Album Review: Chris Knight – Heart of Stone
From the opening bars of the groovy “Homesick Gypsy” to the fiddle laced fade-out at the end of “Go On Home,” Heart of Stone is a record that’s strength is its aesthetic–a groovy, fuzzy, Stones-ish roots rock that works flawlessly with Knight’s bourbon soaked, slurring growl of a vocal. Knight’s hooks and melodies compare favorably to Petty’s and Springsteen, and makes the record both engaging and enjoyable from start to finish.
Once you scratch the surface, however, and look beyond the pleasing grooves and the great hooks, beyond credible brawling roadhouse production and that whiskey growl, the images of highways and hard times, the coal miners and convicts, and beyond the divorces and the miscarriages–what you see is not a very substantive or hard record, but, in fact, something like a good time all dressed up in tough guy clothes.
It’s clear that the paradigm Knight is shooting for is that of the hard-edged, working class troubadour and, aesthetically speaking, he’s successful. In “Almost There,” for example, all the right elements are present as Knight sings about busted bottles on the railroad tracks, heading down a road goin’ nowhere, the devil taking all his friends to hell, black flags flying from live oak trees, and the ghost of a worryin’ mama still trying to teach him what’s right and wrong. Sounds pretty hardcore right? On paper it does, and superficially it is, but it’s not very moving because Knight’s writing in it isn’t very artful.
Ain’t nobody livin’ in the Crants Hotel
Devil done been here took all my friends to hell
Hadn’t been in the jailhouse he woulda got me
See the black flag flyin’ from a live oak tree
Down the road goin’ nowhere, down the road I’m almost there…
Sure it sounds plenty cool, but I think it’s fairly illustrative of the way in which Knight tends to miss the mark with this record.
Country music isn’t just about the common man. Country music is about the common man expressing himself uncommonly well. It’s country music’s uncommon honesty and striking revelations which serve to remind us that all men–even the common ones, the guilty ones, the foolish ones, and even our own sorry selves–are fellow sufferers who should be afforded empathetic respect and whose dignity should be recognized.
Unfortunately, Knight doesn’t seem to be laboring to this end and instead Heart of Stone finds him frequently reaching for the easy line, the throw away line, or the line that sounds cool. In “My Old Cars,” he says, “I wish to hell and back was far enough to outrun your memory;” in “Hell Ain’t Half Full” Knight laments that “They take God and Jesus out of our schools/Everybody’s living by their own set of rules;” in “Another Dollar,” Knight’s character questions the idea he’s received from society that money will make him happy by explaining, “I don’t know if that’s right/Don’t know what I believe/Because the more money I got, the more I need.”
It’s not that it’s not fancy enough, it’s that it’s not interesting enough and that it hovers too close to cliché to be revealing.
His melodies and hooks, however, are extremely engaging, as are his exceptional and heartfelt vocal performances, and the production and overall sound of the record are consistently satisfying. It’s a testament to Knight’s considerable talents that the lazy turns of phrase and superficial characters don’t manage to ruin these songs–the song’s strengths are such that they remain catchy, singable, and even moving, despite their lyrical shortcomings–but Heart of Stone, though worthwhile, finds Chris Knight lingering in “what Montgomery Gentry pretends to be” territory, instead of making the bold leap to “what Steve Earle and Merle Haggard are” territory.
If you’re looking for a rootsy good time that is tough enough to be credible, Heart of Stone is a good one to pick up. If you’re looking for something more, you may be disappointed with Knight’s treatment of life’s disappointments.
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