Mm. An in-store by hip, rising Austin band Knife in the Water. You can’t get much better than that, I thought as I settled down (with a good-sized crowd) in the sultry May heat on the disagreeable acrylic carpet of Austin record store 33 1/3. For one thing, we had a perfect view of the trio (they’re a trio for the moment, but just finished a country-wide tour as a five-piece), and could comfortably observe the nonverbal communication between main singer/guitarist/songwriter Aaron Blount and keyboardist/vocalist Laura Krause. This communication was important because, as Laura told me afterwards, they’d never performed a lot of the material they played that day. This accounted for a slightly tentative feel to certain sections of songs, but it didn’t detract, in fact it added to their effectiveness because the songs, with their dreamy, mezmerizing melodies and lyrics, are trance-y and unpredictable, so at times it was almost like the two musicians had just thought of a new harmony or melodic turn.
They began with a soft, dreamy tune with the lyrics: “As I was coming to, and you were coming to/o” – a song that seemed to embody the sleepy feeling of summer, too many late nights but plenty of lovely wakings up. The refrain went: “Cause when I saw you last, was in broad daylight” and as they repeated it, the vocal interplay was fascinating – they use odd, off-key harmonies that sometimes pull the songs into strange areas before they melt into perfect harmonic agreement.
It’s not an exact analogy, but you could say Knife in the Water are to country music what Belle and Sebastian are to rock. They share with B&S a love of 60s-influenced, ultra-sweet harmonies, and a knack for writing extremely pretty, often gentle songs (though they played one really great rocker). Aaron sings some fairly straightforward tunes, some of them reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen, and Laura chimes in with a daring off-center harmony. Their two voices blend beautifully, Laura’s soft, tender singing adding an almost unbearable poignancy to their sadder numbers.
Also subverting their moments (though they don’t have that many) of straight country sound is pedal steel player Bill McCullough. He plucks the instrument hard, punctuating the songs with muffled harmonics that add an interesting Japanese-tinged element into what is already an experimental mix.
But in case I’m making it sound like they’re some kind of trance band mostly interested in harmonic experiments, let me stress again that this band’s songs are exceptional – memorable melodies; intelligent, imaginative lyrics; cool, interesting rhythms. The only thing Knife in the Water needs before it’s a complete knock-out, from what I observed, is a bit more polish. And the lack of it was probably due to the sudden change in their line-up and the unusual setting. As Aaron remarked, observing the fluorescent lights and his circle of seated observers, “I feel like we’re playing in the public library or something.” Partner Laura Krause smiled conciliatorily at the crowd.
I bought their EP, Crosspross Bells, and recommend it highly. They have two other releases out – 1998’s Plays One Sound and Others, and Red River (2000), which was awarded the #14 spot in Spin’s Top Albums of 2000. You could probably order Crosspross Bells from their record company, Peek-A-Boo Records (www.peekaboorecords.com). But watch for Knife in the Water when they come to your town, because they tour a lot and they’re great live.