The Datsuns – The Datsuns

2002, V2, V2CP143

With all the hoopla and excitement over the new gee-golly-gosh retro-cool selection of rock’n’roll revivalists going on – it must be hard on the bands that have been swinging this stuff for years, right’ well, in The Datsuns case, this kind of open ended publicity and hype came at just the right time – and they’re gonna ride it out for as long as they can. There aren’t many bands coming out of Cambridge, a small rural town just outside of Hamilton, New Zealand, you see. These four lads (who have all since taken on the last name ‘Datsun’- yeah just like the Ramones) have been creating a bit of a buzz locally and then nationwide over the past 7 years or so. Inspired by the mid 90s dirty-rock scene’s of Christchurch and Auckland, they’ve been practising their best ron asherton impressions, crazy stage antics and growing their hair out just hoping something like this would come true.

Two years ago things starting going right for these small town boys. They were touring the country as headliners with (Hamilton based rockers) the D4, and even managed a low-scale invasion of Japan through their own self-funding. With a reputation as possibly the best live band that New Zealand’s ever witnessed, the group headed state-side, playing the likes of the SWSX festival and toured extensively on both sides of the atlantic for over a year – catching many an important eye. It all compounded earlier this year when BBC iconoclast John Peel recorded a session with the boys, heaping praise and basically guaranteeing them record label interest. Since then the Brit press have been going crazy for the boys, with the nme touting them as (one of their many) ‘saviours of rock’n’roll’.

Even though they may not be as revolutionary as the hype-machine would lead you to believe, these four boys (standard format: 2 guitars, bass and drummer) put on an incredible live show, and their debut full length is a direct attempt at trying to capture some of that live energy. Recorded over 2 weeks in a small studio in London, it’s a very raw recording full of over the top solo’s, tremendous sing-a-long choruses and explosive guitar riffs. Jumping out of the gate with ‘Sitting The Pretty’ things get off to a fiery start reminiscent of old Wellington band Head Like A Hole, with lead singer Dolph Datsun pulling off some deadpan vocals snares over an ever revolving, churning guitar riff. ‘Motherfucker From Hell’ then sets in, a chugga-chugga rhythm guitar anthem set to the speed of sound. The song flies at an exceptional rate with Dolph screaming like a wild-man, which happens to be very representative of their live performance.

Its pretty obvious the songs are big, loud, and stupid – but they’re performed with so much vigor it doesn’t really matter. When ‘motherfucker..’ breaks down into the typical pause for the vocal conclusion – you can’t help but scream along. Though the songs may have a ‘dumb’ quality to them, they’re nothing short of brilliantly catchy.

‘Lady’ is another anthem-like number, with one hell of a catchy chorus. Excellent rhythm work from Phil (Guitar) And Matt (Drums) really drive the song, with the band wearing their Stooges influence on their sleeve. Both ‘Harmonic Generator’ and their new leadoff single ‘In Love’ sound like Mick Ronson for the 90s. Dolph leads the chorus-heavy slower numbers with boyish backing vocals from the rest of the boys, displaying their talent for glam-styled sing-a-longs, as well. The guitar is kept simple, the drumming is primal, and the vocals are right at the front.

Of course you can’t review such a guitar-focused band without measuring up the lead guitarists performance – and Christian is one of the best rockers out there. He keeps things tight, holding rock-steady to the rhythm of each song, but at every opportune moment pulls of some of the most stunning lead breaks i’ve heard since rock originally went out of favor! Mixing equal parts MC5 and the Stooges (always keeping things clean — i’d doubt if a single effect were used in the album) it’s his powerful lead and driving rhythm that truly makes the album – no other outfit in the current crop of revivalists can match the intensity of his guitar work.

With ‘Fink For The Man’ (a local favorite and original pre-album single) Dolph manages to show he can certainly play too, with tasty opening and break down bass riffs and yet another catchy chorus. His vocals verge on exploding, showing an AC/DC influence as they strain to allow the screaming to come forth. The song builds to boiling point with tremendous performances all round – an excellent recreation of their standard showstopper.

