Click to hear: “I Won’t Hurt You”
Dan Knudsen is Portland’s Jandek.
If you don’t know who Jandek is, you probably won’t like Dan’s music. If you are a Jandek fan, scoop up all the Knudsen you can find between Bull Moose and Strange Maine.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are not alone.
Jandek is a hyper-reclusive singer-songwriter whose prolific output of self-produced, way-off-kilter music has earned him a cult following. He’s what’s called an “outsider musician.” So is Knudsen.
Outsider musicians like Dan and Jandek are, for any number of reasons, impervious to the pernicious influence of popular musical taste. This makes them special to that relative handful of listeners who find popular musical taste disgusting – homogenous, predictable, etc. To the teeming masses of others, Dan and Jandek suck.
To me, Knudsen is special. But here the Jandek connection ends.
Knudsen is far from reclusive – he’s gregarious, even, and just about the nicest guy it’s possible to meet. His is a pure spirit of goodness, and his music reflects this like the rays of sunrise on a calm mountain lake. Jandek’s music is like a moldy blanket.
Dan’s not nearly as prolific as Jandek, either. Beaches and Zoos is his third six-song EP in five years, and one tune on it, “Somewhere in the Mountains,” is just another version of “Somewhere on the Sea,” from 2000’s Sunsong.
But like Sunsong and his sophomore effort, Grass, Grain & Appleseed, Beaches and Zoos is catchy, charming, and funny. In a word, it’s irresistible — except, again, to those jaded hipsters and corporate radio slaves for whom it is unlistenable.
Once again, the playing is simple, either plucky or strummy; it’s easy on the ears, like children’s music. Dan’s voice is a bit off-key, but consistently so – a quality that lends it a feeling of honesty, and of warmth.
Beaches and Zoos is about “romance and adventure” Knudsen told me earlier this summer, and there’s plenty of both: romance (the aforementioned “Somewhere in the Mountains,” and the title track) and adventure (“The Cavern and the Temple,” “The Sharks are Gone.”)
Much of Knudsen’s charm lies in his “close enough” approach to rhyming and his ability to deliver even the corniest of lines without a hint of self consciousness.
For example, “The Cavern and the Temple,” a song heavily based on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” contains this couplet: “Out here a man needs a pair of good Wrangler jeans/At the college I teach archaeology.”
In “Sharks,” he tells a young companion at the beach: “I guess I’ll leave you in the sand and on the rocks/You can go fishing, drive your truck or bounce your ball/You’re looking at a pro/I’m well trained and skilled in aquatic safety.”
As obtuse as some of the refrains are, the choruses are all pure sugar, especially on “I Won’t Hurt You,” an anti-domestic violence song in which Dan harmonizes with himself. That song also marks the first time Knudsen, who plays all his own instruments, adds drums to the mix. A couple tracks also feature some keyboard, another first.
To hear this album is to smile. In a world where so much music seems designed to induce scowling, moping, posturing or outright violence, that’s a wonderful thing.
— Chris Busby