Chris Knox is one of the most important names in New Zealand’s indie-rock scene. For years, he’s put out great records on his own and with bands like Toy Love and the Tall Dwarfs. Tragically, though, Knox suffered a stroke in June 2009, from which he is still recovering. But lucky for him, and for us, 36 artists recorded their own versions of Knox’s songs to raise money to help in his recovery. And those tracks are collected on the expansive but stunningly consistent Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox.
The set is a testament to Knox’s influence, both in New Zealand and beyond. The first track starts us off on a bittersweet note. Jay Reatard, who passed away in January, gives us an infectious lo-fi version of “Pull Down the Shades.” It’s a reminder of how much we’ll miss Reatard, and it also sets the bar awfully high for the rest of Stroke. But for the next 35 songs, most everyone seems up to the task.
Many of the highlights come from unsurprising places. Yo La Tengo, Will Oldham, A.C. Newman, Bill Callahan, and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt all turn in great performances. Callahan in particular shines with his lilting take on “Lapse,” and Yo La Tengo handle “Coloured” as if it’s fragile, but the soft treatment works.
And while Knox is clearly revered in American indie-rock circles, there are plenty of New Zealand acts here who shine, as well. The Clean’s David Kilgour turns in one of the best tracks of the lot with his countrified “Nothing’s Going to Happen.” The Bats make warm, jangly pop out of “Just Do It.” And Peter Gutteridge breaks up the disc’s power-pop opening with the melancholy “Don’t Catch Fire.” Each song shows a reverence to Knox, but each also reveals just how crucial he was to all of these bands. The Clean, the Bats, the Verlaines and on and on and on — all owe plenty of their skewed pop sensibilities and punk edge to Knox. And that influence comes through in how easily Knox’s songs — which can be stylistically all over the map themselves — adapt so seamlessly to the strengths of so many artists.
The real standouts, on an album full of great music, hide themselves until late. Jeff Mangum emerged from wherever he disappeared to and recorded “Sign the Dotted Line,” which is a brief but triumphant return to form for the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman. The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, after some heartfelt well-wishing to Knox, belts out a raw-nerved, home-recorded version of “Brave.” And Lambchop’s version of “What Goes Up” strips their lush country sound to the ragged bone, and the simpler arrangement works, smartly putting Knox’s words on display.
The entire two-disc set shines like this. Knox as a songsmith is front and center at every moment, and each artist gives his song an energetic and thoughtful rendition. Sure, it is a bittersweet collection, since it is Knox’s tough situation that makes it necessary. But no one here is looking to wallow in sadness. Instead, they celebrate this great artist while also helping him in their small way. Of course, you’ll be helping too when you go pick up Stroke. But it’ll feel much more like all these artists, and Knox himself, are doing much more for you.