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American Babies | Knives and Teeth

album review by John Powell

American Babies | Knives and Teet

At a time when Americana has started to sound like itself too much, in the wake of a five-year empire by the likes of Wilco, Fleet Foxes, and Blitzen Trapper, American Babies’ latest release, Knives and Teeth, is a refreshing breath of indie air.

This Philly-based band weaves together pleasant acoustic guitar, mystical electric lead, plundering keys, and a thick backbone of drums and bass. The sound is exactly what you want in an Americana band- songs that build and build while remaining simple and focused. These songs speak about life, about slipping and sliding and regaining your balance.

The opening “When I Build My Fortune” is a clear example, and a great opener for an album. The acoustic and electric guitars find an almost Texas-at-twilight quality. “Down/ Down to the bottom/ my earliest childhood dreams,” sings Tom Hamilton; “It breaks my heart that something so awful could pass through lips so sweet.”

Lyrically, the songs refrain from corny clichés- a sigh of relief from this critic. If there’s one criticism about the singing, it’s that the melodies aren’t catchy, which seems to be the failing of most music like this, although some mastered it (Wilco in the early days). It’s the instrumentation that is unique and memorable.

Take the rocker “Old Fashioned”, where the slide electric pinches and twists and the rest of the band crashes over itself like a wavy shore. “It’s an act of attrition,” sings Tom; “I’m alone on a mission.”

A key track is “This Thing Ain’t Going Nowheres”, where Tom emulates Bob Dylan’s wry vocals. American Babies’ secret weapon is Adam Flicker, whose keyboards fill in all the gaps. He makes songs like “Running in Place” echo.

While the band clearly mimics aspects of Velvet Underground, Dylan, and their Portland-based compatriots, they never sound stale. Knives and Teeth is playful, too, strong without taking itself too seriously, and it sounds great, although the vocals are a little buried in the mix.

Bands like American Babies only need to make sure they never lose their balance of weird and approachable, otherwise becoming adult pop rock or flying off the deep end into obscurity. For now, though, this band released one heck of an album.

Bottom line: Philly-based Americana with layers of guitars and keys, low, driving drums and base, and intelligent, fun lyrics.

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