If these guys keep performing with this kind of fire and conviction, i could imagine the world of rock being a little more pleasant to be around. They rock hard and fast and damn the stylistic similarities, because they have as much energy and explosive tendencies that even the stooges themselves showed back in their heyday.

The Enright House – A Maze and Amazement

2007, A Low Hum, HUM031

The Enright House have produced a luscious polished product in their debut album, A Maze and Amazement. To most, the band is probably best known from touring with A Low Hum, who happens to be the label responsible for this release.

The album is like a complex and emotional soundtrack, opening with the beautiful and floating “Scattering the Sun like Gunshot”. At 7 minutes its almost all instrumentally driven with the vocals not appearing till 5 minutes into the song, and they don’t dominate, simply add a layer of sound to the already rich soundscape.

The electronic characteristics of A Maze and Amazement remind me of Postal Service with a hint of Sigur Ros at the beginning and end of the album. It seems the middle tracks rely heavily on sampled vocal elements. Aside from the opening track the standout song would be “On the banks of the Rhein”. The album is a rich textural tapestry which will keep you company on the long winter nights.

The Clean – Anthology

2002 Compilation, Flying Nun, FNCD468

Anthologies are funny things. As extended ‘best-of’ collections they seem to gather more respect than their antiquated siblings. Sometimes however, an anthology comes along that just gets everything so right – it doesn’t really matter that a majority of the source material was already available. The Clean‘s phenomenal early (1980-1983) material was originally collected on vinyl (and then extended and reissued on CD in an extended form) as the seminal ‘compilation’ album. A breathtaking summation of The Clean’s diverse, rugged and hearty sounds – but it was never the complete collection it deserved to be, despite being one of the most solid batch of songs ever committed to 4-track.

The Clean’s ‘Boodle Boodle Boodle’ and ‘Great Sounds Great, Good Sounds Good.. ‘ EP releases, and the original Tally Ho singles are exquisite rarities seldom surfacing in their homeland of New Zealand, let alone stateside. Thoughtfully compiled by David Kilgour (lead guitar / vocals) himself, the Anthology is a two-disc monster broke up into pre-83 early material on the first disc, and a collective summation of their three albums released prior to 2001’s Getaway, including several b-sides from 1994’s Modern Rock on the second disc.

Obviously the first disc covers a lot of the same ground covered by Compilation – but adds venom by including all the original EP tracks, along with several unreleased songs, a couple of newly mixed retakes, and a track off of the oft ignored Oddities compilation. The end result stands more cohesive, dynamic and (thankfully) at a level of fidelity that The Clean have seldom been heard before.

With the delightful glee Martin Phillips church organ on the original Tally Ho single, things are off to a cracking start – one that actually managed to chart in New Zealand, quite an achievement for a $50 recording. A real sing-a-long number, the guitars are at the back of mix, whilst Phillips’ cameo absolutely makes the song. It’s then followed by the stop-start b-side derived from a live recording ‘Platypus’ – which showcases Kilgour’s brilliant guitar playing, even in these early recordings.

The absolute pinnacle of The Clean’s performances, Boodle Boodle Boodle manages to squeeze so much character, emotion, and texture out of five simple two-riff masterpieces. The delightful shuffle of ‘Billy Two’ leads into the first Robert Scott vocal song – ‘Thumbs Off’, which while not quite up to the vocal standards of Scott’s work in the bats, chugs along following a decidedly whimsical narrative. The EP just gets stronger and stronger, with ‘Anything Could Happen’, containing the immortal line ‘Well here I am in the Big City / I’ve got no heart and I’ve got no Pity’, possibly the most intriguing comment ever made about Dunedin – a student city of just 150,000 people in those days! The downbeat ballad ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’ makes way for The Clean’s inimitable centerpiece ‘Point that thing Somewhere Else’. A simple one-riff monster encompassing two layers of brutal, rolling guitars, pounding bass, primal drumming and lithe vocals – it’s the song that defines the entire ‘Dunedin sound’ movement, an anarchistic mix of raw energy, melodic guitar textures and a dark, sense of mystery to the lyrics.

