Shocking Pinks – Mathematical Warefare

2005, Flying Nun, FNCD494

Mathematical Warfare is an album with a heavy back-story and variety of disclaimers. Almost completely removed stylistically from the sound the band became known for just last year, the Shocking Pinks have gone through so many changes and dynamic shifts that some people have written Nick ‘Harte’ and his schizophrenic musical tendencies off all together. In his home town of Christchurch the current band is subject to a completely split reception, and not without reason.

Nick lost a lot of friends during 2004. Driving musicians from his band, a variety of ill-advised relationships, an eventual descent into depression and a short stint with drug addiction just fueled the fire. Nick was lost – and made things worse with his own off-hand statements (interviews where Nick laid out his recent sexual exploits and how he thought his heroin overdose had helped him as a musician), not to mention their gigs were at times downright embarrassing, or even worse downright boring.

Somehow in the middle of this spiraling doom, the Pinks reputation (and material) had started to spread. A favorable high-profile overseas review and Nicks continuing attempts to tour his down-trodden band drew label interest from Flying Nun, and suddenly things were falling back in to shape. As the Pinks 3rd generation band was starting to become established, Nick decided that the band was now his own on-going concern – essentially contracting the help of his backing troop for live performances.

Understandably with all this tension and resolution, the album plays out like a bit of a diary piece, from a particularly open individual. Where-as previously Nick’s vocals were hidden under layers of searing guitar and synths, he’s now pushed right to the front laying down hokey romantic gestures for all to hear. Nick played all the instrumentation on the album, and its no surprise he favors the drum kit through-out the album, almost every track (and it’s a lengthy 17 song album) has a skittery, shuffling beat and heavy cymbal accents.

Mostly recorded in a home 4-track environment with studio over-dubs, the album has a claustrophobic, lo-fidelity charm to it – which makes me think of brilliant former Flying Nun oddball Matt Middleton, who’s album inner city guitar perspectives (as crude) looked particularly out of place on a label heading closer towards mainstream visibility in the mid 1990s. On the other side of the coin mathematical warfare is also full of glossy pop moments – including early single ‘Emily’ – the first of many relationship based tunes on the album. Nick is particularly off-colored with just a touch of inflection in his voice. It’s a song that gets better with each listen, thanks to some camouflaged guitar (now totally scaled back from the Pinks previous recordings) and a buzzy, electro sounding bass line.

Elements of the Pinks old sound still linger through-out the album, as reverberant, pitch-bending guitar notes float in and out of songs, and the occasional stab at funky bass riffs will please fans of dance the dance electric. I think Nick has done remarkably well constructing the album. He’s well aware of his limitations (vocally he never stretches, perhaps stressing the albums electro or new wave overtones), and pushes his strengths to the fore-front, even managing to use guitar just as a highlighting factor, rather than a prominent sound.

Some songs sound so familiar to me i try to place where they came from – the drug-centered and slightly hammy ‘Secrets’ veers between a familiar new wave introduction and a drawn out shoegazer ending, whilst ‘I Want Ice’ seems to borrow a guitar line from the Pinks past. Lyrically the album is quite limited, following a fairly standard love-song or drug story template, with Nick choosing repetition and catchiness over introspection – i think generally it works well and adds to the pop appeal of the album.

I’ve come to the opinion that i dig the album – after initial reservations. Song like the transitional ‘broken lens’ jump out as a new direction that the original (and in my view – best) incarnation of the band would never have come to. Despite all his flaws, Nick has actually managed to forge something creative – though maybe not always to my taste. Funnily enough, despite his more lucrative backing, the album seems less polished than ‘Dance the Dance Electric’ – perhaps reflecting the 4-track recording environment and untested material on offer.

The Shocking Pinks started out as something of a cult live-band who made a quick stab at some stella recordings – here we see a song-writer going for broke on his various ideas. I think the major downfall of mathematical warfare though is that it doesn’t really gel as an album per se. It’s a closely themed array of songs – and a quite lengthy one at that. Hopefully by the time Nick’s next album comes together (and at his productive rate, that should be before the end of the year), we’ll see a much more together and total-experience-orientated Shocking Pinks album – the Pet Sounds to this their Today! Overall though, it’s a relieving step in the right direction, and not a bad variation on the Pinks signature sound.

