Brent Knopf formed Ramona Falls in early 2009 while recording on Menomena’s third album was delayed. The Ramona Falls debut full length Intuit featured collaborations with 35 different musicians on both U.S. coasts, and was generally well-received. One of the keys to making that record work was an uncanny ability to surprise the listener at every turn. A violin solo would pop up here, a choir there, and genre influences would shift wildly from looped electronica one moment to Eastern European folk the next. It sounds terribly unbalanced, but there was a subtlety and charisma behind it that sucked you in. After touring in support of Menomena’s record Mines was complete at the end of 2010, Knopf announced he was leaving the band to focus on Ramona Falls. Now that this project has his full attention, you’d expect Ramona Falls’ second record to be even denser than the last, continuing the evolution into obscurist pop. Then again, expectations can often be misleading.
The new album Prophet surprises mainly in how it pulls back on the reins of experimentation a little in favor of something that’s rather normal-sounding and pop-friendly. On the surface, it seems that Knopf is in search of some sort of mainstream success. Before he can actually get there though, he’s in dire need of some confidence on one end of his musical spectrum. The arrangements on this album are muscular and bright, but his vocals are almost exactly the opposite. He sings like a hybrid of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean, and Sufjan Stevens, which is to say in a lilting, almost whispered fashion. His inability to match the enthusiasm and grandiosity of the busy melodies actually hurts its overall effectiveness. More often than not his singing winds up nearly drowned out by everything going on, and even when it meshes well with the environment it lacks the gravity and emotion required to truly hit home. The lyrics are more personal than anything Knopf has written before, but they suffer because of the straightlaced and flat way they’re sung. Opening track “Bodies of Water” is about the double-edged sword of romantic relationships, how you grow and share as a person but also expose yourself to the potential to get hurt. The complicated arrangement speaks well to the message of the song, but the vocals fall short. “Brevony” is a heavy and ferocious electric guitar cut, and though there are references to wrath and anger, Knopf calmly sings those words and destroys their potential impact. Not everything gets ruined due to some imperfect vocals. First single “Spore” is a slow and bubbling electro build to an energetic release, and Knopf pushes his voice accordingly. Though it feels disturbingly like an early Death Cab for Cutie song, “If I Equals U” maintains a certain degree of calm that makes its execution quite comfortable. Sad break-up song “Proof” might just win the award for album’s best though, with a complex yet delicate arrangement that includes orchestration and some careful plucking.
Perhaps Knopf’s biggest mistake in putting together this new Ramona Falls record was that he made it too energetic and upbeat. Normally such a thing would be encouraged because it tends to make a record more interesting. There is quite a bit about Prophet that is interesting and enjoyable as a direct result of this approach. The songs are far more rock oriented, but pounding pianos or blaring horns always make their presence felt here or there to throw a slight twist on an otherwise pedestrian melody. It’s in that way this record bears similar markings to Intuit. But using that record and his previous work with Menomena as examples, Knopf benefits most from careful and precarious execution; a certain fragility in the composition that matches the fragility in his voice. The greater confidence he attains instrumentally, the louder or more brash he gets, and the easier it is for him to stumble. A fair portion of this album leaves him tripping and trying to catch up with the many ideas spilling out through various instruments. Maybe with some vocal help he can catch up, or maybe he can scale back just enough to put everything back in its right place.