Upon hearing that there was a band called Homemade Knives, the first question that popped into my depraved brain was, “Why not call themselves the Shivs?” Then they could tour with the Shins, call it the “Green with N / V” tour, and join together on stage (a la Calexico and Iron & Wine for “Wild Horses”) to perform “Achilles’ Last Stand.” OK, even I know that one is horrible, and I don’t know where to begin talking about what’s wrong with that statement. Rather than being a poppy band with a clone-like name, however, Homemade Knives is a remarkable act from Richmond, Virginia featuring gorgeous and haunting melodies, vivid, literary lyrics and the powerful vocals of their frontman, Wil Loyal. It all combines to make one of the most stirring and contemplative albums of the year, No One Doubts the Darkness.
There are times when Loyal sounds like an indie version of Rob Thomas, which gave me pause for a few seconds, but then I remembered that Thomas is popular because he indeed does have an incredible set of pipes (and I mean that in relation to his voice, not lecherously about his cup size). Loyal’s vocals also have a commanding presence, all the better for making the listener sit up and take notice of the incredible lyrics. You know you’re in for a witty wordfest when the album starts out with the lines, “I have no short answer. I’m not nodding like an oilrig…I watch the ocean drink the sun.” These lines, from “The Ocean Drinks the Sun,” are immediately visual and poetic, and just the tip of the iceberg that continues throughout the album. Loyal also plays piano, lonely and heartbreaking, and is accompanied by the ghostly sound of Chris Carroll’s cello, Shane Jenkins’ intimate guitars, and Ryan McLennan’s spare and understated bass, besides a host of other guests including the elegant voices of backup singers Anousheh Khalili and Adrienne Brown.
It’s going to be extremely difficult for me to pluck out particularly striking lines from the songs that comprise No One Doubts the Darkness. They are all that good. Imagery of the sea persist throughout the album, including references to swimming, drowning, fishing, knots, oceans, waters and seas, making the album seem even more cohesive than it already is. Even without the themes, each song is tied somehow to the next, like they are chapters in a book, interweaving short stories that comprise a whole. I was incredibly moved by this record (yes, I still call them records, sue me) and only those with the hardest of hearts will not find beauty in these songs. Just as it is incredibly tricky to isolate lyrics, it is equally complicated to pick standout tracks. Each of the nine main tracks vie for top billing, yet all shine with the incredible tones and terms of Loyal and the sounds of a band that is too good to linger in obscurity for long.
The album closes with “All is Well,” and the building instruments and voices that continue to powerfully chant the Shakespearean quotation, paraphrased, “All is well that ends well.” The same can be said for this incredible album, the full-length debut from Richmond, Virginia’s Homemade Knives. The name might entice you (ignoring my asinine suggestion of the Shivs), and so might the album’s cover, somewhat of an `after’ picture to the `before’ cover of Bonnie Billy and Tortoise’s The Brave and the Bold, but what will keep this album in constant rotation is the incredible content within. It’s the most striking piece of Americana / folk rock music I’ve heard since Springsteen’s Nebraska. No joke.