I don’t know whether it’s a trait of independent musicians or Canadians, but some people just can’t take complete credit. Earlier, another Broken Social Scenester, Amy Millan, released her own solo album, with the help of all those Canadian friends who she calls bandmates. Jenny Lewis took it a step further by including her backup singers in the title of the album, thus the Watson Twins became semi-famous. Emily Haines is now the third Scenester female to release a solo album after Feist and the aforementioned Millan, and like we are now eager to expect, that album is completely different in tone than those of her predecessors. Whereas Feist was a jazzy diva and Millan a countrified balladeer, Haines is a piano pop chanteuse, slow burning and emotive, full of pathos and poetry. Knives Don’t Have Your Back isn’t Haines’ first solo effort, but it’s her first since making a name for herself with both Broken Social Scene and Metric, meaning it’s the first that most fans will hear of Haines all by her lonesome, and according to Knives, she’s as lonesome as could be.
Like Millan’s solo album, Knives is the product of many years’ work, but is especially informed by the recent death of her father, the poet and jazz musician, Paul Haines. Emily does her father proud with her own musical poetry, providing story like prose in breathy lyrics and sighs as she expresses her innermost fears and pain. Haines’ voice takes on a sexy and sassy edge in her punky pop anthems with Metric, but in her solo work, that sass becomes sultry. Where once Haines was “Succexy,” now she admits she is just downright lonely. Broken relationships and hard times make up the landscape of Knives, making one wonder which is the real Emily Haines, or could it possibly be both? Separated from the Metric boys and the `No-Homers’ club that is BSS, Haines appears fragile and ultimately human. Of course, Emily has always appeared more real than your everyday rock star. Sure, while her BSS compadres posed for pictures by the lake for an Under the Radar photo shoot, she decided to go topless for her solo close-up. Sure, recent photos in the same magazine find her caressing the piano like an understudy for The Fabulous Baker Boys, but through it all, Haines has remained adamantly herself.
While Metric’s songs always have a touch of the political, including some of Haines’ strong feelings on different matters, Knives is much more intimate and personal. Haines also proves that it’s easy to pick out standout tracks on an album full of standout tracks. Opener “Our Hell” deals with a breakup in which her lover turns from her toward his friends. In the gorgeously dark “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff,” Haines would rather “give the world away than wake up lonely.” “Detective Daughter” features a nod to John Lennon’s “Love” with the lyrics, “Love is Hell, Hell is Love. Hell is asking to be loved.” “The Maid Needs a Maid” provides a vivid portrayal of gender battles, while “Mostly Waving” is a jazzy dirge of dramatic proportion. “Nothing & Nowhere” sounds like it should be the title of a Nine Inch Nails song, and plays like one of Trent Reznor’s buddies, one Tori Amos, an artist sure to be name-checked throughout many reviews of Haines’ album.
Oh, by the way, the Soft Skeleton is essentially Scott Minor from Sparklehorse, Jimmy Shaw from Metric, Evan Cranley from Stars and BSS, newcomer Stewart Pack and a few others who help Haines get by with a little help from her friends. I mention this late in the review because their presence takes a very distant second place to the captivating performances of Emily Haines. Although there is no huge tour announced (she only played a handful of dates already), reports have her playing these solo songs blindfolded at the piano, I suppose allowing her to make a more visceral connection with the music and the deep-seeded feelings within. Now, if only the concertgoers could agree to be blindfolded, there would be one hell of a music-fan connection.