Sean Knisely has added a solo project — Wilbur By The Sea, apparently named after the area in Florida — to his already impressive list of musical exploits.
He made his bones as the frontman for Attack Flamingo, cut his folk music teeth with The Rambling Dangers and most recently lent his talents to Coyotes in Boxes, all while maintaining Huntington Underground, a site promoting the Jewel City’s musically gifted.
As a testament to his integrity and die-hard belief in all the town’s music, Knisely is as enthusiastic about other artists as he is about his own work. So it is in that spirit that WildBlog offers its review of Wilbur By The Sea’s self-titled debut full-length. After all, Knisely has spent most of his time singing others’ praises, so he’s about due.
Cory: Knisely is at his best here. Absent the elaborate stage show of Attack Flamingo and featured solo, his talent is even more apparent. The record is reminiscent of Elliott Smith and Ryan Adams, which isn’t altogether surprising, but Wilbur By The Sea demonstrates more pop sensibility than either.
Taylor: When I first heard these tunes, I instantly went back to a Knisely-led Attack Flamingo acoustic performance at Marshall’s WMUL-FM a few years back. My first impression was that these tunes were solid, but my concern was stability. This album is solid throughout and is one of those rare West Virginia products that would stand out as much on a national stage as it would at the Tamarack.
Cory: Love, both lost and found, faith, and bitterness about situations, locations and people, specifically women – Wilbur By The Sea hits all the major requisites of an indie album but in a refreshing, tasteful way. Somehow, Knisely sings about love without sounding desperate, about faith without sounding preachy, and about bitterness without sounding unoriginal. To hit all the major inspirations for music in an interesting way is a task that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Taylor: The indie sensibilities of Knisely do certainly shine through his latest effort. His love for the abstract, whimsical and unique are most notable on this self-titled solo album. With just a few instruments, and in a very simplistic way, Knisely takes the spaced-out layering effect of Attack Flamingo and somehow “flattens” the experience into a one-man studio effort just as powerful. The secret engine for this complexity-via-simplicity is that lyrically, Knisely verbally carries us beyond the simple, but carefully curated backing track.
Cory: Wilbur By The Sea is intelligent music. Knisely is a literate person who employs the right words at the right time so consistently that when he drops the word “behooves” in Track 2, “Comfortable,” the listener doesn’t think twice about it. He’s not showing off his vocabulary on this record, but it’s obvious that Knisely knows how to express himself effectively, thereby allowing us to appreciate his music appropriately. The occasional, unusual line is paired with others so universal and anthemic, like “And it seems Huntington should be too small to swallow dreams,” also from “Comfortable,” that the messages of the record come through loud and clear.
Some of the songs, “Comfortable” and “A Cemetery Greeting” feature lyrics that sound philosophical, almost as if Knisely is diagnosing the listener’s problems and offering advice, but he somehow avoids sounding presumptuous or overbearing – probably because it seems obvious these songs were engendered by personal experience.
Taylor: I’ve never asked him, but after a listen of Wilbur By the Sea, I can’t imagine Knisely would disagree with the idea of creating lyrics as suited to melody as they are to poetry. The shoegaze lyrics of songs such as “Covenant of Chemicals” and “Long Division” smack perfectly against the well-placed near-pop-tune intro-track “Waterbaby.”
The lyrical styling of Knisely has always been tinged with a touch of intellectualism. It’s not because he utilizes “big words” or tries to make repeated references to obscure Greek tomes. Knisely’s lyrics seem intellectual, not because they are hard to understand, but because it escapes obvious rhymes while still remaining quasi-familiar. When you try to predict the next line, you will miss it, but you will feel like you shouldn’t have.
Cory: Whether he’s playing with seemingly space-age instruments while performing with Attack Flamingo, showcasing harmonica runs with The Rambling Dangers or providing his own stunning, Beatles-esque back-up vocals in Wilbur By The Sea, Knisely’s prowess can not be overstated. Combined with Knisely’s unique voice, the music perfectly complements the sentiments of the album, sometimes with a long-ringing minor chord and other times with hand-clapping, head-nodding rhythms.
