Khonnor: Handwriting

That Handwriting displays an uncommon maturity exceeding Connor Kirby-Long's seventeen years need hardly be said; here's one instance where the word 'prodigy' legitimately applies. But, having duly acknowledged that impressive feat, the critical issue of the album's merit is then broached, and while Handwriting offers ample evidence of Kirby-Long's talent and potential, it's also compromised by errors in judgment. Clearly, he has an indisputable compositional gift for three-minute pop songs of a delicate and fragile kind. The classic waltz “Phone Calls From You,” for example, conjures a mood of sincere longing that's so unabashed it belongs in a more innocent era, and the admirably sparse vocal, piano, and guitar arrangement flirts with stately poignancy. Regrettably, he adds superfluous electronic noise to the song which proves distracting and weakens its mood, a problem that surfaces throughout. To wit: the melancholy “Man From The Anthill” opens the album promisingly with a distant soaring guitar yet the song is buried under gratuitous layers of static and hiss, a fate that similarly befalls “Megans Present” and “An Ape Is Loose.” The piano in “Kill2” sounds like it was recorded under water and the mix is a hazy blur—a shame when the song's wistful, lullaby feel is otherwise so promising.

Minus the layers of electronic noise, the songs would impress much more. A lovely Manual guitar line appears alongside an affecting vocal in “Crapstone” (unfortunately, interfering clanking noises dominate the intro) and “A Little Secret,” with its New Order bass line, Sigur Rós piano figure, and squelchy beats, showcases Kirby-Long's talent for song construction in spite of the intrusive sounds. The Fenneszian swirls in the instrumental closer “Tattletalent (Encore)” suggest that Handwriting may be Kirby-Long's attempt to marry classic pop with Fennesz or shoegaze. Regardless, the ultimate test of a song is that it succeeds when performed most nakedly and, frankly, much of Handwriting would likely survive this test, “Dusty” a case in point. Not surprisingly, the album impresses most of all in those moments where the music is presented most plainly.

While the musical styles of Gavin Bryars and Connor Kirby-Long are dissimilar, it's instructive to compare the two in one specific regard. Bryars recorded his 1990 version of The Sinking of the Titanic in a three-story water tower in order to maximize the work's resonance—an apt performance and recording scenario given the content of the piece; when Long smothers his songs with digital noise there's no equally necessary reason for doing so. Stripped of such treatments, Handwriting impresses as an engaging set of affecting pop songs that showcase a young artist's prodigious talents.

September 2004