Breakup & Die
From Plug In Music The Knobs' 'Break Up and Die' 2009 release shows off a tasteful restraint in musicianship, laced with some of the most naked, anguished honesty that is sometimes so unflinchingly painful to witness. The title weighs heavier with the knowledge that singer and songwriter Phil Healy died more than a year ago in a senseless automobile collision of his own making, tragically killing him and the other driver, who left behind a young child. Hurting others is an outcome Healy would never have wanted, and the proof is in the prophetic glimpses we get of the author of these heart wrenching, self-punishing lyrics. You might be turned away from listening to 'Break Up' if you aren't immediately stunned with how unfortunately recognizable it is, and how much you want to see the singer and his characters somehow make it through in one piece. The Knobs feel like a sadder take on the Jayhawks or even as lofty a band as Wilco. But in place of Jeff Tweedy's cigarette and whiskey stained voice is a softer, more fragile sound similar to almost-forgotten Eighties quirks like Michael Penn and the Dream Academy. In most cases the 'anti-protagonist' is Healy, trying to persuade an estranged love to leave him on 'Save Yourself,' or convincing himself to take another shot at another love he probably let slip away too easily on 'After All, It's Been A While.' You can almost hear a kind, older relative comforting a youth almost completely struck down with grief in 'The Way is Up.' It offers words maybe Healy would wish were heard more often, maybe said to that child who lost a parent: 'And though this stretch may take you down, down, down, the way is up, the way is up for you.' Some of the most personal, tortured sentiments come on 'History's Evil,' complete with the ominous guitar down beats (or in this case, beat downs) so associated with invincible bands like The Clash. But that's where the comparison would stop. 'Your dad was a drinker, left his good girls behind... You don't like to think you're the end of the line... History's evil, biology is cruel, you're one of those people, and I am too.' The disc isn't totally strangled by hopelessness. 'Say Goodnight' is as a perfect a set closer as you'll find. In his melancholy way, Healy sweetly, delicately sings, 'And may you dream of healing angels, and hear from those who've passed, let them tell you that these dark nights of loneliness won't last.' The jewel in this thorny crown is the opener, 'Dublin Sky on New Year's Eve.' It's timeless, nearly flawless in it's imperfection, ease, richness and full ambition. The instruments blend gracefully, naturally, from a sow trot to a sustained gallop. 'The ones that are loud burn out the fastest, the ones that implode all remind me of me, you are the ones that could go on forever, lighting the earth with your brilliant colors.' If Healy is the Knobs' aching soul, then Phil Young is the band's beating, determined heart. The 'other Phil' plays guitar and sings backing vocals on each of the ten songs on the record, with keyboards phased in on some of them, and steady, expert drums on half of them. I wouldn't call any song on 'Break Up and Die' upbeat, but the pulse quickens and the noose loosens a bit on 'If I Died in a Car Crash,' a twisted scenario with added staggering irony that allows Young a chance to put some distance between him and the lonesome town the Knobs are desperately trying to leave by nailing drum fills like back flips in a championship gymnastics meet. Ken Herblin is also credited with guitars, and between him and the two Phils come slight, relaxed echoes of such greats as Velvet Underground-period Lou Reed and appropriately-named Neil Young's magical 'Harvest Moon.' You can hear it in the haunting, crooning guitar lines of 'Say Goodnight' and quick, sharp needle pointed notes on 'Dublin Sky...' What you get on The Knobs' 'Break Up and Die' is a culmination of a band's influences, married to all their work, hard-learned lessons, and the stone cold sense that no other outcome is possible.