The brilliant (and superbly named) great sounds great, good sounds good, so-so sounds so-so, bad sounds bad, rotten sounds rotten EP expands on The Clean’s sound by encompassing south-style instrumental country (‘Fish’), anarchistic folk-punk leanings (‘Side On’) and jolly pop in the form of another organ-based chirpy number, the anthem-like ‘Beatnik’. ‘End of my dream’ and ‘On Again/Off Again’ are possibly hints at what would follow with The Clean’s spin-off band The Great Unwashed, being more of an acoustic, lo-fi project. The great unwashed toured and recorded several EP’s in Robert Scott’s absence during 1983, using original bass player Peter Gutteridge (now of Snapper).

A new recording in the form of a re-working of the driving groove-based instrumental ‘at the bottom’, clearly demonstrating that in a live capacity the boys are still up to their former greatness with a scorching effort. The first disc concludes with a multitude of tracks from various sources, encompassing the classic post break-up track ‘Getting Older’, along with several other tracks found on either the compilation CD reissue or the oddities collections.

Between their second break-up in 1983 and eventual reforming in 1989 (for the release of the full-length debut vehicle, which opens the second disc), the three members of The Clean had traveled down very different paths. Hamish Kilgour had developed his noisier, brasher side with the post-Gordons initial line-up of Bailter Space. Scott had developed his folk-pop side with the bats, becoming quite an astounding pop-song writer during the process of recording daddy’s highway. Meanwhile David Kilgour was hard at work creating earthy, modern pop songs with his own solo material. Vehicle tries quite hard to capture the spirit of their earlier recordings, and with left-over songs such as ‘drawing to a whole’ it works to a point – but on other tracks, even in this compressed format, a great deal of the magic is lost.

Thankfully though, The Clean have always been a fun band, and from vehicle closer ‘Big Cat’, to the demented modern rock album, things are very fun indeed. The Clean experimented with all sorts of conditioning into their production of modern rock, which comes across as one part The Clean, one part Jean-Paul Sartre Experience and a great dollop of Monty-Python for good measure. Keyboards really make an impression on the album, a reflection of the bands then new found kraut-rock influences. Vocals are also far more prominent in the mix, drilling in their collective attitude to vocal leads (which by then were almost evenly shared). Scott sounds even more melloncollie and demure than on his bats recordings, particularly the wistful ‘Secret Place’. Accompanied by a number of modern rock out-takes, the second disc takes a demented turn with the aptly named ‘psychedelic ranger’, pitting bizarre (German’) vocal doodling with matching percussion effects, and then concludes with the jokey, wandering narrative ‘Ludwig’.

Finally concluding with extracts from 1996’s pop-based effort unknown country the second disc has so much variation and fine moments, that it doesn’t matter if it’s a little on the uneven side. Probably my favorite album of their latter era, unknown country is a decidedly ‘studio’ album, a marked change from their lo-fi origins. The textural introduction ‘Wipe me i’m lucky’, melodic ‘Franz Kafka at the Zoo’ and novelty sing-along ‘Twist Top’ are full of vitality – which again earns the album a comparison to their countrymen the Jean Paul Sartre Experience‘s earlier material. Strings, novelty toys, keyboards, backwards guitar and singsong vocals all make appearances on out-takes, which often (‘Wipe me i’m Lucky’, ‘Balkans’, ‘Chumpy’) seem more like short musical vignettes that the rock songs of their past.

It’s a thorough and diverse collection of the bands highlights and prolific early days. Well packaged and presented – it’s probably the best way to delve into The Clean’s remarkably simply, yet powerful sound. Though the second disc falls short of revelation, anthology replaces the ageing compilation package as the definitive document of the band, and deserves genuine classic status for the first disc alone.