Solo Bravo – Action On Highways EP

Self-Released [2002]

Chirpy 3-minute pop melodies aplenty with Solo Bravo‘s debut ep ‘Action On The Highways’. Twin vocalists and the inclusion of trombone and organ make for a delightful mix of the whimsical (‘Mellow Life’, ‘In love With A Stranger’) and downright groovy (‘Data Entry Operator #23’). The 2 contrasting vocal styles add a level of diversity to the EP, some tracks lean towards a quirky Super Furry Animals sound, whilst others have a more honest, mature sound.

The instrumentation’s great, slick organ, groovy bass, effective horn and polished guitar – often with 60s styled inflection. a thoroughly enjoyable ep – expect big things from these guys, ‘Data Entry Operator #23’ could make a brilliant pop single.

Styles Upon Styles 1: Urban Soul Pollunation

2002, Sugarlicks Recordings, SUGARCD001

Soul, funk and hip-hop with a pacific flavor seems to be emerging as the new catalyst of the New Zealand underground music scene. Over the past 5 years, a fine blend of well-crafted soul, funk, hip-hop and down-tempo has revitalized the flailing Wellington and Auckland music scenes. Where once Wellington was known for their hard rock outfits (Shihad and Head Like A Hole being the primary exponents), this has since been eclipsed by the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop and Imon Star – with diverse acts from around New Zealand making Wellington their home.

Starting slowly with the least contemporary track on the album, Lole‘s “Samoana” layers up soft whispering Rhodes keyboards, gently strummed guitar and very traditionally styled vocals – not really my cup of tea, but a nice album opener nonetheless. From there things get progressively funkier. Ekadek‘s “Love In Your Eyes” lays down a phat bass-line accompanied by breathy whispers drenched in reverb. Brother J carries on this vibe with the aptly titled “The Scary Song”. Portishead-styled music backing mellow twin vocals and a killer chorus due to one heck of a funky guitar sound- very nice indeed.

Submariner‘s “Generation to Generation” carries forth Brother J‘s flirtation with ragga-influence vocal licks, all over a tasty shuffling drumbeat, before the centerpiece of the compilation, Fat Freddy’s Drop‘s “Runnin”. Greeted by horns, funky bass and skittery drums, it’s apparent why Fat Freddy’s Drop have been making such a name for themselves, and that’s without vocalist Dallas’ laconic, soulful vocals, which announce themselves like a familiar friend. Keep an ear out for these boys, they’ll go far.

The Nomad offers a funky retake of his (by now) signature track – “Concentrate” which trades funky drum licks with repetitive, driving vocal lines and a slippery guitar backing. Juse‘s “Music/Life” is a familiar jazz sample-based laid-back track with some nice, if somewhat uninteresting drum backing – too formulaic to catch my attention.

We’re back into soul mode again with La Brisa Louca‘s “Strangest of Places” – an array of percussive sounds, keys and both funk and Spanish guitar. Imon Star start slowly with “Vitality”, before a funky synth-bass lick sets the stage for a great vocal performance. Star’s work with Jodie Lloyd has always been of high quality, and “Vitality” certainly lives up to that reputation. Kaya‘s “Top Shelf” opens up funky house overdrive, twin wah guitars and a steady beat propelling the track forward until the song compounds with an array of grooved-out synth and bass lines, and vocals (with a-typical whispered french backup vocals).

Henry Taripo‘s “Mururoa” is a song of protest that relies on some gorgeously orchestrated vocals over a somewhat sparse musical background. Mesh‘s “Dragonfly” is another of the album’s dance numbers – again infused with a 4/4 beat and a repetitive melody, luckily compensated by some nice synth pads and vocal coloring – wouldn’t have been my choice of album closer.

Overall a fine, cohesive reflection of things to come from sugarlicks recordings, if a little inconsistent. The album ebbs and flows from start to finish, maintaining a mellow tone. Not a bad choice of album for a lazy sunday afternoon in front of the fireplace.

Styles Upon Styles 2: Pacific Soul Warriors

2002, Sugarlicks Recordings, SUGARCD002

Following on from Sugarlicks first compilation ‘Urban Soul Pollution’, comes ‘Pacific Soul Warriors’ — without quite the high-profile line-up that the first compilation had. This time the album focuses more on the more soulful end of the spectrum, with downtrodden tales of heartache permeating throughout the album, with vocals verging on gospel at time.

Nat Rose opens up with ‘Mana Wahine’ — an excellent acoustic number, assisted by the percussionary skills of Khuja Lounge regular Levani Vosasi providing firm congo backing. Sung in Maori, Nat shows the way with a smooth lead vocal and careful backing – complemented by some fine lead guitar work. Brother J’S ‘Roby Rose’ starts sharply, J’s vocals cutting in over horn backing reminiscent of (french band) Air’s ‘You Make It Easy’ and joined by a mellow melodica complement mid-song – very tasty.

