Chris Knox is a significant figure in New Zealand music history – as well as leading Tall Dwarfs in the 80s and 90s, it was his four-track machine that was used to record most of the early Flying Nun records. In June 2009, he suffered a stroke aged 56. In November 2009 “Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox” was released. This double CD is a 33 track tribute with a host of artists performing Knox's songs. Another do-good charity record you may say, with shrugged shoulders.
True all proceeds from the record and associated activities go to support Knox’s rehabilitation in his home town of Grey Lynn, New Zealand. But several things make this a remarkable and not just worthy record. First is the speed in which it was assembled and released. The second, which makes the first all the more impressive, is the list of contributors. A veritable roll-call of alt-rock royalty, both American (Yo La Tengo, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Bill Callahan, The Mountain Goats, Lou Barlow, The Magnetic Fields, Lambchop) and Antipodean (The Bats, The Chills, The Verlaines), alongside lesser known associates and acolytes, who have stepped up to give their time freely to this project. Given this diverse sprawl of bands, it is then also remarkable that the quality throughout is so consistently high – no filler here – and that Knox’s fractured lo-fi pop proves malleable enough to fit the disparate styles of the performers (you’d swear ‘Lapse’ was a Bill Callahan original). And even in the off-the-cuff performances - John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats performing straight to tape with intro addressed to Knox personally – what comes through is the reverence and respect felt for Knox.
And then there’s Knox’s songs themselves. The album presents the songs chronologically starting out with Knox’s early bands The Enemy and Toy Love and finishing up with his post-Tall Dwarfs solo material. I have a couple of Tall Dwarfs records but this collection made me realise how little of their material I know. And whether early or late in his song-writing career, they are consistently excellent, even the more wayward and experimental moments. And also heart-stopping; particularly ‘Becoming Something Other’- sung here by Jordan Luck – which documents the effects of Knox’s father’s degenerative brain disease. Powerful stuff.
And one more final remarkable element: the album features the JD Salinger of alt-rock Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, not only here on record to play ‘Sign The Dotted Line’ but also appearing at the May 2009 fund-raising concert in New York alongside Yo La Tengo, Sharon van Etten, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and many more. Cameras were banned but the Stroke website pulls together several pieces of crowd footage of the event.
A remarkable collection then and of great significance for Chris Knox personally and for his music too. I’m not sure this ever got a UK release but it can be ordered from Merge Records in the US or from Amplifier in NZ or via Amazon UK.
Final words from the Stroke website “Stay obscure long enough, and people might just cry when they finally hear you play”