Detail of the cover illustration of Murray Leinster's The Black Galaxy, 1949
When Chris Knox suffered a serious stroke last summer, he wasn't really on a lot of people's radar. But the outpouring of attention and sympathy in the wake of the incident showed that people hadn't completely lost appreciation for the New Zealand musician who did so much to shape the kiwi-pop scene over the years. Rumored plans for a benefit album of Knox covers were circulating before long, and the two-disc collection Stroke was released in New Zealand before the year was out. The album was a mix of local New Zealand musicians old and new, as well as big Knox appreciators from other parts of the world. Unsurprisingly, it was a little more complicated to figure out the rights required to release Stroke in the US, but Merge Records sorted it out and recently released the album stateside.
The split between the two discs of Stroke is a little odd and is a natural result of putting the songs in chronological order as they appear in Knox's discography - the first disc is composed almost entirely of NZ artists, the best known being the Chills. If you're looking for big indie names, though, you'll find Jay Reatard, Stephin Merritt, and Portastatic. Of those three, Jay Reatard's track is the only one that's really worthwhile - sadly, it is probably one of the last things Jay recorded before his passing. Merritt's track is an old cover from the vaults that predates the Magnetic Fields, which I found a little disappointing. However, the New Zealand artists who love Knox's early material turn in some great songs on this disc, especially the Mint Chicks, the Checks, and the Bleeding Allstars (the latter featuring David Pine, formerly of Wires and Waves favorites the Sneaky Feelings).
The second disc of Stroke, covering the more recent years of Knox's work, features more big names. The Mountain Goats, A.C. Newman, Bill Callahan, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Lou Barlow, and Yo La Tengo all contribute songs to this half, and the biggest coup of the set may be a new recording from Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. These covers, as well as ones from NZ bands like the Bats and the Verlaines, are uniformly excellent. More importantly, they are a great showcase of Chris Knox's songwriting and make a convincing argument that he is a first-rate songwriter and storyteller. The end of Stroke's second disc is a bit of a bummer, though - it features two post-stroke recordings by Chris Knox, and his incoherent vocals are a little unnerving and sad. Which, I guess, is the point. Stroke is a bit uneven - I'll probably listen to the second disc a lot more than the first as time goes on - but I'm enjoying it a lot, and it makes me want to track down many of the Knox-related albums I don't have (many of which are out of print!)
"Ain't It Nice" by Bleeding Allstars