The Clean – Compilation

1986 Compilation, Flying Nun, NORMAL51

In 1978 the New Zealand underground scene was on the verge of explosion. The Enemy, Bored Games, and The Spelling Mistakes were showing that New Zealand could produce great punk music, and all with a great ‘do-it-yourself’ gusto. The Enemy later developed into seminal early 80’s punk outfit Toy Love, and with their eventual collapse, guitarist/vocalist Chris Knox formed the infamous lo-fi pioneer duo the Tall Dwarfs with fellow Toy Love member Alec Bathgate. David Kilgour was a great fan of the Enemy, and had developed a relationship with the musicians that made up the Dunedin scene at the time. In 1978 he set about learning guitar, then forming a band that would eventually capture the essence of the 2nd wave of New Zealand underground music, the so called ‘Dunedin Sound’.

After a period of almost 2 years and a plethora of line-up changes, Kilgour settled on his brother Hamish on drums and original bass-player Peter Gutteridge (who after leaving the band before the majority of their output was an original member of the Chills, The Puddle, and then eventually his own band Snapper). This formation would go onto write a handful of The Clean‘s early songs, and eventually resurface in 1983 as The Great Unwashed (for a short tour and subsequent album), but it was Robert Scott (also of The Bats) who secured The Clean’s line-up in late 1979.

After touring haphazardly for there first three years of existence (often supporting The Enemy), Kilgour was propositioned by young upstart Roger Shephard, who had come up with the idea of forming a record label to release The Clean’s noticeably inspirational music to the masses. Shephard put together Flying Nun records in 1981, and The Clean’s breakthrough single Tally Ho! Was the label’s 2nd release (following The Pin Group‘s ‘Columbia’). Featuring a young Martin Phillips on organ accompaniment and recorded for no budget whatsoever, the single rocketed into the New Zealand charts – which was considered impossible for a self-distributed minor label recording at the time. Phillips’ catchy, driving organ and the gentle sing-song nature of Kilgour’s vocals had immediately struck a chord with the New Zealand public, but the band failed to fully capitalize on this early success.

Over the course of the next two years, the clean only put out two EP’s, Boodle Boodle Boodle was recorded by Doug Hood and features a stunning array of pop-classics (“Anything Could Happen”, “At The Bottom” and the Gutteridge penned classic “Point That Thing Somewhere Else”) and the equally superb ‘Great Sounds Great, Good Sounds Good, So-So Sounds So-So, Bad Sounds Bad, Rotten Sounds Rotten’ EP (track highlights included the instrumental “Fish” and jangly masterpiece “Beatnik”).

This complacency with relative seclusion eventually led to a number of self-imposed band break-ups, and delayed their eventual debut album release till 1990, which brought Vehicle – by which time the Clean had become a part time band for all three members, due to the demands of their various other musical exploits.

Compilation documents the high-times of the early Clean. Released by Flying Nun as an LP (then re-released during the 90’s CD reissuing phase), the album gathers together Tally Ho! And the original 2 EP’s, several tracks from the ‘Oddities’ self-recorded album, as well as live material recorded crudely on a fan’s cassette recorder.

The quality of the recording is of no concern though, as it becomes immediately apparent on listening to these lo-fi masterpieces that the Clean were on to something special. From the twin-guitar and bass onslaught of pounding pop opener “Billy Two”, the chugga chugga bass and steaming lead-guitar of “At The Bottom”, through to the quirky pop highlights of “Beatnik”, “Oddity” and “Hold On To The Rail” – there isn’t a single dud in this wonderful archive of one of pop-rock’s truly great bands.

Ear-marked by a stunning live rendition of signature tune “Point That Thing Somewhere Else”, the live tracks are murky, but show the band in full flight. Waves upon waves of guitar distortion, pounding bass and drums and kilgour’s enigmatic, hushed vocals characterize a band that did more for the New Zealand live scene than any other band has done before or since.

Rough and ready, this is a compilation of the most well-honed, dynamic guitar music your ever likely to hear. Simmering solo’s, bass that gets your foot tapping, and primal, aggressive drumming lead to a winning combination. Though the Clean may have since failed to live up to the expectations that this album documents, they have become a crowning monument for New Zealand in the history of pop-rock, and i’d recommend anyone with more than a passing interest in music to give this classic a try.

