Feature: Hands and Knees (Boston Globe, 1.21.11)

Posted on April 18, 2011


The music on Hands and Knees’ latest record made its way into the world a bit unceremoniously last summer. The 13 frantic garage-pop tracks popped up without fanfare on the band’s website for friends, family, and message board passersby to take peeks at will. An undercut of what hype might eventually build out of proper release? Not so, says drummer Nick Branigan.

“Our philosophy is that no one’s going to buy it anyway, so we might as well let people listen to it,’’ he says.

This might sound like a fatalistic approach to several months’ hard work, but Branigan and crew are just taking advantage of a gleefully anarchic moment in music when, faced with a bunch of choices that don’t seem great, bands can avoid all of them — or take all of them, depending on one’s point of view. Strapped for cash and sick of living with cases of leftover CDs, the logical answer may be: Why bother? Singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter Joe O’Brien shrugs the process off: “Bands do this weird thing where they finish recording and then send them out to record labels, which mostly just wastes time.’’

Lucky for those of us stuck in the stone age, a small run of physical LPs is on the way next week — the self-released “Wholesome’’ drops on Thursday night, when the band has been kind enough to set up a full-blown release shindig at Great Scott.

The record is the four-piece’s third full-length since its inception, but it catches the band at a new high brought on by a fiery lineup, rough-and-tumble touring, and a local scene that’s grown up making the most of limited resources and a pugnaciously indecisive musical identity.

The band’s first two records, a self-titled debut and “Et Tu, Fluffy?’’ made gritty collage out of its penchant to learn on the fly, as well as O’Brien’s twisting ’60s hooks. By the time they added Brani gan to the mix in 2009, things had begun to jell and songs had already been written for the next release.

Recorded, like all Hands and Knees stuff, in guitarist Scott Hoffman’s chilly studio in the tiny Western Mass. town of Shelburne Falls, the album emits a nervous energy — which may be the result of the group hopping in place to stay warm.

“I have a simple way of looking at it,’’ says the prolific O’Brien. “Just write songs. I went through a year as a kid where I listened to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’ every night before bed — not that I loved blazing guitar solos, but I loved how every song was its own thing. ‘The White Album’ is a great example of that.’’

This attitude is palpable on “Wholesome,’’ with each song its own little island of style and conversational tics; hence, the few beats of silence calmly separating the barn-dance swing-a-long of “The Moonlight Is Wicked’’ and the throwback Weezer melody that somersaults over a sneakily odd meter in “Sitting at the Piano Disappearing.’’ They owe as much to a fanciful songwriting imagination as they do spot-on production values — Hoffman corrals the rickety acoustics into hayseed bandstand territory on the former (with some slick Nashville picking to back it up) and sparse garage stomp on the latter.

Another contingent of songs on the record grew out of O’Brien’s recent fascination with MIT station WMBR’s “Backwoods’’ radio show, a weekly mix of kitsch and old-timey rock ’n’ roll that he spent two years blasting at his work at a screen-printing studio every Saturday morning in Brookline.

But at the same time, there’s a coherence that arises from a working rhythm section and some knocks on the road. The years O’Brien and company have spent playing dingy clubs and frantic basement parties are all packed into this record, their most live and lived-in one yet.

“I think this record captures a certain moment in time for the band,’’ says Branigan. “The scene in general is legitimately exciting. People are doing it themselves, but it’s not just basement punks anymore. Everybody’s on the same level.’’

The hodgepodge, in general, is a good match for the sort of scene the band members have found themselves at home in. The fringe basement show has grown into a rite of passage for anyone wielding guitars.

“I even had little shows in my JP apartment where people would do folksy stuff,’’ says O’Brien. “That’s how I started playing music here. But they were sit-down shows, not destroy-your-apartment shows.’’

Not that the latter doesn’t appeal to them. “Maybe we’d prefer to destroy your apartment,’’ he says.

Originally published in the Boston Globe here.