VARIOUS ARTISTS – Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox (2010)

Last year, around this time, Dark Was The Night came out – it was a massive collection of indie material, organized and produced by Aaron and Bryce of The National, with all of the proceeds going to the Red Hot Organization to raise HIV/AIDS awareness. Talk about a good cause. The same is true for Stroke, although the aim is much more personal here; on June 11th, 2009 New Zealand lo-fi pioneer Chris Knox (of Tall Dwarfs and Toy Love fame) suffered a life-altering stroke. So Merge Records got together a cadre of musicians who fervently admired Knox’s work (from both New Zealand and abroad), and got them to record covers of Knox’s songs. And yes, all the proceeds will go to help Knox with his recovery. So as far as karmically righteous compilations are concerned, you can’t score much higher than Stroke. But who/what’s in Stroke, anyways? Well, an extraordinarily diverse group of people, that’s who.

Perhaps the most talked about individual appearing on the album is the supremely elusive Neutral Milk Hotel ringleader Jeff Mangum, who covers the Tall Dwarfs Sign The Dotted Line. Mangum’s intensity hasn’t lost any of its edge, and he’s still able to move mountains with just voice and guitar, just as he did with Two-Headed Boy all those years ago. It’s wonderful to feel his presence again, though you wish it were under better circumstances. On the flip-side of things, the seemingly omnipresent John Darnielle appears here as well, with a raging cover of Brave (a song from Knox’ first solo album) that harkens back to Darnielle’s Panasonic RX-FT500 days (the lowest of the lo-fi, arguably). Listening to the entire compilation (somewhat of a glorious endurance challenge), it’s fascinating to hear all the elements of Knox as a songwriter self-contained into a single artist’s idiom (the recently deceased Jay Reatard capturing Knox’s vitality, Bill Calahan capturing his intimacy, Stephen Merritt channeling Knox’s lo-fi aesthetic). It’s a powerful reminder that the influences of a single man can be more profound than words can accurately capture – hence the compilation.

It’d be nearly impossible to cover in detail all 36 songs that are on here and do them justice (it also doesn’t help that my familiarity with Knox’s music is only at a sub-intermediate level, at best). So instead, we’ll just focus on one final song, the last song here, a new recording by Tall Dwarfs entitled Sunday Song – it’s a simple song, not even two minutes long, with no real vocals or lyrics in it – but it’s the perfect way to close this collection. Yes, Knox might have “limited speech and mobility” (according to a press release), but he’s still breathing. And as long as he is, you can bet that we haven’t heard the last of his musical output.

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