Knight School
Make a Mess

Clever is as clever does, and San Francisco’s Make a Mess Records is modestly assembling a perfect roster of the nation’s foremost clever-pop disciples. Upon first listen to Knight School’s sophomore album, you’d think they might just be an offshoot of the band whom may or may not have provided the template for clever-pop, Nodzzz, and come to the conclusion that this aesthetic of post-grad lyrics and jangled chords was born and bred in the Bay Area. There’s even a song on Revenger, “Idiot Wizards,” that basically rips the zip line from Nodzzz’s bummer anthem, “In the City,” and coils even more treble-kickers around that core. But nope, there’s no relation other than sharing a label, as Knight School is the work of Brooklyn duo Kevin Alvir and Chris Balla. In reality, it could also just be the work of a lone individual (like another Make a Mess triumph, White Fence), living out all of his post-Pavement dreams in the rec-room. On the surface, Knight School’s fuzzy blast of simpleton melodies and sub-fidelity is just that: four-track chess we’ve all heard before and rarely making an impression beyond a few hummable chords of pleasure. Revenger, though, is rewarding through peeling back that crust and revealing exactly what makes them clever-pop songwriters in the first place.

While you can lob a handful of Beat Happening references at the shambolic, melancholic sunshine of “Pizza My Coat,” Alvir and Balla aren’t clever to the degree of being ironic and overly smug. It’s actually the opposite. The indelible song is completely earnest, but clever in that it convinces the listener that the song was spontaneous, that the environs and circumstance prompted them to explore the possibilities of using standard indie-pop tropes—misanthropic laments, repetitive chords, two-note solos, nonsense harmonies—to the maximum extent. That tone continues through the album’s entirety. It’s a little vanilla, for sure, as there’s little variety between beginning to end. Knight School are clever enough to realize they aren’t shooting for some wild idiosyncratic collection of experiments. The post-everything clause might already be worn in my assessment of Revenger, but it’s refreshing how little, especially on tracks like “I’m Your Band” and closer “Meathead Hurricane,” the duo have altered their appreciation for Bee Thousand in a post–Guided By Voices world. They’ve produced gleeful, bursts of pop, most of which are uncanny when held up to their inspiration. Clever in the regard that you’ll be hooked enough to keep listening through even when it’s known that Knight School don’t really stray from that mold. Clever in the fact that they know gimmicks never win and well written, unfettered, pop songs always do.
Kevin J. Elliott