Monday, August 4, 2008

Knapsack. This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now (Alias, 1998)

“We are arrows to the action/ It never happens/ The way I think it should.”

I was in college in the mid- to late-1990s. Many indie kids were under the delusion that "guitar music" was dead. Lots of electronica (shudder) was being listened to, by yours truly included. I actually bought a Propellerheads record, described it as "awesome" to several people, and wore the free XL size t-shirt (one size fits none!) that came with it draped over my bony frame like a soon-to-be-dated tent. We listened to Roni Size drum-n-bass records all the way through, heads nodding like we were into it. Tortoise (whose Millions Now Living Will Never Die I’ll admit still holds up) was considered to be the future of music by a good number of indie rock enthusiasts. "Post rock" was yet to be, in a phrase coined by a friend, "post good." Remixes were flying off the independent music store shelves.

That said, this was also a time when "emo" was not yet a dirty word, didn't conjure up images of Hot Topic cashiers, and could still be used to describe some really great bands like Jawbreaker, the Promise Ring (well, early Promise Ring. We'll say their first two records, anyway), and Knapsack. Case in point: This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now is one of my favorite records from the late 1990s, by anyone, period. The first time I heard it, I was a fan. Today, it's one of those records that I throw on occasionally and immediately think to myself, "Oh, yeah. This record is incredible. How come I don't listen to this all the time?" It's also the only thing by Knapsack I've ever heard. I think I'm hesitant to tarnish the sterling reputation they've garnered in my mind by being disappointed by their other records.

Knapsack emerged out of the University of California at Davis in the early '90s. They signed to Alias (, home of underground undergrad heroes Archers of Loaf) and put out a couple of records before This Conversation, which would be their last. After some lineup changes, they settled on Blair Shehan (vocals and guitar), Sergi Loobkoff (guitar), and Colby Mancasola (drums). Bass duties were shared, I guess. By 2000, the band had broken up and reformed into The Jealous Sound, which I've also never heard.

This Conversation has a lot of things going for it. First off, the album title is clever, but not too clever. It sounds like something you'd say to your girlfriend in the middle of a fight, trying to buy some time (it wouldn't work). Also, the album art is pretty cool: tastefully drawn silhouette of a bereft indie kid, classy understated color scheme, the sans-serif font a nice touch. I like looking at this record.

Then comes the music. Hooks for days, and right out of the gate. The guitar sound is punchy and melodic, immediately memorable. The first song on the album sets the template: “Katherine the Grateful” is alternately choppy, driving, and soaring, a beautifully crafted indie gem. Ditto my favorite song on the album, “Arrows to the Action.” The main riff is a spiraling, off-kilter beauty, pushing the song through its paces, pausing only for the delicate, rhythm-egg-assisted bridge before crashing back into the verses. And speaking of delicate, “Cold Enough to Break,” with its Christmas bells, strings, and mournful melody, sounds like the saddest sleigh ride ever. But catchy.

The drums on this record sound amazing. They’ve got a real Albini-esque feel, pushed way to the front. It sounds like the drummer’s in the same room with you, basically. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the album was produced by Mark Trombino, drummer for San Diego legends Drive Like Jehu. Plus, Colby Mancasola can play. The drumming on “Arrows to the Action” and album closer “Please Shut Off the Lights" is worth highlighting: the drum bits are deceptively simple, but still inventive, and fit the melodies perfectly.

You can listen to several tracks from This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now at the Alias website, here: You can also buy the record from Alias, or from any number of other places. Like I said, every time I return to this record, I love it. It reminds me of all the good stuff I was listening to in college, and helps me forget all the block-rockin’ beats. Oh, the beats.