One to Hang Your Coat On
Once upon a time every song on the radio had a real melody, a memorable lyric and a hook big enough to hang your coat on. Hudson songwriter Sandy McKnight remembers those days, perhaps in part because he lived through them.
McKnight remembers when the song held the power, not the sample; and when the tune ruled the airwaves, not the beat.
But that doesn’t make McKnight some kind of retro freak, mining the vinyl bins for forgotten sounds. It just means he understands that the best pop music is timeless, throwaway and worthwhile all in the same instant.
McKnight likes a hook. Heck, he loves a hook. And he tosses them off effortlessly, dropping tuneful turns of phrase like raindrops across the width and breadth of his ambitious new 66-song retrospective, “How I Changed The World.”
Slip in any of the three discs that make up the box set and you’ll be transported to an eclectic, yet focused “World” that is at once thrilling and comforting.
You’ve heard every one of these songs before, you just can’t remember where or when. They have that much immediacy, that much strength. They’re the kind of closet classics that will have you singing along by the second chorus.
If you’re looking for a touchstone, the immediate one is Elvis Costello.
McKnight shares a certain timbre and edge with Costello, minus the English accent, naturally. But he also shares a prolific bent, a genuine knack for matching words to music (“When I asked her if she had a name, turned out hers and mine were both the same,” he croons in “Somerville”) and a seeker’s ideal of the elusive, yet perfect song.
But Costello’s only the broadest stroke. There are also flashes of Neil Finn, John Hiatt, Jimmy Webb and Paul McCartney throughout “How I Changed The World.”
“Say So,” for example, sung by Liv Cummins and penned by McKnight, sounds for all the world like a Crowded House outtake until Cummins’ sweet voice takes over the chiming guitar. She also shares a beautiful duet with “Shanty” man Jonathan Edwards on “When I Can’t Love You.”
Most of the selections on “How I Changed The World” are credited directly to McKnight, but his songwriting and production resume runs deep, and in addition to Cummins you’ll also find tracks by Joni Klein-Higger (the generically-titled “Keep On Lovin’ You”), Numbers (The Plimsouls-like “Know You’re Gonna Like It” and “I Thought I Needed You”), The Expendables (the riffing “My Own Backyard”) and The Truants (kings of rough and ready rock and roll songs about girls, like “Nicole,” “Shana” and “Tina’s Alright”) as well as the remarkable commercial country demos “I’m Leavin’ the Leavin’ (Up To You)” and “The Space”.
But the bulk belongs to McKnight (and other monolithic yet melodic offerings like Jack Logan’s “Bulk” -- natch -- and Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs” certainly bear comparison to “How I Changed The World”).
Those hooks that McKnight likes. Good lord, they’re everywhere.
The opening salvo of “Big Love” is like a declaration of all-out pop warfare.
What, after all, says ‘pop song’ like tympani and synth together? So, what if the arrangement wears the 80s on its sleeve -- the tune itself is just great, with a middle eight that would make Costello himself jealous (if only he were as generous as McKnight, instead of a crank).
“Find a Way” replaces the wall-of-sound richness of killers like “Free and Clear” and “Without You” with a solo acoustic poignancy that proves McKnight could cut it with the coffeehouse set if he didn’t so love the roar of a Rickenbacker.
And the luscious “Tangerine” proves that McKnight is fully aware of the awesome power of a three syllable word when whipping up a number one hit (well, it should’ve been!).
All too often writers and producers make the mistake of trying to cram every style they can into a small space. McKnight dabbles, but he’s no dilettante.
When he veers from guitars, bass and drums, it’s with good reason.
“Charade,” for example, hints at the best of the Astrud Gilberto catalog, with a gentle, flute-driven samba that also should have topped the charts in a just and perfect world.
The chamber pop ensemble of piano and strings on “Next Stop Willoughby” (like “Charade,” culled from McKnight’s exemplary 2003 collection “In Solitary”) recalls Van Dyke Park’s work with Brian Wilson, as does the further-reduced cello and twelve-string jangle of “Emily.”
And “Suburban War” features a smoky Chet Baker sound that haunts the already-haunted lyric.
Despite its mass, McKnight has taken care to balance “How I Changed The World.” There is a chronological arc, but he’s not slavish to it. Tunes by his most recent outfit, Ragamuffins of Love (like the aforementioned “Tangerine,” “Can’t Find My Way Out of Love” and the set-closing “Tightwire”) are scattered across discs two and three, for example, instead of presented en masse.
That means the surprisingly rocking strut of Cummins’ “Deal” sidles up alongside those baroque leanings of “Emily” and McKnight’s pleading “Break My Heart.” The guitar grunge of The Truants’ “Hey Superstar” nudges McKnight’s oboe-touched and Beatle-esque “Crazy Quilt Heart.” And the Casio-toned “Say Something Clever” finds a home next to “Young Hearts On Fire” (which might just be a little too disco for its own good, c’est la vie).
“How I Changed The World” is a huge, brave undertaking on McKnight’s part. ‘Here,’ he seems to be saying, ‘is my life, on tape.’ But it’s also a smart undertaking. It’s a shame these songs didn’t sit on the charts, where they belonged, and it’s nice to have them all in one place.
“How I Changed The World.” It’s one to hang your coat on.
A big power-pop heart
Wow! This is one seriously massive undertaking.
Singer-songwriter-producer-etc. Sandy McKnight has dug through his vaults to put together a best-of compilation of his work throughout the years. But this is no ordinary compilation.
It’s a whopping three-CD set that features a total of 66 songs. And these discs ain’t skimpy, either. Clocking in at 69 minutes and 47 seconds, disc one (dubbed “The Hits”) is the shortest of the three. And, oh yeah, the set also includes a fourth disc that features a 60-page digital booklet with all kinds of liner notes and photos. It’s all neatly wrapped up in a nifty, 12×12-inch, vinyl album-like package.
If that’s not enough, McKnight has also simultaneously released 10 more songs, demos and unfinished recordings that didn’t make the cut. (He calls them “diamonds in the rough,” but admits that some might be cubic zirconia.) And he’s packaged them together as a digital download collection titled “Interesting Failures.”
It’s all a bit too much for a normal person to listen to, let alone digest. Which is too bad because this is good stuff. Really good stuff. McKnight has a big power-pop heart, and it shines through everywhere on these discs – catchy, infectious hooks, memorable ear-candy melodies and sturdy, chugging rhythms.
McKnight has been recording for more than three decades now. Along the way, he’s lived in New York City, London and Los Angeles. And he’s been in such bands as Numbers, the Truants and most recently, the virtual combo the Ragamuffins of Love (with McKnight employing the nom de rock Eff Dupp). They’re all represented here, along with plenty of McKnight’s solo selections and songs that he’s written/produced for other artists.
McKnight’s impressive songcraft and vocals resonate with the influence Elvis Costello and Colin Hay, but he cuts such a wide swath across the history of pop music that it’s unfair to pigeon hole his approach.
The biggest problem with this set is that it’s so gigantic, so ambitious that I’m afraid it’s going to scare away casual listeners. So just go to his website and sample a few tracks for free. Ease your way into his undeniable pop world. Chances are good that you’ll find yourself singing along with the first song that you hear. And then you’ll be hooked…