The Gordons – 1st Album And Future Shock EP [Reissue]

2003 Reissue, Flying Nun, FNCD099

As part of Flying Nun’s initial installment of classic album reissues (celebrating the labels 21st birthday), The Gordons first album had otherwise been selling for astronomical figures in its rare original vinyl issue. The reissue brings together the original 1980 Future Shock EP, along with their classic 1st album – the bands full-length debut. Eventually mutating into Bailter Space, this trio of Alister Parker, John Halvorsen and Brent Mclachlan that was forged from the same Christchurch, New Zealand scene that spawned the Clean, are probably most famous for their incredible sonic extremes.

They play loud. Very loud. Guitar-Wolf on a particularly noisy day loud.

Needless to say the first recordings were an attempt to recreate their powerful, ear-destroying live performance on tape, and although a recording could never represent the true fury of an over the top live performance, it’s a pretty damn good effort. Guitars ring out of key in a churning, aggressive fashion, falling like shards of ice to create a disjointed, messy and thoroughly ‘rock’ sound. Like their countrymen the Clean, they succeed at every opportunity in turning simple, churning guitar riffs and primal fury into the most cerebral of rock music. Opener ‘Spik And Span’ has a slacker delight recalling the Fall’s most caustic performances with parker performing the most devastating vocal snarl possible.

But the Gordon’s didn’t follow anyone else’s lead, they were true originals, ahead of their time. Over the years Bailter Space managed to clean up their sound, bringing on a more ‘indie’ sound to their paranoid, delusional tales, but it was the Gordon’s first album that sees the band in their most raw, effective state. The songs are presented with beautiful clarity (a godsend for those of us trying to maintain an aging Flying Nun vinyl collection), carrying every nuance and gritty sonic texture from the original recordings.

Halvorsen and Parker manage to create some of the most unusual sounds a bass and guitar have ever combined to make. ‘Right on time’ features some utterly bizarre bass from Halvorsen, popping and rolling while Parker lays out explosive, convulsing guitar. ‘Coalminers Song’ posseses a lethargic, pulsing intro hints at all manner of destruction on the rise, but when Halvorsen finally chimes in with his vocals it all seems perfectly unified. That’s what the Gordon’s do best, they unleash vehement sonic noise, ready to explode – and yet somehow contain it all within effective, catchy song structures. It’s hard not to sing along to the simple chorus of ‘Spik And Span’ or the Future Shock EP closer ‘Adults And Children’ in all their demented glee.

‘Growing Up’, in particular, opens with such a menacing, downbeat guitar it’s a wonder the album hadn’t been reissued earlier – it’s such a vital, authoritative representation of the early Flying Nun sound. Parker’s vocals have a charm all their own – he seems to invoke a paranoid, dysfunctional existence in a mumbling, sing-shout approach that leaves you wondering what he’s on about, but humming along anyway.

Thankfully the Future Shock EP shows all the same qualities of the later debut, with a slightly more lo-fi recording. The title track shows the bands original punk leanings, flying through a churning guitar and bass driven number at considerable speed with Parker’s nonsense lyrics punctuating the aggressive attack of the song. The closer, ‘Adults And Children’, is something of a kiwi punk classic. Pummeling guitar and bass riffs immediately allow parker to scream maniacally over top. It makes for one hell of a great, gleeful pop number, on line with the Clean’s own ‘Tally Ho’.

Though Bailter Space have gone on to considerable success with their future albums, they never did it better than their original debut as the Gordon’s, which stands out as an absolute classic from the early Flying Nun years. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better and more eagerly awaited re-issue this year – i’d suggest picking it up immediately.

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.

Brian Crook – Bible Black

2002, Arc Life, ARCLIFE019

As half of the writing force behind seminal Christchurch/Dunedin fuzz-country rockers The Renderers (with his wife Mary-Rose), Brian Crook [aka Bible Black] has been making dirty, downtrodden stories since the late 80’s.

In 1997 The Renderers released what is considered their archetypal (and best) album, the soaring ‘Dream of the Sea’, but its been slim-pickings since then with single releases and sporadic performances coming amidst line-up and label changes. This latest release is essentially a Brian Crook solo album, albeit with the occasional guest vocal from Mary-Rose – boiling The Renderers sound down to their most minimalist (and at times exceedingly effective).

