Point Well Made: Kristeen Young's
"The Knife Shift"
by Jane Boxall
The music world is full of crashing bores. But Kristeen Young isn’t one of them -- her seventh album, The Knife Shift, delineates a sharp and fresh form of feminism.
Kristeen’s voice is simply singular. She’s often compared to Kate Bush or Björk, but -- beyond sharing a gender and a fondness for envelope-pushing -- these ladies really sound nothing alike. On The Knife Shift, Kristeen’s voice veers from guitar-like to gritty to girlish to Galás-esque. Her vocal balances like a glass bird’s nest for ‘Then I Screamed’, while archly operatic vibrato jostles against elastic vocal lines and glottal staccato in ‘The Pictures of Sasha Grey’. This song’s an unsettling listen -- juddering beats and rubber-band bass punctuate Young’s musings on the former porn performer’s Facebook page and 21st-century sexism. At the social-media level, “harsh words” are posted “underneath the pictures of Sasha Grey”; zooming further out, the lyrical message – “I’ve had enough of being audience / I’m coming for the light you’ve hoarded” -- can be taken as a clarion call to all women, and more generally to the overlooked, the outsiders, the ostracized and the oppressed.
‘I’ll Show You’ comes out similarly punchy, with the keyboard attacks matching Dave Grohl’s muscular drumming. An almost-jaunty groove and smooth melody jar with dark lyrics -- past abuse and violence are hinted at, as the singer is pushed to the emotional periphery. Yet, this isolation itself seems to become a source of power, as the refrain “a part but always apart” builds to a sustained tidal-wave roar of “I am the outside”. To me, this is the album’s climax – imagine Kate Bush’s Cathy from Wuthering Heights, if Cathy forsook plaintively pleading to be let in the window and instead just defiantly owned the outside. Oops, another Kate Bush comparison. I’m sorry.
‘Rough Up the Groove’ is a call to resist the conformist “groove” laid out for many women -- “pick a partner / pick a domicile… [have a] baby who will grow up to do graphics for Old Navy”. The song’s sonic texture is individualistic and diverse, as trebly piano bursts sprinkle boogie-woogie moments across a post-hip-hop electronic groove. Parping faux-brass bubbles and tumbles; cartoonish choked instrumental growls and hand-claps blur the border of seriousness and surrealism. There’s careful control of articulation – not just in this song, but in the whole album. Kristeen’s voice can swoop in long arcs, or unexpectedly halt with a clipped “No”; guitar chugs and electronic sweeps often stop short as if they’re punchlines.
Violence permeates the album, reflected not only in the title but also the cover art -- in which Young sports a torn white frock and sizeable shiner. It’s a visceral listen, with images of death, blood and bruises resurfacing like veins. Standout track ‘The Answer to All Your Problems Is In This Little Bottle’ welds an inexorably propulsive groove to a wavering melody as the singer seemingly deliberates over whether or not to intervene when someone is intent on drinking themselves to death. ‘Red’ splashes the violence of racially-segregated St. Louis wide across the speakers. Kristeen busts open black-and-white binary thinking, noting that “if you put our arms real close, he’d be brown and I’d be yellow… when we break the skin you and I are red”. Without any of the long-winded earnestness that accompanies so much contemporary discourse on race, gender or class (thankfully, there’s no need to find a rhyme for “intersectionality” here), The Knife Shift offers deceptively simple synesthetic imagery that gives a helicopter view of social injustice.
Taking a similarly long view, ‘Pearl of a Girl’ portrays the crushing weight of religious oppression on women across the centuries. Bleeps and drones sweep, searching, across the stereo space. Then the sound tunes in, locks in, and kicks into an outrageous rave-inflected feminist anthem that’s an on-ramp to the dancefloor. Musically and lyrically, there’s depth, breadth and heft, while the electrified vocal tone keeps the message sharp rather than staid. There’s also a pointed sense of fun – when Kristeen sings “they’ve needed to have the church so they can morally ground us”, the rolled “r” of “ground” makes the word, appropriately, also sound like “grind”. It’s a moment of Morrissey-esque onomatopoeic wordplay and humour. Young certainly has famous pals and co-conspirators – Moz-guitarists Lou Rossi and Boz Boorer play on some of this album’s tracks, while Tony Visconti contributes bass. But the songs themselves are, to the core, Kristeen’s alone. Her volcanic vocals and percussive piano-playing are the beating heart and stabbing pulse of this album and her overall sound. That’s perhaps what makes The Knife Shift such an appealingly, refreshingly, powerfully feminist work.