The first version of the Knitters was really an aberration. Way back in 1985,
the members of X and The Blasters, America's most vital punk-rock and roots-rock
bands, respectively, hung up their amplifiers for an album together. They played
country (country!) music for all the hipsters, and did it with tongue firmly
in cheek. Back then, the results were terrific. From their breathtaking version
of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" to Dave Alvin's equally gripping "Cryin' but
My Tears Are Far Away," the debut album, Poor Little Knitter on the Road,
quickly became more than just a novelty album or one-off. It's an album that
opened many ears and heads to a new kind of music, launched many bands and record
labels, and held up far better than anyone ever expected.
Now, 20 years later, the same band of punk rock and rollers has reunited for a follow-up. It doesn't seem quite so strange anymore, with "alt-country" a genre of its own and "classic rock"-sounding country music firmly established as the music of red states. While the playing is fine and the song selection is fun, there's nothing as new or different this time around, resulting in an album that's well put together but will likely only appeal to longtime X fans.
Song selection on The Modern Sounds of the Knitters is split between covers and originals, though many of the originals exist in other versions elsewhere. Of the new ones, "Try Anymore (Why Don't We Even)" is the best, with a witty lyric and catchy honky-tonk beat. "The New Call of the Wrecking Ball" updates a story from the previous album without really going anywhere but towards corniness, making it hard to listen to repeatedly.
The covers are the best in particular, the rural versions of X classics "In
This House That I Call Home" and "Burning House of Love," which just sound terrific,
as emotional and energy-charged as anything from their punk-rock years. Dave
Alvin's gripping "Dry River" is a great song anytime, and here John Doe's warm
voice gives it the breakout urgency it never received on Alvin's solo records.
They're not all great, however: the album closer, "Born to Be Wild," doesn't
close to the "heavy metal thunder" of the Steppenwolf original.
Overall, The Modern Sounds of the Knitters is more of the same old sound,
put together in times that have changed. For the band, it surely was a gas to
make the record. They're great musicians the harmonies between Doe and
Exene Cervenka remain a national treasure who have traveled the highways
and byways of America and certainly earned the right to sing about it. So it's
great fun for X fans, to hear their heroes playing music they unabashedly love.
But for the rest of us, it's a merely solid album that sounds, yet again, like
punk rockers playing country music for the novelty of it, apparently oblivious
that many others have built upon and moved on from the ground they broke 20 years