Tony Battle provides the albums first hip-hop track, with Zimbabwean rapper Nemo dropping slick vocals over a mellow, backing, layered up with synth and spanish-guitar. This hip-hop motif is continued with D Kamali’s ‘decide’, featuring vocal coloring from Lole (who also featured on the first album). Fresh pacific-styled hip-hop, finding a voice in a market dominated by an unnecessary American influence.

Thisinformation is something of a new super-group on the New Zealand soul scene – featuring the unmistakable keys of jazz legend Mark De Clive Lowe, and formed around defunct Christchurch funk outfit Solaa the track grooves with immense ease. Johnny Lawrence’s bass punctuating a downright funk explosion – i look forward to hearing more material from this happy pairing. Things take a step back towards the mellow with One Million Dallors’ ‘Cashmeruffle’. Tastey trumpet riding a bed of bass-heavy mellow groove as richie’s vocals thicken up the middle. Whimsical backing vocals only add to the warm and coset feeling this song gives me.

Fat Freddy’s Drop vocalist supreme Dallas lays down his own track with the funky ‘The Garden’, which was recorded (here in a raw, mellow form) back before his debut album came out. The funk that’s since followed is quite evident on this simple, open and gorgeously soulful number. Ghost Tones track ‘God Willing’ has received a fair deal of radio-play here in New Zealand – and it’s obvious why. One of the better dance numbers on the album with some tricky mellow vibes and a synth riff that verges on ear candy – the track simply sizzles. The later half of the track is highlighted by a fluent, free-flowing sax lick that just completes an already great song.

More mellow keys open up Complicated Souls ‘Je Foreste’ before an unwanted synth bassline disturbs the play. All things are restored to their glorious mellow peak once those delightful keys cut back in – Kaidi Tatham making a real impression on the Rhodes.

Substandard – Low Electric City Pulses EP / Global Research Centre

2002, Failsafe Records

Two wonderfully hand-packaged releases from local 3-piece Substandard.

Best described as an instrumental band with involving guitar textures (Danny Bare), driving bass guitar (Gareth Heta) and funky drumming (Andrew Robbins); they been highly prolific around town this year, and their release party at The Dux was the icing on the cake.

There’s the 3 (+1 hidden track) EP from earlier in the year, and the full-length debut ‘Global Research Centre’ which expands on the earlier release with a fuller, more fleshed out sound. The end result is actually pretty close to their live performance, with some stunning subtle guitar drenched in echo and reverb.

Coming from the Hiss Explosion / High Dependency Unit school of guitar-workmanship (creating wonderful cascades of sound from a plethora of toys), its quite evocative stuff. Perfect driving music, the album sweeps from gentle willowing numbers right up to powerful, full-tilt rockers reminiscent of the (now defunct) Subliminals. Highly recommended.

Tall Dwarfs – The Sky Above, The Mud Below

2001, Flying Nun, FNCD456

After 20 years of continually releasing dynamic, independent and thoroughly inventive music – the Tall Dwarfs have released perhaps their most laid-back and restrained full length with ‘The Sky Above, The Mud Below’, their 13th album. Wearing their influences on their sleeve, the album varies between shades of the Beatles and Beach Boys brands of pop, and the Tall Dwarfs trademark lo-fi inventiveness. For the first time, the group incorporates digital techniques (which might send some shivers down the spine of the purest of listeners – don’t worry it’s only for editing purposes!) to modify their endless collection of loops, sample snippets, tape-effects and found sounds.

The warmth of their previous recordings is still very evident, this time being far more reflective than their previous albums. Both Bathgate and Chris Knox (who has now reached the ripe old age of 50) seem at peace with themselves, and how they make music – no longer concerned with the “lost opportunities” that their other recent albums such as ’50 Flavors Of Glue’ and Knox’s solo release ‘Beat’ portrayed.

The album starts with the chirpy, upbeat tribute to the late great George Harrison “Meet The Beatle” inspired by Chris’ accidental run-in with Harrison a couple of years ago. “I know that guys like me are a drag, you must have had it up to here with fans” – a lyric typical of Knox’s content throughout the album. He’s playing for himself now, and songs like “Meet The Beatle” and the follow-up “Beached Boy” demonstrates he knows his place in the (music) world. Knox absolutely dominates the vocals on the first half of the disc, creating an introspective flow based around timid, tentative instrumentation – it’s hard to believe this is the same duo that raised so much hell as The Enemy back in the late 70’s.

