When I was seventeen, I was finishing up my senior year of high school and beginning my freshman year of college. Which basically means I drank a lot of beer. Now, Connor Kirby-Long (who records under the oh-so-sneaky alias Khonnor) might have a bacchanalian streak in him as well, but with an EP (which he released at age fifteen) and now a full-length to his name, he's got a hell of a lot more to show for it than I did. Handwriting, the latest in what is likely to be a staggering number of releases at his pace, is not a fully realized stroke of genius, but it delivers some spellbinding moments of noise-pop while allowing a peek into the mind of a budding talent.
Kirby-Long challenges listeners from the start: Handwriting's first sound is an oppressive wall of static that requires some patience. But bending notes and echoes slowly seep through the cracks on the opener, "Man from the Anthill," exposing some beautiful melodies before the static strikes back and drowns out the rest of the tune. Using similar tools throughout the album, he shrouds acoustic guitars, droning tones and his occasional vocals with fuzz, making you work to get to the melodious center. This is notably more difficult on some tracks, like the busy "An Ape Is Loose," but the strength of Kirby-Long's work is that there's almost always a payoff.
The album is not so much dark and dangerous as it is dripping with the remnants of disappointment and loss. Even the poppier moments, like the stellar "A Little Secret," are given a healthy dose of melancholy. The bouncy acoustic riff and snappy beat propel the tune to heights of the Notwist, but the distortion and moaning strings lend it an air of unhappiness. Song titles like "I Was Everything You Wanted until I Quit" do little to liven the atmosphere. But although the album is likely to leave you saddened, you'll be hard-pressed to resist spinning it again.
For all its refreshingly refined moments, the shadows of Dntel and Fennesz loom large over the album, which can be overbearing at times. And some of the music is very two-dimensional, little more than guitar and static, which sometimes leaves it flat. But although many compositions are chaotic, they rarely feel like he's throwing things at you just for the sake of throwing them. The water noise that fills the empty spaces on "Screen Love" is likely a sink, but Kirby-Long makes it feel like a cascading waterfall, showering the tune with delicate beauty. Find me another seventeen year old with that ability. Handwriting may not be a perfect record, but I wouldn't be surprised if Kirby-Long creates one down the road.
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