In Menomena, Brent Knopf shares singing and songwriting duties with two other, highly capable indie frontmen. Their diverse, free-associative approach to songcraft guarantees that each album is a restless, trippy pleasure, but it also likely requires a lot of creative compromise. So when Knopf announced that he was going solo as Ramona Falls, one might have expected he was looking for a project that would allow a little more of his individualism to come through by stripping down the studio tricks, cueing up the acoustic guitars, and doing some on-record soul-searching.
Well, Intuit does have acoustic guitars (layers upon layers of them, in fact), but it also has a whole lot more. Whatever aspect of his songwriting Knopf didn’t feel he could convey with his two mates in Menomena, he apparently thought he’d stand a better chance if he invited, like, half of Portland to play with him. The label reports that more than 35 West Coast musicians, from members of the Helio Sequence to Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss, got in on the act, but you don’t need the press kit to figure that out. Every song is packed with accordions, string interludes, fuzzed-out electrics, chiming bells, the occasional gang vocal sequence; basically, it’s the same fun-house school of songwriting that Knopf does in his main act, but on an even larger scale. Pure madcap momentum is a large part of what holds the album together, and where Intuit succeeds it’s as much a matter of finesse as of songcraft.
On the breathtaking opener, “Melectric,” the band rumbles to life behind Knopf, acoustic guitars jangling in sheets over cavernous tom hits as he begs, “Please don’t you give me false hope/You’re free to go.” It’s a gripping intro, and the song delivers on its promise with a finale that includes a tasteful choral arrangement and a discordant surge of electric guitar. But no sooner has Knopf won our confidence than he’s moved on to less certain terrain: “I Say Fever” tries to blend piano-pop with dance-punk bass, resulting in a dubious confection that totally collapses into its atonal chorus. That’s before faux-Gregorian chanting cues in, which, it’s worth noting, has never succeeded in making an annoying song less annoying.
That’s about the ratio of hits and misses for the first half of the album. “Clover” is a tense tearjerker; “Russia” ends in a bracing rush of strings and guitars but only after having spent its first three minutes in an aimless fog. Later, two gorgeous tracks, “Salt Sack” and “The Boy Ant,” get smooshed between two very bad—and unfortunately, very long—ones, “Going Once, Going Twice” and “Always Right.” Anytime one of Knopf’s songs seems to be losing its momentum, he responds by throwing a curveball—or two, or three. As a result, a few tracks that never should have left the studio not only make it onto the album but they do so as horrifying Frankensteinian songs, poorly stitched together from 40-second bursts of sonic eclecticism.
So Knopf’s antic maximalism has its risks, but no track better showcases its promise than “Bellyfulla,” a late-coming highlight that effectively capitalizes on the album’s ample cast by enlisting the delicate folk-pop of Calexico to support a mass sing-along so joyously cathartic it would do the Polyphonic Spree proud. The song would have been a spectacular finale, but Knopf tacks on “Diamond Shovel,” as obligatory a slog through the indie-folk doldrums as the West Coast has produced. Though Intuit is often trying, “Shovel” makes the case that unfocused is always better than uninteresting—at least for Knopf, who, unplugged and unadorned, seems profoundly out of his element.
It’s an unexpected ending to an album that makes a game of doing what is least expected. By turns pleasurable and problematic, Intuit contains four or five tracks that are absolutely as ambitious and, ultimately, as good as anything the indie scene has produced this year, and it’s unfortunate that they may well be heard less because they share album space with a few too many failed experiments. It’s impossible not to recommend an album that contains as many beautiful moments as Intuit, but there’s no question that greater things are within Knopf’s grasp.