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8 Tracks: Keep it real

In a music scene policed by politics and faith, there was none more real than Michael Knott.
Kate Gutwein Smith
Courtesy of the artist
In a music scene policed by politics and faith, there was none more real than Michael Knott.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

I'm still thinking about Michael Knott, a Christian rocker who spent most of his life upending that scene. Knott, who died last week, was an inscrutable character who nevertheless wore a bleeding heart on his sleeve. Across a long and diverse catalog, Knott was only ever himself, pissing off church authorities, record labels and even his own fans — it's what drew people to his damaged portraits of grace because they were often of himself.

In short, he kept it real, to his own enlightenment and detriment. This week on 8 Tracks, I want to throwback to one of those moments from Knott, plus a number of newly released songs that speak their own truths.

Michael Knott, "Shine a Light"

For those new to Knott — and I imagine there are many — there are lots of spots to dive in: the gothic alt-rock of L.S. Underground, the bluesy barnstormers of Aunt Bettys or Cush's oh-so-pretty dream-pop. I tend to point folks toward his solo material, particularly 1992's Screaming Brittle Siren, a real crash-and-burn album in every sense of the phrase. On it, Knott takes aim at false prophets — a constant theme — and his own shortcomings with funk-forward, Hollywood Strip-indebted hard rock that borders on (and perhaps sneers at) the then-burgeoning grunge scene just up the West coast. "Shine A Light" sums up his place within and against Christian culture, yet offers insight into his zen-like emblem of enfant terrible: "I'm no captain, just a reflection of the sea."

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Rapsody, "Stand Tall"

I can't tell if I'd be thrilled or terrified if Rapsody stared me down and asked me to be real... about myself, or whatever else. She is a rapper who has always asked the same question of herself, taking a different route every time. The same way a brilliant basketball player plots their moves toward the hoop, Rapsody's mind makes chess moves while she holds court. Sanaa Lathan, of Love & Basketball fame, plays the antagonist in the music video for this song, our proxy for the facelessness of a social media-ridden society that pretends to go deep, but only clicks in for the bait. So when Lathan asks her to be real, Rapsody is a mirror and a window, reflecting on her own anxieties and struggles, but showing us how easily we can break the promise of our best self: "Either you Annie or you Annikan," she intones. "You gon' shine or fade to black as a result of all your damages."

Luxury, "Maker / Wheel Within a Wheel"

Lee Bozeman has the kind of voice that caresses even as it unfurls an unsettling scene. "Our friend takes drugs every day," he croons over a throttling bass line. "And she contemplates life when she plays / So hard upon the piano keys." Ever since Luxury's return a decade ago, which coincided with a documentary that followed three members' journeys to priesthood, the band has shifted its tone toward healing, yet doesn't shy away from a world as it's breaking. "Maker" is a propulsive piece of punk-ish indie rock, yet its guitar latticework girds the song's intricate message of comfort.

Ariana Grande, "we can't be friends (wait for your love)"

What if front-loaded pop albums flipped the script in the back half? A reward for sticking it out, perhaps. Track No. 10 on Ariana Grande's eternal sunshine comes after a bunch of heartbreak and therapy speak, and marks something of a turn in the album's narrative. Max Martin's dance-pop production here is more muted, yet sparkling — his ambient synth pads allow Ari's ballad more room to air out the misunderstandings of her heart. SNL's Bowen Yang makes a compelling argument that "we can't be friends" is "about the way the media relates to her," but I keep coming back to one line ("Me and my truth, we sit in silence"), the two seconds of white noise that follow and her return: "Baby girl, it's just me and you." In that moment, at least, the song feels like a reflection of herself, giving the title far more weight.

The Rocky Valentines, "Stick It Out"

Charlie Martin is the son of Jason Martin, the primary songwriter of Starflyer 59, a shapeshifting rock band with a deep catalog that might as well be encoded into my DNA. As The Rocky Valentines, Charlie plays everything except the bass and, like his dad, has a way with a handful of chunky power chords and a sad-yet-sticky melody. Very quickly, however, The Rocky Valentines has established its own economy of songcraft: "Stick It Out," in particular, takes a roiling, slowcore riff and manages to make it sound like Weezer rocking out in a garage.

Jackie West, "Snow Amplified"

I love a song title with kinetic energy. On "Snow Amplified," recorded in a live room with a full band, a folksy flurry suddenly becomes a swirling squall. Erratic strum patterns (each "off" just enough for discomfort) clash up against a drummer desperate to keep everything together, as Jackie West's clear-eyed voice acts as the catalyst and the center of the storm: "Warm to the touch, you're a blood rush."


When one of my favorite artists puts out music that tickles my brain, I always want to get nerdy about it. Case in point: It's such a joy to hear my colleagues Ann Powers and Daoud Tyler-Ameen talk about Tierra Whack's WORLD WIDE WHACK on New Music Friday. It's a dark, bewildering, but often goofy rap album that plays with the human voice like Robin Williams on a wild impersonation spree. But unlike a rapper who switches character on a dime, Tierra Whack is far more subtle. "She finds ways to shapeshift before you totally know what she's doing," Tyler-Ameen says in that episode, illustrated best by "IMAGINARY FRIENDS," which slowly slips from an unsteady warble to a crisp and confident cool, especially in the smirking hook once she realizes: "How can I be lonely when I'm hanging with my homies?"

Baby Rose (with BADBADNOTGOOD), "One Last Dance"

Admittedly, I've been iffy on BADBADNOTGOOD, a jazz-not-jazz band attuned to recreating crate-digger samples with live instruments. However, I don't mind being wrong, especially when something sounds so right. On "One Last Dance," BADBADNOTGOOD leans into a soulful, Muscle-Shoals-meets-Pet-Sounds sweetness. It's dreamy, yet undercut with a touch of sadness ... a Baby Rose specialty. As she seeks to mend an old friendship, her voice crackles with yearning and a soft flute responds with a soft hand on her shoulder.

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