Review: Knock Knock by DJ Koze

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DJ Koze

Knock Knock is a sternly professional album by an artist who’s typically more playful; a demo reel by an artist we already know is capable of great things. 2013’s Amygdala is one of the best “artist albums” ever made by a house producer. But while that record seemed to rise naturally from the landscape, Knock Knock is constructed—a community planned around an architect’s vision. Luckily for us, few producers impose a more fearsome vision on their art than DJ Koze.

The German has only made three albums since 2005, but his catalog of apocrypha is extensive: a DJ-Kicks mix in 2015 (brilliant), a compilation from his Pampa label (inconsistent), a collection of sketches as Adolf Noise (fun). These releases are united by his personality. He’s a psychedelic, puckish prankster, in love with house music as well as hip-hop and Sgt. Pepper, which informed Amygdala and potentially the melody of “Moving in a Liquid” here. Like Paul McCartney, his music is marked by euphoric lapses into childish joy. You know that moment on “Yellow Submarine” when the sea captain with the megaphone exclaims “submarine, haha!” Koze sells that guileless feeling by the bottle. I can’t think of a single moment in his catalog that’s played for irony; even his acapella cover of “We Are The World” from the Adolf Noise record doesn’t make fun of the song but transmutes its communal ecstasy to drunken solitude.

There’s no shortage of this feeling on Knock Knock, but this time the music seems to be mostly about Koze’s ability to create it. From the opening swell of maudlin strings and cetacean bass, the overwhelming feeling of this album is of its creator’s heedless joy—of “I’m motherfucking DJ Koze.” It doesn’t feel like a symphony to God the way Amygdala did, and it’s too high-stakes to rub elbows with most of the rest of his work. Here, the thrills come from the enviable roster of guests (sampled artists like Bon Iver and Gladys Knight get full billing) and the way Koze incorporates his quirks and penchant for tearjerking into building their sky-high platforms.

There are vocalists on most of these tracks, and while minor indie stars like Matthew Dear and Milosh drifted through Amygdala like fellow travelers on the autobahn, here the songs are as much about the guests as the host. You can imagine how much fun Koze must have had calling up Lambchop’s beautifully deadpan frontman Kurt Wagner for “Muddy Funster,” and if you’ve ever heard a Lambchop song, you can share in some of that delight as you press play on the track and wait for him to start neuroting. Ditto Speech from the ‘90s Atlanta rap group Arrested Development, who hasn’t been much in the spotlight recently but whom Koze calls up for the daisy-rap delight “Colors of Autumn” like Tarantino summoning Travolta for Pulp Fiction.

Koze has the clout and the budget to nab most singers on the music-crit circuit, but he’s amazingly fair and works wonders with his lesser-known guests. Sophia Kennedy, Pampa’s breakout star, has two fantastic guest turns, and on “This Is My Rock” the beat seems to shrink away from her in deference, like the band quieting down when Fela Kuti starts singing. “Moving in a Liquid” is the best track here because of the interaction between the beat and unknown singer Eddie Fummler, whose only credit so far is here. Koze introduces the song, the vocal sample quiets down a bit, Fummler starts singing—and then the sample rises up again to greet Fummler like a dog rushing to greet its master when he comes home. It’s almost heartwarming.

Few producers know their way around a vocal sample like Koze, and the disco edit “Pick Up” evokes Luomo’s Vocalcity in its mastery of the vocal tease. He unveils a sample of Gladys Knight one word at a time: “neither one of us wants to be the first…” she stutters at first, before Koze allows her to finish her sentence and the full sadness of the lyric hits us. His treatment of samples here is less abstract than on Amygdala, where he distorted disembodied missives from Marvin Gaye or Carole King until they communicated the emotions but not the words. He leaves Knight and Bon Iver unsullied, though Bon Iver’s lyrics are abstract enough as they are.

“Pick Up,” at six and a half minutes, is the longest track here. This points both to how song-oriented Knock Knock is and how in its back half, when Koze really lets the album sprawl, it feels more like a collection of outtakes than part of the landscape. “Lord Knows” and “Baby (How Much I LFO You)” feel like beats Koze made in his spare time, and though they might work on a lower-stakes album, here they feel like shacks sandwiched between skyscrapers. Knock Knock is about the same length as Amygdala, but that album had longer tracks like “La Duquesa” that were pure scenery and gave the record some room to breathe. With so much going on, Knock Knock can feel like too much of a good thing as it crawls through its final third.

The weightiness of this record compared to the lightness of its predecessors is ultimately what keeps it from the crown jewels of the Koze discography, though it’s leagues ahead of the Pampa compilation or Koze’s competent debut Kosi Comes Around. Perhaps the pressure of making good on his impressive run of minor releases, all of which were critically well-received, drove Koze to really make an impression with this album. It comes on strong when you first press play on it, less so on subsequent listens. This is the kind of album you might find yourself less inclined to play all the way through than scroll through the tracklist and queue up songs at will, but there’s enough great music here that you could have a new favorite song every day. B PLUS