A few years ago, my husband and I were doing a deep-dive into Aimee Mann’s career. From’Til Tuesday through soundtrack songs, her cover of The Beatles’ “Two of Us” with her husband Michael Penn, through live covers of songs like Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”
That’s when it happened. The song that didn’t exist— not yet. Sometimes you know before you hit “play” that it’s love at first site. We actually have ourselves a moment of gravitas— and then my husband pressed, “Baby, Who Knows,” a song that features Mann brilliantly, but that did something just as spectacular—
It introduced us to Kimon Kirk.
The musicality in the single is such to remind you why pop music is so long-standing and joyful; despite his clever and often stinging lyrics, the melodies (and Mann’s harmonies!) create an atmosphere not unlike lush chamber pop like Left Banke, Badfinger, and even The Kinks. Enough Kirk’s voice is whiskey-smooth and lovely, almost lulling a listener in, he manages to take some of the performative theatrics of musicians like Harry Nilsson. He sings lines like this—
We turned a blind eye to the things you didn’t see in him
Hoping he would change what’s wrong
You failed to mention your accepting mediocrity
Met your expectations all along
Baby who knows, nobody knows, maybe you knew and just forgot
Baby who knows, maybe you chose someone because of what they’re not
Baby who knows, baby who knows, baby who knows
— as though he is listing his his day at work went. It has the fine of Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” though he never quite takes the glee at the end: in this song, Kirk’s narrator is in love and has lost to a perceived lesser man, but even worse— he thinks the woman he fell in love with actually things she’s found the kind of love she wants. And maybe it is! As we float through the guitar solo and bridge, Kirk admits, “Still it’s a comfort to be near you in a smaller way…/ Now that I realize the bar for you was set too high/ I won’t let disappointment show.”
But then the guitar: it is manipulated so perfectly as to actually beg the listener, “baby, who knows?” It holds the cadence until Kirk and Mann pop back in and sing it, perfectly, almost like The Fairport Convention’s masterpiece, “Meet on the Ledge.” When they converge and the vocals mix, it is truly sublime.
“Baby, Who Knows” became one of my favorite songs overnight.
Most people who know me well know that my obsessive-compulsive disorder often manifests itself in the form of “completeness”— Kimon Kirk had just written one of my new favorite songs. And—
— that was that. I got one song and a gorgeous B-side, “Powerstroke.” Sometimes I want to compare him to The Beach Boys because of his guitar tone and arrangement abilities, but it feels a little meta when he jangles out lyrics like “I could feel it like a thunderbolt/ a Brian Wilson powerstroke/ a genius in an overdriven way”— Kirk is intimately familiar with his influences, clearly, but more than that, he has the ability to back that il musically and lyrically (“As earnest as a valentine/ I’m just trying to make you mine” is a great showcase of his lyrical playfulness through rhyme even in a song where he could get away with less. He also had a lovely 2011 record that seemed to be a cross between Paul Simon and Brendan Benson with a touch of Laurel Canyon Jazz exploration (so I listened to it constantly), but I couldn’t stop thinking about “Baby, Who Knows” and what kind of a record I it would be on.
INTERNET. RED ALERT! KIMON KIRK HAS A NEW RECORD AND THOUGH MY EXPECTATIONS SET UP FOR A FALL…
…HIS FORTHCOMING RECORD ALTITUDE EXCEEDED EVERY DESIRE AND HOPE I HAD FOR IT.
The first track, “Evergreen,” is so outrageously beautiful that when I was sent a promotional copy, I actually threw out my process (which, re: the acknowledged and diagnosed OCD, is saying something): I ALWAYS listen to a record in its completeness before I begin repeating songs.