The songs are generally dark and brooding. Crook lacks the climactic tendencies in his voice that Mary-Rose exudes so freely. But with songs like ‘Baby Doll’, crook’s voice paints strong character sketches – “You seem so agitated, and there’s liquor down your dress”, creating images of backwoods folk with chemical dependencies and tawdry relationships. He sounds so world-worn and forbidding, that his multi-layered guitar becomes the perfect backdrop to these songs.

Opener ‘Leaves upon the lawn’ sees Crook crooning gently over three guitar-lines and the faint drift of organ, very melancholy stuff. A rattly slide guitar forms the lead – quite a change from The Renderers theatrical sonic attack built upon walls of feedback. Slowly paced and careful, it’s the soundtrack for a dark and smoky room in the most tragic of movies.

Country slide guitar rears its head on ‘What were they thinking’, a campfire song in the Johnny Cash vein. Crook is a brilliant live guitarist, creating unorthodox shards of feedback, whilst still maintaining a southern-fried tone – but here things are brought down a few notches to glorious effect. Like his Dunedin compatriot Dave Mitchell (formerly of the 3D’s and now the man behind the brilliant Ghost Club project) his guitar playing is more about restraint than release. Though it seems calm and melodic, there is something down below ready to erupt at any moment, and it’s that tension that drives the songs.

The only possible problem with the album is that at times it feels like Crook is re-treading familiar territory, though the album is certainly charismatic and gritty in the inimitable crook style. Things make a rapid right turn with ‘hell of a woman’ though- a blast of guitar bursts out unexpectedly. A rising crescendo riff that invigorates the middle section of the album, it’s the kind of anarchistic moment you can generally expect from a Renderers performance.

It’s an inviting return from New Zealand’s own alt-country underground star, now back at home under the ever-popular (and for good reason) Arc Life label, after spending the last couple of albums with Philadelphia-based Siltbreeze records. Lastly, remember to keep an eye out for The Renderers fully-fledged return early next year – it promises to be a stunner.

Cloudboy – Down at the End of the Garden

2001, Arc Life, ARC010

Demarnia Lloyd is something of an enigma in the Dunedin music scene. Over the past 7 years her involvement in former rock outfit mink and current band Cloudboy, as well as her solo material as cloud coupe and under her own name have kept the charming vocalist very busy.

Demarnia (daughter of noted New Zealand folk artist David Lloyd and sister of Dark Tower’s Jody Lloyd) doesn’t just limit herself to music either – for the release of last years debut down at the end of the garden, she orchestrated an entire live performance for live performances.

The album is something of an epic body of work – spanning the 5 years and containing songs that have been worked and reworked numerous times over the course of their existence. The end result is an exceedingly atmospheric, dramatic soundscape – but one that can at times over-shadow Demarnia’s heartfelt lyrical content and emotional vocals.

The album starts with a rising crescendo of sitar, tabla and violin on ‘Teaboy’ – multi-instrumentalist Craig Monk making a strong impression. Demarnia over-pronounces and creates waves of dreamy vocal haze with her tremendously breathy vocals. ‘Red Rubicon’ establishes a lyrical theme throughout the album – she describes relationship in an imperfect, often disjointed fashion, but that she is there to heal all wounds. The song mixes layers of simple keyboard drum patterns with some spicy guitar work and trumpet – traces of marimba and hefty dashes of double bass create a vast tapestry of sound.

‘Cup of Roses’ starts with hefty, pounding drum beat, breaking down to a singular bass line and layers of violin floating in and out – a huge departure from the songs original composition many years ago. Unfortunately this distracts from the melancholic beauty of Lloyd’s vocals – which often express so much emotion, but are somewhat lost under the layers of multi-tracked voices and instrumentation. Thankfully the soaring cello mid-song goes a long way towards re-establishing that emotion climaxing this song of absent love. ‘(You’re so) pretty’ continues on with Lloyd’s lovelorn desires – this time over a bed of synthesizer haze, droning bass and a bed of accompanying vocals.