“Room To Breathe” again recalls long lost beatles numbers, with Bathgate’s first vocal outing sharing a great deal of character with long lost Lennon classics. As the understated (and undervalued) member of the duo – Bathgate has a great deal of talent for playful melodies that goes unrecognized. “Melancholy” sees Knox bring out the oven trays (for percussive effect) along with some gentle wilting Mellotron from Bathgate – a sickly sweet ditty that’s already burnt its impression on my brain – imminently hummable.

Bathgate’s given the job of pulling off the album’s one true radio hit, though, with the self-effacing sing-a-long “Baby, It’s Over”, featuring some of the best organ and synth the Tall Dwarfs have ever committed to tape. Similar to the catchy (and somewhat revolting) singles from last album ’50 Flavors Of Glue’, it’d be a surefire hit if only pop songs were judged on merit rather than marketing ability!

“You Want Me Shimmy” is the prime moment of humor on the album, Knox trying his hardest to pull off an allman brothers impression, but comes off somewhere between captain Beefheart and Tom Waits! Definitely the result of many whiskey soaked nights behind the mixing board, it serves as a great foil to the more serious songs on the album.

The album concludes with an additional 8 tracks (described on the cd as a free EP) under the ‘International Tall Dwarfs’ moniker to coincide with material collected from international fans, called The Weidenhausen Impediment. The EP features Graeme Downes guitar work, a loop from Jad Fair (of Yo La Tengo), vocals, clarinet and guitar from Jeff Magnum and Laura Carter Of Neutral Milk Hotel (and Elf Power) and instrumentation from the entire Clean crew, along with a loop from unknown Dutch band ‘Mongrell’. Following on from the International Tall Dwarfs stunning debut ‘Stumpy’ — considered by many as the Dwarfs best album.

It’s quite evident that digital recording hasn’t made too much of a difference to the way the boys make music, the album still showcases the Dwarf’s disdain for flashy production – and it takes until the trailing EP before their trademark tape manipulation comes into play. all in all though, the many guest stars (and occasional stolen sample byte) blend perfectly into the dwarfs lo-fi madness – with even the guests from neutral milk hotel being relegated to merely impersonating possums on ‘possum born’. one of the best albums of the year so far, filled to the brim with catchy sing-a-long choruses, strange lyrical bents and references.

The Brunettes – Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks

2002, Lil’ Chief, LCR001

Sunny pop, sing-along melodies, and carefree grooves. Not something that pops up too often in New Zealand music, but The Brunettes pull it off with a slick, diverse album that I can imagine being a beach-party favorite this year (note to the American readers: it’s coming into summer in the southern hemisphere).

The Brunettes are a chirpy four-piece that’s sprung out of the Auckland rock’n’roll scene over the past couple of years, but would probably list the Grease soundtrack as a stronger influence than the MC5, unlike their hard-rocking compatriots The Datsuns and The Rock’n’Roll Machine. This is Belle And Sebastian for Phil Spector fans, classic hummable songs with the odd flourish of string orchestration (the title track), 60’s references (the utterly charming ‘Summer Love’) and exotica-styled percussion (marimba, etc.) throughout the album.

Boy / girl vocals add to the ‘Summer Love’ theme of the album with Heather sporting a smooth, girlish eloquence, whilst Jonathan could even be compared to slacker types – opening track ‘The Moon And June Stuff’ noting “..it’s no secret / that when I sing, I like to sound American” in a typically dismissive context. A remarkably accomplished sounding album recorded on a shoestring budget, the songs flow together majestically, guided by Heather’s tasty flashes of glockenspiel and Karl’s quirky, rolling percussion.

How apt that the album was picked up by capitol records, then. ‘Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks’ and its delightful, inquisitive double bass could be mistaken as a late 60’s Beach Boys recording. ‘Dancefloor’ even manages to squeeze in a couple of “Scooby-Dooby-Doo” and grease styled “Didi-Didi-Dit” vocal accompaniment – absolute ear candy for the young at heart. Later, ‘Super Eight’ builds a crescendo of violin and cello in the song’s climax, showcasing the bands smooth and almost opulent production flourishes.

