Alec Bathgate – The Indifferent Velvet Void

2004, Lil Chief, LCR009

I’ve tried to start this review several times now. There is something about Alec Bathgate‘s music that is so compelling that it’s a mystery why I find it hard to describe why his subtle blends of Beatle-esque pop and noise-collage lo-fi experimentation so appealing. When I put this CD in my Walkman, it replaced another cherished CD that was graced by Bathgate’s presence.

That album was AK79 – a compilation of Auckland-based punk bands from the late 1970’s which should be a standard in any kiwi music fans. Bathgate and his buddies in toy love had made great progress since evolving from their primordial roots as the enemy, as toy love’s two tracks on the album were an early indication of how startling Chris Knox had become as a vocalist, and the intense pop-filled hooks Bathgate and cohorts Paul Kean, Jane Walker and Mike Dooley were capable of.

Well AK79 is a long time ago now, and the indifferent velvet void is just the 2nd solo excursion of one of New Zealand’s finest guitarists and song writers. The tall dwarfs have been a little quiet as of late, though a recent excursion up north produced a wonderful Helen Street Studio recording of some of their past classics, as documented on national radio recently.

Bathgate is most notoriously known as the quiet or sane member of the duo, so hopefully this will be a step towards Christchurch’s own being recognized on his own merits, rather than as a supporting player.

First song in the shadows hits immediately. With a Tall Dwarfs style gleeful intro and extended-bridge style chorus punctuated by some simple rhythmic organ and of course, hand claps. Not exactly a long way removed from Gold Lame and its fuzzy guitar and organ driven power pop. ‘Ebb and flow’ quickly shows the other side of the coin, a more down-beat, acoustically driven number that establishes one of the themes of the album – a fascination with dreams, perhaps alluding to something more in-grained..

After the hyper-catchy sing-a-long of we’re all babies, a track fairly reminiscent of more recent tall dwarfs tracks, the centerpiece of the album unfolds. In a mere two minutes and 10 seconds should I wake up? Presents itself as the most perfect pop song, and one perhaps with something to say, to boot. A rising hum gives way quickly to shuffling guitar and accompanying bass with an orchestrally constructed, brief and utterly engulfing chorus. ‘Should I wake up?’ is repeated until it lodges into your brain.

I’m pretty sure this song was part of my subconscious memory before it had even finished playing the first time. The briefness and epic approach suggests that Bathgate might be hinting at something a little more deep than simply dreaming… Is this a relationship song?, the phrase ‘Wake Up’ is so ambiguous, he could be hinting at any kind of underlying issue. Each verse varies between metaphor building allusions ‘On the Inter-Island Ferry / on the deck in the sun, your in your pajamas / but somehow it don’t seem odd’, and the more suspicious ‘You’re still hanging in there / you’re still doing well, are you really with me? / I can’t tell’.

Out of my head follows up on this relationship issue theme ‘Sometimes you look right through me / like i’m an invisible man, I try to do the right thing / I don’t know if I can’, sounding like a confession rather than a catchy pop-number. Lyrically, the rest of the album veers a little off-center after the slight return electronically-constructed intermission piece, though faked is another highlight.

On a bed of junk-box percussion and some genuinely creepy organ (that actually appropriates a theremin initially) , Bathgate plays around both lyrically (the song reads like fractured poetry) and musically (with layers upon layers of harpsichord and unidentifiable instruments).

On Bathgate’s cover of the Yardbirds classic Overundersidewaysdown lots of Beatles-style faux-psychedelic tricks are put to good use, with some genuinely huge sounding guitar and bass building to climax with the help of backing vocals from Alec’s son tTim, not to mention the phased and trippy vocal approach during the chorus.

Next comes the broken cup – a track very reminiscent of the tall dwarfs baby it’s over (a recent live performance by Alec included this gem) and the album title track, which is a bass-driven number punctuated by drum-machine rhythms and muscular rock guitar.

After a couple more rock-driven aggressive numbers, the album finds solace with new day, a strumming poppy number with more ambiguous lyrics – ‘did I forget? / Did you forget somehow, everything starts on a new day’, pointing at a gentle, world-rebuilding kind of end to the album. It’s a little confusing deciphering just what is the message in the indifferent velvet void..

Perhaps its an accurate title, a beautifully colored album hiding an unidentified but generally dark undertow. In any regards, i’d love to see Alec Bathgate get the recognition he deserves, and hopefully it won’t be another 8 years before his third solo release is out.

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