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Music Review: Hands and Knees – Et Tu, Fluffy?

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I'm so glad we live in the future now.  When I was 21, I had all kinds of time to dig deep into the rock scene to find the good stuff, to pick up the first Green Day EP or Mercury Rev or The Flaming Lips before they hit with “Jelly.” And that’s what it took, if you wanted the really good stuff. You had to dig for it. If you were to turn on the radio back then, all there was to hear was the fading detritus of hair metal competing with the muffled guitars and high-calorie male vocals of “grunge,” whatever the hell that was. How exhausting. How banal.

But things are better today; diversity reigns. Now that the major labels are withering and A&R reps aren’t snatching up every band with a nose ring and throwing millions of dollars of payola after them, now that we’re in the future, it’s so much easier for the casual rock fan (even an old man of 34) to find exciting new sounds – even if they’re old sounds made new all over again. And that’s the key to the future. The future (e.g., now) is where a band can take a bit of Bo Diddley and a splash of Herb Alpert, and make out of them something that’s more meaningful than mere pastiche.

And the best part is, it’s (I swear this is true) so much easier to find the good stuff now that rock radio is dying. It is a very pleasing thing, living in the future as we do, this group over here can think Atreyu or Dragonforce are the bees’ knees, and that group over there can be all “Dragonwho? I sure love that Neko Case, she’s the best!,” and, because this is the future, they can both be right at the same time. That’s breathtakingly awesome.

So, let U2 and Kelly Clarkson and Nickelback have the airwaves – rock fans of every stripe have an embarrassment of riches right here in the future. There’s wonderful music everywhere you look, if you want it.

Case in point: Et Tu, Fluffy?, the second album from Boston's Hands and Knees, is an album of the future.  Their deceptively simple, simply performed songs contain multitudes – Paul McCartney, Sonic Youth, X, The Banana Splits, The Heartless Bastards, Thee Headcoats (who?!?) and even shades of alt-country – specifically groups like The Jayhawks and Paisley Underground stalwarts Green on Red.  They have a very postmodern low-fi sound, an unpretentious way that draws on influences decades old, but with songs that could only come from, yes, the future.  Have I blown your mind yet?

It’s actually quite impressive. Hands and Knees not only make matching X with The Banana Splits sound easy, they make it sound natural, as if they were sitting around in someone's living room on a Sunday afternoon jamming on some spontaneously generated but perfectly crafted Sonic Youthy McCartney countryish bubblegum X sounding songs, and someone just happened to roll tape and capture the whole affair for posterity.

Et Tu, Fluffy? creeps in on acoustic guitars and handclaps, and just over half an hour later creeps out again the same way, buoyed by a lovely hook played on a thumb piano. But for a record that comes and goes so modestly, nearly every song of the album’s eleven is a perfect little self-contained world.  "Hot Little Item" blends a shuffle beat with new-wave guitars and a chorus that draws on "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain,"  and "You Thought it'd Make You Feel Better" manages to fit the twisted boy-girl harmonies of X right next to Minor Threat and an amped-up Paisley Underground bounce.  “Anywhere But Here” throws turbulent, noisy guitar up next to a tart and echo-laden female vocal performance, and the vocal performance on the 90-second long “Shove It Up Your Heart” is a tough little mash note to Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X.

And, honestly, it’s so nice to find a band who do what they come to do, and then shut up! Only one song on Et Tu, Fluffy? (the lovely album-closing “Whatever Happened to That Beautiful City?”) tops three and a half minutes. Thank you! Thank you, Hands and Knees for saying what needs to be said, and playing not one note more.  I mean, I’m a pretty big Mastodon fan, but I don’t really need to hear a 13-minute multi-part opus about Czarist Russia (a la “The Last Baron” on 2009’s Crack The Skye) all that often. On the other hand, I can throw “Whatever Happened to That Beautiful City” on repeat, open my blinds, and stare out at a beautiful sunny afternoon any time at all (right this minute, in fact).

I do suppose it’s odd to claim that the future is made of three-minute pop songs complete with handclaps, but plus ça change, I suppose. We don’t have jetpacks yet either. In any event, Hands and Knees have made a damn good charming and winsome little record, and kept their eyes squarely on making the eleven songs on Et Tu, Fluffy? as good as distorted, low-fi power pop is likely to get.

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