A storm brews throughout the claustrophobic ‘feudal’ with many string and synth rhythms creating an environment of unease (as the song expresses lyrically). A perfect example of lloyd’s visual approach to creating music – track pulse in and out like a real storm, with waves of sound flowing in and out and engulfing the listener. ‘Tebo’ carries on Lloyd’s desires for love that’s passed her by “Driving me insane, that you couldn’t stay – Tebo” over a gorgeous driving plucked guitar piece from Johannes Contag and some coloring in the form of David Lloyd’s flute and tin whistle. Following a simple rising rhythm and a drone bass backing, the track is an album highlight for me.

‘Daydreamland’ adds a layer of funkiness to Cloudboy’s sound – Contag’s funky bass along with part time contributor (and ex-Mink drummer) Heath Te Au creating more upbeat backing for Lloyd’s vocals to float. On ‘The play’, some sampled trumpet and guest john bell’s vibraphone complement the rolling rhythm – carrying on the jazzy vibe ‘Daydreamland’ created.

Cloudboy have succeeded at creating a detailed tapestry of sound, the album literally flows from song to song, drawing heartfelt emotions from Lloyd’s charismatic vocals and the ever-soaring string arrangements, and is beautifully complemented by the instrumentation coloring that Contag, Monk and Te Au bring to the album. I do feel however that as an aspect of Demarnia’s vocal style and emotional connection to these songs, that they’re perhaps better suited to a scaled down, personal approach, as she has shown many times as a live performer.

Darcy Clay – Songs for Beethoven

1998, Antenna Recordings, ANT012

Originally published as a retrospective feature review for Stylus Magazine

There’s a distinct possibility that you may never see this album in even your most reliable of indie music stores. Darcy Clay was an unusual talent, a young guy with a cog loose upstairs who reveled in being challenging and ad hoc.

In late 1997 Darcy sent a four-track recording of his latest track entitled ‘Jesus I was evil’ to the Bfm college radio station in Auckland, New Zealand to ask what they thought of the track. The quirky little number which sounded somewhere between ween and the tall dwarfs was immediately play listed and became an underground phenomenon. Bfm used their promotional power to release the track as an EP, still in its crude 4-track recorded form, and within 2 weeks of release the track hit number 5 on the New Zealand charts.

This success had never been achieved by an independently recorded release since The Clean‘s ‘Tally Ho!’ back in 1981. All of a sudden Darcy was a celebrity, he appeared on New Zealand’s (then local) MTV station in his signature Evil Kinevil outfit and formed a high profile backing band for the live shows that he now was being asked to perform.

Darcy Clay (born Daniel Bolton) only managed to complete 5 of those gigs, which were usually beautifully chaotic messes, before taking his own life in March 1998. Darcy was only 20 years old and left scores of people asking why.

The recording here makes up half of Darcy’s tragically short career-output, a live recording of his last gig, which happened to be opening for Blur during their New Zealand tour. The crowd is enormous, Darcy’s only been on stage a handful of times before, and absolutely everyone in the audience go crazy when he breaks into the opening bars of ‘English Rose’ in a haphazard casio-toned keyboard style (and comical finishes by proclaiming ‘Bold move’). No other truly creative and independent musician has ever met with this complete an approval from a mainstream audience.

Moving into a full-band configuration, the band plays Darcy’s unusual mix of country-fried guitar-punk with vigor and chaotic glee, including the obligatory cover of Dolly Parton’s classic ‘Jolene’ late in the set. Rounding off the night Darcy announces they have one last song, his one true hit, ‘Jesus I was evil’. it’s a loose and heavy track, awash in guitar-feedback and sing-shout vocals proclaiming the evils of his former past. The track makes a slick reference to Joe Walsh – ‘I used to crash parties and Maserati’s, and I was evil’ and has a demented shine that is indescribable.

And so his performance ends. later, Blur came on stage and proclaimed that he was the most enjoyable opening act they had ever seen. Darcy touched people. he showed that you didn’t have to be a brilliant and slick musician to be successful, he did it merely on the fun and drive of his music and mere weeks after his death was voted the ‘most promising’ of New Zealand musicians, in a sad posthumous conclusion.

