A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: L.S.U.
WHO ARE THEY? The hardest-working man in Christian show business is almost certainly Mike Knott, who fronts L.S.U. (and about forty other bands, as well as his releasing many solo albums). His importance in the history of Christian alternative rock is hard to overstate—L.S.U.’s first album, Shaded Pain (1987), was the darkest (“most honest” is the way Knott fans tend to describe it) album ever released to the Christian market at that time.
Oddly enough, the band was essentially a new iteration of a very different band, the cheery pop-punk combo Lifesavers (or sometimes Lifesavors, for some reason). Knott signaled the change in tone with a name change: L.S.U. stands for Lifesavers Underground. He began frantically releasing albums under the new moniker (while also still releasing sporadic Lifesavers albums), changing the band’s sound on each album to reflect current trends and the urgings of his own muse.
It must be noted here that Knott’s prolificacy almost always came at the expense of quality control—L.S.U.’s albums were hastily written and recorded on a shoestring budget, and it shows. Loving their work sometimes requires a feat of the imagination in which you think about what the album would sound like if Knott had had the backing of a major label. (It’s also helpful to imagine the consistency of his records if he’d released one every two years instead of multiple albums a year.)
L.S.U., along with Knott’s other projects, went dormant in the early 21st century, as a result of his very well-documented alcoholism—but he seems to have gotten his life together to some extent, and the band released their ninth studio album, P.T.S.D., in 2010.
GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Funk Rock, Glam Rock, Gothic Rock, Lo-Fi Indie, Post-Punk
RIYL Bauhaus, The Cure, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam
WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? Unless you follow this scene, I doubt you do, frankly, though you may have heard of their frontman, Mike Knott, from his other projects (most of which will receive their own entries in this series).
WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? “Double,” the sound of a man’s life falling apart because of his own terrible decisions.
The Grape Prophet (L.S. Underground, 1992). Most of Mike Knott’s albums, whether with L.S.U. or not, are concept albums of sorts, but from time to time he puts out an actual rock opera. The Grape Prophet was the first of them, and it tells the story (largely incomprehensible without an explanation) of Bob Jones, a Kansas City-based prophet from the Vineyard churches who led the members of Knott’s Bible study into weird, cult-like behavior. (Jones was removed from the ministry for sexual misconduct shortly before the album was released.)
I also think of The Grape Prophet as the first of Knott’s many Los Angeles albums, both because the events it narrates largely take place in Southern California and because he narrates those events in the jagged, heavy, howling alternative rock of Jane’s Addiction (and to a lesser extent, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose “Give It Away” certainly makes “A Group of Prophets Predict the Pickers’ Future Without Them” possible). What makes this style particularly appropriate is its sleazy sexual menace, which permeates the record once Ellis, the Knott stand-in, arrives at the Grape Prophet’s headquarters—witness “The Fold” and “Ellis Converses with the Prophets.” The cover art must have raised a few eyebrows, too.
The Choir’s Steve Hindalong gives a bravura spoken-word performance as the Grape Prophet himself, and Caryn Colbert (of Breakfast for Amy) provides the vocals for the women who surround him—but this is ultimately Knott’s show, and his voice runs its full range, often within a single song: Check out “Wino of the Red Is Stained,” for example, and “She Said.” His Perry Ferrell impersonation is not my favorite vocal sound, but it’s so effective in creating this record’s air of sexual menace that I’ll forgive it. No one but Knott was making Christian rock like this in 1992; in fact, I’m relatively certain that no one would have the guts and the vision to make it in 2016.
Shaded Pain (Lifesavers Underground, 1987). Bruce Springsteen famously said that the snare drum at the beginning of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sounded like someone kicking open the door of your mind. I imagine something similar must be true about the drum machine hit that opens “Jordan River,” the first song on the first L.S.U. album. Gothic rock had arrived at the Christian rock industry in all its dark, chaotic glory.
At times, it all feels a little calculated—Knott knows he’s writing darker material than Christian rock fans had ever dealt with, and he leans into it hard. “Die Baby Die,” for all its energy, sounds like a put-on, and the lyrics to the musically excellent “Bye Bye Colour” read like someone’s gothic parody of a nursery rhyme (“Once a maiden so far and so kind / For herself she lived, and for herself she died”). But even aside from the historical context of the album, there’s a lot to love here. I’m particularly fond of the upbeat “Tether to Tassel,” but there’s also the televangelist screed “More to Life,” one of Knott’s most harrowing vocal performances.
WORTH A LISTEN
Wakin’ Up the Dead (1989). The follow-up to Shaded Pain is so lo-fi that it makes Zen Arcade sound like Follow the Leader. It takes a few listens to be able to hear the songs buried underneath the watery guitars, and it’s a shame Knott didn’t have a budget for the album. Wakin’ Up the Dead largely trades in its predecessor’s gothic post-punk for sunny glam rock, often with a funk bass (as on, for example, the opening track, “The Bomb”). Likewise, the lyrics, when you can make them out, move away from Shaded Pain’s dark subjects—though in truth, I have absolutely no idea what Knott is talking about on most of these songs. Their inscrutability reaches its apex on the genuinely wackadoo “House of Love,” a song that’s loveable and hateable in equal measure.