Once again, leave it to Kimon Kirk to throw me a curveball. I listened to “Evergreen” eight times. The record starts with a chord pattern that pulls the muscles of your heart apart in the way a perfect Robyn Hitchcock or R.E.M. song does: it feels almost unfinished as it spills into his beautiful vocals that cradle you into the chorus, “Patience is a virtue, baby I can wait.” The second verse is sprinkled with guitar trolls and riffs, and patience shrinks and shrinks— he can wait a week or an hour or a minute— but the metaphor of an Evergreen, the tallest tree, the one that never ages all the way— looms large, a shadow over the song. This narrator lives in the presence of his love and that shadow may not always be perfect— hell, there may be times where it actually hurts him and blocks the sun— but this is a love that is consuming, real, and part of the natural world. There is nothing manufactured in a Kimon Kirk song, and what a gift: allowing your brain to go on a journey with his is rewarding.
I want to tell you about every song on this record, you know. I want to tell you every lyric. When I finally didn’t hit “back” fast enough and the second track, “Trampoline,” came on, I couldn’t begin to turn it off. In fact, the whole record is an explosion of sound that will not just allow but compel you to put your phone down and play along with his clever lyrics and surprising musical movements. “Trampoline” is a spaghetti western mixed with surf-rock, The Beach Boys scoring a John Wayne film (until the scorching guitar solo: remember solos? Damn, this record has some fun ones). But the song literally starts—
A little bit slow on the uptake
A little too quick on the jive
I’d tell you it was time for a remake
But I wouldn’t want to give the wrong vibe
Though I had your number once, you still find a way to keep me guessing
It’s hard-driving power-pop with the lyrical mysticism of a Pete Yorn or Richard Buckner type— it feels like he’s written entire novels and then combed through them to find the most interesting and evocative phrases whether or not they tell a perfectly clear narrative or not. Perhaps the stunning trick about “Trampoline” in particular though is that it goes from a dark feeling in the verse and pre-choruses a bright, major-chord chords with brilliant harmonies by Sarah Borges. It is absolutely transcendent to go from a driving, mysterious tone to a sunlight-laden brightness. It feels like a walk on a perfect sunny day— and then it feels like a stakeout. The adrenaline rush from going back and forth is astounding.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I wish I could talk about every song on this record— to the point where, if you want to talk about it, please reach out. I’m @katieUWSF on Twitter and @katie_underwatersunshine on Instagram: please reach out. I want to talk about everything. Every surprising, labyrinthine chord progression. Every clever lyric. Butter the purposes of this article, I just want to call the wind “The Girl I Uses to Know” into the conversation: it has violent imagery and striking sensory details, all of which trace back to ‘a girl [he] used to know.’ This feels like something Matthew Sweet would have written— but it also feels like Big Star. It feels like Marshall Crenshaw. Every pop song you’ve ever heard that made you feel just a little ominous and a little excited? That’s “A Girl I Used to Know.” The reveal is so good it almost tastes good.
She paints on the ceiling over my bed, a breadcrumb lane
To the land of the dead
Bodies splashed with blood from head to toe, drawn by
A girl I used to know
…Look out below! Look out below!
The transistor glows from long ago…
One station plays in the radio, it crackles
Under water like sonic snow (editor’s intrusion: how outrageously good is this line?!)
Through the static I remember how it goes
Sing along to a girl I used to know
Wow. Just wow. Through some of the most direct, crunchy shongwritjng, theatrical calling out in the chorus, we learn he CANNOT escape the girl he used to know: her hits still play on the radio. There’s a whisper of Okkervil River’s “Calling and Not Calling My Ex,” but musically, there’s some of the same driving force that keeps Elvis Costello vibrating.
When you buy Altitude (and you should/ you will enjoy it), you will have the benefit of hearing “Baby, Who Knows” and falling in love like I did. Even better? You have so much more material that is there just waiting for you. It is ready to envelope you in the shade of an Evergreen: a musician like Kimon Kirk is making music that has a timeless quality that will allow if fo live forever, never to diminish, and to still be waiting for you when you are ready.
There isn’t much in life I am certain of, but one of the few is that I know when I have heard a perfect record, I won’t ever have it leave my permanent collection. I can pick the ponies.
Altitude to win.