Click to hear: “The Love of Your Pets” (by Dan Knudsen)
Click to hear: “The Sharks Are Gone” (by Keith Dover)
You don’t forget the first time you see Dan Knudsen perform.
For me, it was nine years ago, at the Fine Arts on Congress Street (a short-lived performance space that later became The Skinny and is now home to Geno’s). It was open mic night, and a couple dozen bedraggled hipsters were smoking in the seats of the dimly lit former porn theater, half-listening to some unplugged punks and Ani wannabees try to out-angst one another.
Then up came Dan, his shirt tucked in, acoustic guitar slung high, oohing the intro to “Sunsong,” an opener at his shows to this day. “Good morning sunrise / up above the mountains high / like a candle in the sky / where hawks and eagles fly… You hear my love and me as we think our early morning thoughts / You hear my love and me as we pray our early morning prayers.”
Picture John Denver parachuting onstage during a Korn concert to play a few numbers for the kids. You can’t forget a thing like that.
Dan Knudsen is not a particularly accomplished musician. He sings about as well as I do. The lyrics of his simple songs bounce between cornball and oddball, and there are often a few too many of them to make the lines rhyme right. To top it off, the covers of his homemade CDs, which he hawks relentlessly, look like they were designed on a Commodore 64 and then photocopied at the wrong exposure (see above).
So why, of all the bands and musicians in Portland past and present, is Knudsen the one to be honored by his peers with a tribute album?
Simply put, Dan deserves it. This sweet, earnest soul genuinely hopes his music will make the world a happier (and safer) place — that it will “slay the dragon,” as he puts it. There is no anger or irony in his catchy, quirky songs, which touch on subjects as diverse as aliens, animals, Jesus, and Indiana Jones. He’s a breath of fresh air on a polluted planet.
After nearly a decade playing Portland’s open mic circuit, Knudsen has developed a small but fervent following, especially among fellow troubadours and musical misfits, many of whom contributed covers to this CD. One of the many wonderful things about this album is that it serves as a fine introduction to this demimonde.
The off-kilter rock outfit Dead Man’s Clothes turns in a heartbreaking version of “Rain Falls Outside My Window,” a song from Knudsen’s second release, 2002’s Grass, Grain, & Appleseeds. Aside from some extraneous electronic burbling and a found-sound snippet at the end, they play it straight and add some nice cello. To hear Knudsonian lines like, “I have some music, toys and games that I could share with you / I have all day and night to be here and there with you,” sung in key with genuine ache, is revelatory.
The bluesy groove-rock band Giraffe Attack contribute a rousing rendition of “I Won’t Hurt You,” a song about domestic violence from 2005’s Beaches And Zoos. The strange, Tom Waits-inspired group Bass Box delivers one of the album’s bigger surprises, a cover of “Go North Little Child” that could be a pop radio hit. And the ever-unpredictable experimental entity known as Id M Theftable turns the title track of Beaches into a pleasingly surreal a cappella sound collage.
Among the more straightforward strummers, Jason Lambert’s acoustic-blues version of “Rockin’ on the Railroad” hits the spot, as does Jesse Frayne’s happy-go-lucky interpretation of “Somewhere in the Mountains.”
Having heard those rootsy singer-songwriters’ takes on Dan’s tunes, I fully expected the same from acoustic artist Keith Dover. Instead, Dover transforms “The Sharks Are Gone” into a psych-rock epic akin to a basement version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” — brilliant and hilarious.
There are a few duds among the covers. For example, longtime Knudsen collaborator Glade Swope tackles “Heart of Country and Western,” but his muddy-metal approach comes off flat. Oscar Del Sebastien tries to turn “Gently” — a lovely little ditty from Dan’s 2000’s debut, Sunsong — into an electrified blues shuffle, but it just doesn’t fit.
Knudsen contributed two original songs to the end of his tribute album. “The Love of Your Pets” is an instant Dan classic, complete with “pet sounds” and organ. “Can’t Stop the Cops,” Knudsen’s ode to law enforcement, is another winner, though in places it unintentionally comes off as an indictment of police brutality. “Their sirens are turned off / Their shotguns are sawed-off / They’re gonna bust some shots off / And dust some crooks off / Can’t stop the cops.”
I dunno about the cops, but no one can stop Dan Knudsen.
— Chris Busby