Dogfish Jones (1997). Another rock opera—this one about a sailor who falls overboard and is swallowed by a whale and saved by a mermaid. Also, there are pirates or something, I don’t know. The plot is very hard to follow because the vocals are mostly incomprehensible, but the record sounds great, mostly high-energy and slathered in jagged guitar and Gene Eugene’s “bachelor pad” B-3 organ. There’s a curiously minimalist quality to the songwriting; most of the songs feature six or more vocals simultaneously, each of them repeating a melody line and a short burst of words. The title track is a good example. “Hated Souls,” maybe Knott’s best religious song, breaks the pattern with its ebbs and swells of guitar and sensitive vocals. You can’t discuss Dogfish Jones without talking about the two sea shanties performed by Knott’s father, which are certainly charming, if unexpected. (“Storm at Sea” must be the only Trinitarian sea shanty ever written.)
THE DISCOUNT BIN
Grace Shaker (1994). The theme of this brutally honest record is Knott’s own alcoholism, although he balances out the unflinching visions of his “bad disease” with expressions of divine grace and forgiveness. The most famous of the latter is certainly “Blame,” which was covered to some acclaim by Five O’Clock People in the late 1990s. The problem is, aside from “Blame” and “Double” (one of Knott’s very best acoustic tracks), the songs on Grace Shaker just aren’t that good. The album is split pretty evenly between gentle acoustic songs and screeching alternative rock; the former are generally more effective than the latter, although I’ve always had a soft spot for “Kill Will.”
Cash in Chaos World Tour (1993). Because he was so prolific in the 1990s, Mike Knott’s bête noire was always quality control. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the awkwardly named Cash in Chaos World Tour, not a live album but a tour of the “world” outside the Church. Many of the tracks here aren’t even really songs: “Red Swine” consists of unintelligible murmurings for verses with the asinine couplet “The bitter porker / The bitter swine” as a chorus; “Confusion” and “Yellow Sun” are pretty much completely incomprehensible. The music here is mostly more of the funk metal-tinged alternative of The Grape Prophet, with some grunge elements added (the Pearl Jam grunge indebted to classic rock, as opposed to the Nirvana grunge indebted to punk). Knott’s still tackling heavy themes, most notably prostitution (in “The Shell” and “Pound of Flesh”), but he should have spent much more time on this album than he apparently did.
PTSD (2010). L.S.U.’s comeback album is their darkest and heaviest album to date, another concept album, this time about a returning Iraq War veteran).The drums, courtesy of The Crucified’s Jim Chaffin, push the album’s sound into hardcore punk or even thrash metal territory on places; listen to “Lights Out,” for example. That song, the blues-rock number “My Redemption,” and the reworking of “Shaded Pain” (here called “Shades of Pain”) are the best tracks on the album. Unfortunately, most of the others are not particularly memorable, verging on atonality and driven by weak vocal performances on Knott’s part. Still, it’s good to have them back.
This Is the Healing (1991). This Is the Healing is anchored by three great songs: the goth-flavored “Miracle,” the prayer for empathy “GGG,” and the anthemic title track. Unfortunately, most of the other songs are forgettable or actively annoying. The guitar sound is particularly weak, very tinny and mixed too low in the mix. Knott’s trying new things here—“Hummingbird” is sung by his sister Bridget, an opera singer, in three different languages—but most of the experiments fall flat.
FOR FANS ONLY
Finding Angel (2001). This ultra-lo-fi album, written in the aftermath of Knott’s divorce, was recorded on cassette in a boom box in his living room. It’s not clear to me why it was released under the L.S.U. moniker instead of as a solo album, unless Knott intended to record full-band versions that he never got a chance to. (“Stereo/Radio” would turn up, more than a decade later, on the Lifesavers’ Heaven High.) It’s a tough listen—his vocals are ravaged, and he’s clearly at a low point in his life, even if he’s mostly singing about grace and recovery. A few songs do get off the ground—“Stereo/Radio” and the title track are both great, and “Siren Unseen” is Knott in full exposure mode. The rest of them are not interesting enough to break through the recording quality.
GREATEST HITS, ETC.
In 1995, as Knott prepared to launch the mainstream-market project Aunt Bettys, he released L.S. Underground’s Bring It Down Now as a final farewell to the Christian music industry. It turned out to be not so final, but it’s a bizarre statement as a greatest-hits album anyway. It consists of a series of weak remixes, live tracks, and studio songs strung together without any space between the tracks. There are also a number of new songs, the best of which are “Funky Space Cat” and “Baby Flies a Comet.”
In 1998, he (or more accurately, his record label) tried again, with the laughably titled Definitive Collection, which tried to cover both L.S.U. and Knott’s solo career in fifteen tracks. (“A tip,” I remember someone writing at the time. “When the artist in question has more records than your CD has tracks, maybe it’s time to reconsider the title Definitive Collection.”) Even so, Definitive Collection opens with one of Knott’s very best songs, “Miss Understanding.”
L.S.U. was a legendary live band. Most infamously, Knott played Cornerstone 1993 wearing a giant Cookie Monster head, and I believe he set off a bomb full of baked beans and frosted flakes at that same show. The controversial record label Millenium 8 Records (they spelled their own name wrong, if that tells you anything about their quality control) released a few L.S.U. live albums in the late ‘90s, one of them packaged with Waking Up the Dead. These are long out of print and are of poor sound quality anyway.
Knott has released so many albums under so many different names that there will eventually be four of these essays covering his career: one on the lighter, softer version of L.S.U., Lifesavers; one on Knott’s solo work, which is where he really shines; and one on the variety of projects he’s released under a variety of other band names, most notably the two albums he put out as Aunt Bettys in the mid ‘90s.