The David Wax Museum, whom I profiled last year, has been one of the most pleasant stories in music today — a band that went from grass roots outfit to Newport Folk main stage players and Americana darlings off the strength of two self-released albums within 12 months plus a tireless touring schedule in which they took their win-you-over stage show throughout North America and abroad.
The unique blend of Mexican-American folk rock on their second and third albums, 2010′s Carpenter Bird and 2011′s Everything Is Saved, was both earnest and catchy and demonstrated lead man David Wax’s lyrical inventiveness. Their new album, Knock Knock Get Up, shows the band in transition toward a more modern sound. From the brassy shimmer of the opening track and advance release of “Will You Be Sleeping?” (ironically, a good morning music track) to the swooning lullaby of the penultimate track “Big Heart of Yours” and the expansive closer “Refuge” with its uplifting coda, the fourth DWM album is louder, richer, fuller, less minimalist and more mature.
The band retains a musicologist’s sensibilities. Recorded this January in southern Maine with producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter) on the strength of a PledgeMusic fund drive, the songs on Knock Knock were conceived mostly in the southern region of Mexico. The collective instrumentation of Wax and co-core member Suz Slezak along with one-man backing band Greg Glassman consists of Mexican strumming patterns on electric guitar and the low-pitched leona, fiddle, autoharps, accordion, organs, and mariachi trumpet loops, with samples of field recordings from Veracruz thrown in for Lomaxian measure.
The arrangements have a kitchen-sink eclecticism that can be disorienting. On “All Sense of Time,” the vocals are swallowed by the strum and clang before strings rain down with an Astral Weeks lilt. “Harder Before It Gets Easier” features Slezak belting out matching vocals atop floor-stamping percussion that creates the sound of fun bordering on too much fun. “A Dog in this Fight” balances an anthem-rock sound a la “My Morning Jacket” with Andrew Bird-like textures. “Vivian” was written originally as a bluegrass hoedown but in finished form here is downright cacophonous with its collision of Ennio Morricone-esque horns, Caribbean-inspired accordion phrases, and Brazilian drums. But then we slip into the stripped-down surprise of “Wondrous Love,” a precious, almost twee tune sung by Slezak:
There are stars in the mountains
There are mountains in the sea
There are roses on the cacti
I am starting to believe
How did this wondrous love happen to me?
There might not be a song as compulsively danceable as “Colas” or as irresistibly peppy as “Born with a Broken Heart” here, but the group still shows a knack on Knock Knock for emotional currents beneath the surface. Another potential hit, “The Rumors Are True,” has Wax singing at the end of a relationship and the beginning of another as sunny melodies mask an admission of guilt: “I hate to break it to you/But the rumors are true.” “Leopard Girl,” with its doo-doo-doo-doo pop hooks, examines the eye of the beholder: “I want to know how I look through your eyes… love is just one step removed from blindness.”
An overused description is nevertheless apt here: Knock Knock Get Up is an album that will challenge fans. Its many voices might occasionally compete more than complement, and it sometimes has the feeling of an album that will play better on stage — which is perhaps more of a complement to the Museum’s live shows. By the end of the last song, the album has washed over you, leaving more of a collective impression than specific memories, leaving you wanting to play it again.