the title of Kneebody
's 2019 releasehas a certain appropriateness, as it definitely marks several new ones for the band. One being that lyric-oriented songs account for nearly half of the material on the album. Technically, vocals are nothing new to Kneebody. The band included one track with vocals on their 2002 proto-Kneebody album Wendel
. Its 2009 collaborative effort with Theo Bleckmann
, Twelve Songs of Charles Ives
(Winter and Winter, 2008) was nominated for a Grammy and indeed their recent EP By Fire
(Edition Records, 2019)a covers projectwas 100% vocal, but Chapters
does mark the first bonafide Kneebody album to fully incorporate vocals into original compositions. It's also the first of Kneebody's albums to have a host of guest appearancesin vocal and instrumental capacities.
Most importantly though, Chapters
marks the band's transition from quintet to quartet. Co-founding bassist Kaveh Rastegar
announced his departure to pursue a solo career prior to the album's release. While this is not fully evident musically, (he contributes bass to seven of the album's ten tracks), he's listed among the guests on Chapters
. The bass duties on other tracks (and henceforth, live) are now assimilated by drummer Nate Wood
. As mind-boggling a notion as it seems, Wood has been known to pull this simultaneous double duty on more than a few Kneebody gigs but now it becomes his official role. (For more evidence of Wood's wizardly multitasking, look up his solo project under the moniker fOUR).
All that said, Kneebody has always been as identity-strong as it is genre-elusive, and it always seems to capitalize on new wrinkles. So while many of these things about Chapters
may surprise, they don't disappoint.
The guest vocalists include the prodigious Becca Stevens
and the equally wonderful and ubiquitous Gretchen Parlato
. While artists in their own right, both have built their reputations as much by their strong guest work as in their solo work. Their respective captivating turns on "Wounds Let in The Light" and "When It All Comes Down"each co-written with saxophonist Ben Wendel
are no exceptions and are enhanced by Kneebody's treatments. There's also the rip-roaring "Hearts Won't Break" with Paris Monster's Josh Dion
taking a page from the Nate Wood playbook and handily executing vox, drums and synth bass concurrently.
All are fine offerings on their own terms but it's "What's My Name," composed by and featuring the brilliant Michael Mayo
, that stands tallest among the vocal songs on Chapters
. The sheer creativity and originality of arrangement coupled with Mayo's extraordinary performance ranks the song among the best in Kneebody's catalog vocal or instrumental. It should also be noted that many of these songs feature some of the most thrilling instrumental breaks on the album. But even when veering closest to conventionality, they compel one to acknowledge how much more exciting the Pop world might be if these guys were the producers du jour.
Although conspicuous in their presence at first, it's not long before the vocal offerings seem totally natural to the Kneebody repertoire and create a nice balance with the rest of the material on Chapters
. In fact, even sitting opposite tunes as disparate as Shane Endsley
's power opener "Spectra" or Adam Benjamin
's pensive "Ombre," they also remind how much Kneebody's approach to instrumental composition owes to popular song craft.
From there it's a short jump to understanding how that tinge of Pop directness grounds more demanding piecessuch as Wendel's "Seaworthy Native," or the Endsley-penned title track. Coupled with Wood's stellar drum chops and impeccable sense of frame, it all allows for Benjamin's bolder excursions in sound and harmony and Wendel and Endsley's provocative solo spots without threatening to disengage less experienced ears.
Perhaps there is no single ultimate expression of this on Chapters
but it's notable that one of the most successful is Endsley's "The Trip," featuring guest pianist Gerald Clayton. It quite simply shows how the right groove, vamp and players can produce one of the most brain-invasive jazz tracks you're likely to hear all year.
While there are things about the album that may cause some Kneebody fans (or neophytes) to balk initially, they should get over it. With a little time it's clear that, in the tradition of the best innovators, Kneebody again serves up the unexpected on Chapters
, and again, it's a mix that's unforeseeably addictive.
Spectra; What's My Name; Seaworthy Native; Wounds Let in the Light; Chapters; Hearts Won't Break; Ombre; The Trip; When It All Comes Down; The Non-Profit Prince of Lexington.
Ben Wendel: effects; Shane Endsley: effects; Nate Wood: bass.
Michael Mayo: vocals (2); Becca Stevens: vocals (4); Josh Dion: vocals, synth bass, drums; Gerald Clayton: Piano (8); Gretchen Parlato: vocals (9); Kaveh Rastegar: bass (2-6, 8).