." By the album's closing moments on Toothsmile, with doom-laden synthesizer and drum patterns, nothing appears to have been requited, as Swain bellows out violent lyrics about the loss of control. Lurver's final drawing takes all the bleak introspection and unshakable guilt about a loss in one's past and transfers it to a grand catastrophe as the two youth watch a mushroom cloud billowing in the distance. It's not a comforting sentiment, but Shiny Eyed Babies articulates both the intimate and universal through its defining modern music.