Towards the end of the album, whilst still sticking to rather upbeat and kitsch musical backing, ‘End Of The Century’ is a darker, reflective love song featuring some tasty Spanish guitar and Jonathan’s strongest vocal performance. Pre-release single ‘Cotton Candy’ has Heather singing over fuzzy guitar, violins and piano and breaks from the kitsch feel of the rest of the album (especially during the rumbling, building ending). ‘Tell her’ though, is the most appropriate ending, a short, contemplative pet sounds like send-off with interlocking vocal harmonies and the obligatory spoken word breakdown very reminiscent of the best 60’s girl groups. Overall it is a fine ending to a fine album.

A truly fun soundtrack to many a summer getaway, holding hands, feeding ducks has come out of nowhere as a delightful album that should rightfully establish the Brunettes as one of New Zealand’s most promising pop outfits. At the very least, it’s a nice break from the electro-mad songs that glut the current charts.

The Brunettes – Mars Loves Venus

2004, Lil’ Chief, LCR007

Over the course of the last two years, The Brunettes must surely go down as one of New Zealand’s most productive bands, with a series of long-stay live tours flowing across New Zealand and stories of their international travels. along the way they’ve had trials and success, line-up changes (including a little controversy) and the odd bit of exposure and critical response, spiked by the release of their debut-following EP ‘Boy Racer’ last year.

Boy Racer was a little sloppier than their tightly constructed Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks, and maybe showed a bit of initiative towards diversifying their 50’s/60’s pop-schlock referencing sound – not that their debut wasn’t a marvel in genuine catchy pop.

Despite accusations of regurgitating long-dead music styles, the Brunettes (full-length) debut posses a level of panache and intricate song-play that even their influences (Phil Spector, Jonathan Richman and Shadow Morton springing to mind) would be proud of.

Compared to Holding Hands.., Boy Racer was the darker side of the tracks. Suddenly the ‘Leader of the Pack’ / ‘Out in the Street’ side of the band was shining through, a pop group with dark themes – much akin to Mortons’ Shangri-Las, the production on Boy Racer’s ‘I Miss My Coochie Coo’ / ‘Don’t Neglect Your Pet’ cut back the gloss to show a beating heart at the center of the band.

My immediate impressions on the new album have been that it sounds almost claustrophobic compared to what has come before. Musical influences are less obvious (with the exception of ‘record store’ – a catchy mix of the modern lovers and what sounds like a Tex Pistol guitar lick), the band now concentrating on a more lyrically focused, vocal-heavy mix with guitar, hand claps and percussion making up the majority of the sound. Secondly, its probably the most addictive, catchy album I’ve heard in a long time, particularly Polyester Meets Acetate, which i’m continually finding myself singing along to after just a few listens. Jonathan (Bree) takes a more active role as vocalist on the album, leading a fair portion of the tracks or fueling duets with Heather (Mansfield) with the kind of quirk and honest edge you’d normally only hear from such song-writers as Lee Hazelwood (and his greatest chanteuse, Nancy Sinatra), or early Richman minus the naivety.

After the shiny burst of the opening trio of songs comes ‘Too Big For Gidget’, the first track to really emphasis the presence of erstwhile ex-member Nick ‘Harte’ Hodgson, now having a particularly rough time with his own band, The Shocking Pinks. Harte’s drumming is to the front over what is one of the albums musically somber tracks, constructed from a reverberate organ, emphasizing piano and guitar flourishes and Harte’s double-timed drumming. A downbeat but fairly throwaway lyric pretty much spoils what could have been one of the albums finer notes.

In fact the entire second side of the album is far darker than the first, tracks like ‘Don’t Hit Your Head Honey’ and the two-part ‘Your Heart Dies’ new-wave pastiche add an intimate and conversational element to the album, often full of hipster pathos – which oddly seems to be the defining element in Bree’s song-writing here. Very modern, post-ironic cool lyrics distinguish Bree (along with some fine touches from Mansfield with ‘These Things Take Time’ and even guitarist James Milne’s rather off-beat ‘You Beautiful Militant’) as fairly removed from their name-checked influences, creating quite a distinctive style throughout the album.

A pretty fine follow-up to one of the most intriguing debuts in recent memory, Mars Loves Venus is the maturing of Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks’ carnival candy-floss and ferris-wheel naivety, showing the cracks of regular life, and presented in a charming blend of a plethora of musical influences, distilled into the Brunettes own, and surely by now unique sound. Even their throw-away and catchy numbers (‘Loopy Loopy Love’, ‘Whale In The Sand’) stick in your head like the intro to ‘Da Do Run Run’ – though maybe not in the same capacity as their slick all pop first album. Though Boy Racer showed a band in transition, they haven’t quite settled yet, and thankfully that makes for an eclectic musical mix and a dynamic sophomoric album.

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.