I recommend anyone who has the opportunity to purchase this recording, or his studio EP for ‘Jesus I was evil’, to pick them up immediately, so you may be able to understand what people saw in Darcy, and why those of us who cherished his music miss him so much.

Dark Tower – Canterbury Drafts

2001, She’ll Be Right, SBR98912

Six years is a long time to be waiting for a debut album. Christchurch, New Zealand hip-hop duo dark tower started strongly way back in 1995 with a killer lead single and subsequent EP entitled Zealman which established their intentions as being perhaps the only culturally conscious New Zealand rap outfits around.

The EP seamlessly weaved a plethora of kiwi references (everything from rhyming Weetbix to the EP sleeve, which depicts the ‘Edmunds Cookbook’ cover – a kiwi tradition) along with a playful musical backing and some excellent, dry vocal delivery.

Over the course of the late 90’s the boys (duo Jody ‘The Earl’ Lloyd and Eli ‘The Eel’ Foley) continued to develop their live sound. They created a strong body of songs that was continually redeveloped and reworked, releasing a number of singles – the majority of which are present on this album. The group eventually took on a third member (Jamie), who left the group just as it was about to put out further delayed the album’s release as the group once again reworked songs to remove Jamie from the proceedings.

The end result is somewhat disconnected, over-produced, yet amazingly intricate. Lloyd has a knack for developing dark moods with his backing instrumentation, incorporating a number of guest musicians into the mix (including his father David – a seasoned folk musician, and pop-superstar-that-never-was Lindon Puffin).

The heart of the album is still very present ‘the land of the long white cloud’ details the duo’s love for their fair city, creating imagery with their thickly accented drawls over some lovely reed whistles from David Lloyd. Their big recent single ‘baggy trousers’ has been reworked, still retaining the fun, humorous aspect of the single version – but really it’s a throw-away joke hip-hop at the best of times.

The duo of tracks entitled ‘That’s right’ raise the seriousness of the album – answering back to the various hip-hop crews who have criticized dark tower for being too ‘New Zealand’. Along with erstwhile old-school crew Upper Hutt Posse, Dark Tower represent New Zealand as it is without being forced into Americanized stylistic traits, yet some took their angle as merely a demoralizing joke on hip-hop itself. Eli and the Earl complement each other nicely on the tracks – Eli being something more of an alto rapper whilst the Earl sticks to a low, almost spoken lyrical flow.

Overly moody overtones make ‘southward bound’ something of an album highlight. Perfectly illustrating the eclectic instrumentation of the album with some tasty guitar work along with a number of unidentifiable bowed sounds and sample manipulations – the track ebbs and flows before Lindon Puffin adds his voice to the sarcastic punch-line: ‘…Coz if you don’t go and take your time to do that helpful dead, then no ones gonna bloody help you, in you time of need’.

The second of their redeveloped tracks, ‘sons of the south’ actually manages to improve on the original – a fully realized take on Lloyd’s (otherwise over-produced sounding) new style, with the boys showing incredibly tight flow. The track builds through a number of different styles, the bass squelching and out whilst the likes of turntable, old-TV theme show music, and full orchestral back builds and drops out.

‘Zealman ii’ totally changes the context of the original track, turning it into an epic, guitar and turntable fueled reinterpretation. Sounding somewhat overblown – the track reads like a manifesto of lyrical prose. Dark tower obviously have a great knack for building complex vocal treatments – ‘we share a common thread of history with much of the world / in that we live in a land which was forcibly colonized by a white culture’ flowing like water at the mouth for the Earl.

Basically the album is a very personalized, over-developed and intricate document to a well-defined culture. It’s an answer back to dark tower’s critics, and on that perspective it succeeds immensely, but at times that feeling distracts from the album being enjoyable on a purely audible level. Thankfully there are enough highs to keep the album afloat, and the numerous in-jokes and New Zealand-based humor add to the albums appeal greatly.