Taylor: Knisely does have some obvious influencers, but he’s no doubt added to the blend of ingredients his own flavors. In my mind, I used to consider him a a “radio guy” that did some music during his tenure as the frontman for Attack Flamingo because of his ties to the Marshall University radio station. Of course, now I see that I was wrong. It turns out Knisely is one hell of a musician who just so happened to study radio and production value.
Cory: As if promoting and creating local music isn’t enough, Knisely also produces. And while he selflessly tries his best with every act lucky enough to win his services, he struck a uniquely beautiful and understated balance with “Wilbur By The Sea” that allows listeners to truly appreciate how good these songs are.
Taylor: Wilbur By the Sea is reminiscent of the Mountain Goats, Iron and Wine, etc., combined with the sort of self-recorded production that was popular just a few years ago. That’s not to say this fails the material. Knisely expertly chose the recording style for this album. The feel of “Wilbur By the Sea” is more intimate than your average effort.
Cory: Track 10 comes out of nowhere on this record, showcasing Knisely in a more raucous mood that reminds me of Brendan Benson (of Raconteurs fame) mixed with the Cold War Kids. “Girl You’re Good at Hiding Your Feelings” seems to restate some of the earlier themes from the record with a focus on catharsis, evidenced by Knisely’s screaming throughout the chorus.
Taylor: I actually greatly appreciated the reference to Huntington in “Comfortable.” For a national audience, it means little, and may even take a few points away from the final score of a song. As someone who spent some time in H-Town, I appreciate the line “Huntington should be too small to swallow dreams.”
I wouldn’t want to encourage Knisely to continue driving at the limited and narrow audience that is Huntington, but I appreciate the nod.
Cory: “A Cemetery Greeting” is the best track on the album.
The lyrics are as charged as they get for the record, with Knisely tackling personal conscience and self-reliance vs. faith and dependence on God. The theme echoes C.S. Lewis’ insistence that all of man’s heartache comes from his attempts to fill his life with things that are not God.
Knisely sings, “You got fifty-one albums on your bedroom floor, and not a single one’s singing what you’re longing for,” asserting that not even music can fill such a gap.
But when Knisely sings in the chorus, “No one made you ready enough to make this climb, but you wouldn’t have believed it if it’s written in the sky,” is he saying that only God can help you or that you’re on your own, and no one can help you?
Taylor: “A Cemetery Greeting” was certainly a good track, and a definite homage to the late-90s, early 2000s alternative scene, but I wouldn’t single it out as the best track on the album.
My personal favorite is “Covenant of Chemicals,” a track that, in my opinion, lies closer to Kniseley’s obviously intense Smashing Pumpkins influence. The background vocals are barely audible, but haunting, while the entire composition of instruments on the track seem to undulate up and down in a chemical haze that rarely sees the harmonica leads Knisely paints onto its canvas.
The line “Bury my mistakes / Remind me you don’t write them down anymore” is simultaneously melancholy and hope-bearing.
Cory: Having heard Knisely in most of his musical ventures for the past few years, I can confidently say that Wilbur By The Sea demonstrates that he consistently improves upon the seemingly unimprovable. While the demise of Attack Flamingo was certainly a blow to the music scene, perhaps it’s best everyone else got out of Knisely’s way.
Taylor: I wish Attack Flamingo was still together. I wish the Rambling Dangers still performed and that I’d had the privilege of seeing Coyote in Boxes live. I wish Wilbur By the Sea came out two years ago. I wish Knisely were all of those persons at once and all of them could flourish. However, given the product that Sean is producing now, I can’t say that any of his decisions were a mistake.
The music that Knisely is creating with Wilbur by the Sea is perfect for what it is. That’s the best way to really describe any of his projects. While Attack Flamingo, Wilbur By the Sea and everything in between may fall short of perfect-in-whole, all of those projects seem deliberate, calculated and combed in a manner that few Huntington bands have accomplished thus far.
Wilbur By The Sea’s self-titled is available for streaming and download at http://www.wilburbythesea.bandcamp.com.