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Daniel Knox - Evryman For Himself

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Artist: Daniel Knox

Album: Evryman For Himself

Label: La Société Expéditionnaire

Review date: May. 12, 2011

It’s sort of fun to try to pinpoint exactly where Daniel Knox’s songs go off the rails, running like a railway car over well-trodden, pre-war music hall tracks until they suddenly leap for the canyons. These 14 songs vary in style, from Salvation Army band oompah marches to slinky rhumbas to Dixieland struts to piano balladry of a sort that went out with Brylcreem. Yet they’re all, to one degree or another, deeply weird and subversive, a kind of sentimental journey without the sentimentality.

Daniel Knox is a Chicagoan, an ex-film student who once accompanied David Lynch’s Inland Empire on organ at its premiere. His background in film may explain his taste for noire-ish scenarios, or for the realistic details that ground his unsettling fantasies. These are stylish meditations on the brutish-ness of life, written in tightly scanning verses with striking, unexpected rhymes. Knox’s piano playing, reportedly learned by ear and on the sly at the Hilton Towers Ballroom in Chicago, is fine and florid. His supporting players – most consistently drummer Jason Toth, bassist Paul Parts and sax and clarinetist Ralph Carney, but also including brass and strings and musical saw (that’s David Coulter) – are wryly capable, a band of straight men setting up Knox’s antics.

And yet the very precision of the writing, the skillfulness of the instrumental backing, makes the content a bit more startling. Even the most glamorous 1930s radio gloss can’t obscure the grottiness of “…Etc…,” where Knox in his best slicked-back crooner style trills, “Pornography…found in the back of an arcade/discovery made in the rest room at a truck stop/interrupted by a beat cop.” Swaggering, shuffling, “Evryman for Himself” is uptempo to the point of belligerence, yet also blackly cynical. “The car will crash / the phone will die / sometimes you fail before you try,” flutters Knox in hat-tipping, cake-walking, vaudeville style, before finishing high and tremulous and eerie with the line “Hopes and dreams will end up killing you.” It’s devastating.

Like Baby Dee, Knox has made such a good character out of himself that he hardly needs alternate personas. Still, there are a couple of character songs here that demonstrate a skill in imagining lives even more bleak than his own. “Debt Collector” imagines the casual violence of the life of mafia muscle, jaunty and unconcerned, with the vilest lines trilled in the finest, most vibrato-laden falsettos. (“I say hello to your friends / See how far the fin-ger bends.”) “Chores” looks out from the viewpoint of a mentally damaged young man, riding the bus and looking at girls, trying not to forget his medications. (“Oh, oh, oh, my hair is falling out / I still live at my parent’s house.”) These are short stories told in ellipses, the images haunting and indefinite.

The interesting thing about Evryman for Himself is how comfortably Knox inhabits pre-war musical styles, while at the same time, warping them into grotesque and surreal shapes. The stylized sound comes from a time that hardly acknowledge the freaks and losers that Knox sings about, that mostly refused, even during the Depression, to acknowledge suffering. Yet, here Knox’s cabaret of misfits shuffles and struts to a Victrola waltzes and brass band marches, and it makes an unsettling kind of sense.

By Jennifer Kelly

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