Ryan McPhun and the Ruby Suns

Excellent quirky pop from Brunettes side-men Ryan McPhun (guitar, keys and vocals) and James Milne (drums and backing vocals) – also both in the Milne-led Reduction Agents. Flanked by Amee Robinson (keyboards, saxophone, melodica), Mark Stebben (bass), Gareth Shute (guitars, glockenspiel) and Harry Cundy (trumpet, percussion, tape echo) the 6-piece are a slick well-versed group, with group harmonies and stacks of good songs.

Discography (picks in bold)

Music Videos

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Shaft

Shaft is the now long-standing vehicle of prominent song-writer Bob Cardy (aka Bob Brannigan), original sludge-rocker guitarist for the Axemen and a stalwart of the New Zealand underground scene. As The Axemen faded away in the early 1990s, Cardy put together the Auckland-based Shaft with Tony Rush (bass – moved to Wellington and joined the Users) and Rich Mixture (drums – joined the Rock’N’Roll Machine), with former Axel Grinders guitarist John Segovia (who left to form the Radio Kings) joining soon after.

Several line-ups have come and gone over the bands gradual development, with Mark Peterson (bass – ex-Straightjacket Fits) and cameron rowe (keyboards – ex-Brunettes, coming and going with shaft currently employing Ben Maitlin (guitar – Box Car Guitars and brothers Sam and Stu Kett (bass and drums respectively).

In 2004 Shaft finally got themselves together long enough to release their first full-length album, with Open Sesame coming out on Lil Chief under the assistance of Bob Frisbee on production duties.

Discography (picks in bold)

  • Pooty Ep [1996 Zero Zero007]

  • I Just Wanna Have Your Baby Ep [1996 Zero Zero010]

  • Cheap Candy Ep [1999 Action!]

  • Open Sesame [2004 Lil Chief Lcr008]

  • Down At Your Life [2006 Lil Chief Lcr018]

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Tokey Tones

The now defunct band Polaar brought together Scott Mannion and Li-Ming Hu (of Shortland St fame), who originally formed as Plasticene Recording Projects. Their plan was to form a new project every year, putting out at least two albums with said band. After initial recordings as Plasticene, they enlisted some friends to release material as the Tokey Tones – an Auckland-based band that could swell to as many as 10 members on any given performance.

They stuck to their word, releasing two albums in 2003, both in a sort of whimsical and delicate pop coupled with flourishes of twee instrumentation and lush arrangements. Released through Mannions’ Lil Chief label, the band received attention for their impressive live sound and their cd artwork, both created by Illicit Clothing artist Misery.

Discography (picks in bold)

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Voom

Dating way back to the early 80s when still in university, Voom have been the duo of Andrew Buzz Moller and Andrew Mac Mackaskill. It took a heck of a long time before much actually emerged from the band, with a couple of lo-fi song getting radio play throughout the early 90s, thanks to the intrepid Kiwi Hit Disc compilations. It wasn’t until 1998 that Voom finally released their debut album, with Dan Manetto replacing Bill Kerton and Chris Mckibben (who had propped up the bands ryhthm section in the mid 90s).

Then with the release of their album and finally some commercial success, Andrew Mckaskill left the band – Manetto switching to drums to fill his spot. Since then the band has gone through a couple bass players (Mareea Paterson has come and gone, replaced by Rich Mixture – Shaft), and continued a low-key existence.

Big changes were afoot in 2006 as Mackaskill finally left the group, with Moller now leading a new lineup featuring Nick Buckton (Bass), Murray Fisher (Guitar – Gooshirt) and Mike Beehre (Drums). Lil Chief came to the party to release vooms long-time coming sophmoric effort Hello, Are You There, as the group toured the country with A Low Hum.

Discography (picks in bold)

  • Now I Am Me [1998 Antenna Ant008]
  • ‘Relax; Cd Single [1998 Antenna Ant010]
  • Hello, Are You There? [2006 Lil Chief Lcr016]

See-Also

Techtones

Auckland revivalist pop-rock outfit. Part of the Nudie Suits / Brunettes scene of the early 00s.

Discography (picks in bold)

  • Kurt Cobain King Dat: ‘Pillar Of State’/’Crooked’ Lathe-Cut 7″ [Self-Released]

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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.

Alec Bathgate [November 2004]

Alec Bathgate isn’t a household name in New Zealand. Though his most famous group (Tall Dwarfs) and his subsequent partner-in-crime (Chris Knox) may have achieved a level of recognition slightly beyond the typical indie-rock crowd, Bathgate remains one of New Zealand’s best and lowest profile song-writers. I spoke with Alec on the eve of releasing just his 2nd solo LP, ‘The Indifferent Velvet Void‘, due to be released in November 2004.

So it’s been a clear 8 years since [debut solo release] Gold Lame came out. Have you gotten sick and tired of people telling you to release another album yet?

Well, actually, not many people have been hanging out for another album! I occasionally have someone tell me how much they like gold lame, which is nice, but not many people seem to have discovered it.

What was the inspiration for the Indifferent Velvet Void?

Lyrically there seem to be some deep issues being thrown around.

There’s a few themes that run through the songs on the album (death, loss, self-doubt, confusion… All that good stuff). So, yeah, it’s a bit dark, but quite poppy as well, which hopefully offsets what the lyrics are saying.

Is your writing and recording methodology different from the way the tall dwarfs work? Has much changed from the early days of Chris’s 4-track?

Tall Dwarf songs are recorded pretty quickly as we don’t normally have long together. The songs tend to then evolve over a period of time (whenever we can get together to do further work on them). Generally we don’t know when we begin how they will end up. With the solo album i would completely write a song before recording it and would have a fairly clear idea of how i wanted the final track to sound. My album was recorded on computer which has sort of replaced the 4-track as the preferred recording medium for the home recordist (even though tape is still better). Having 24 tracks is pretty insane after years of struggling away with a 4 track, plus there’s lots of effects built into pro-tools that you couldn’t possibly afford to buy as outboard gear.

The album is coming out on Auckland label Lil’ Chief. How did you connect with them? Do you still feel part of the Flying Nun roster?

Chris Knox gave them a CDr of the album late last year (after Flying Nun had turned it down). I really liked the records they had put out and their enthusiasm for what they were doing, so was really happy that they wanted to release it. I’m still signed to F.Nun for Tall Dwarf releases and they’re reissuing the Toy Love album (early next year i believe).

Scott Mannion from Lil’ Chief / the Tokey Tones appeared as a Tall Dwarf [along with Pumice‘s Stefan Neville] for a recent Helen Young Studios session. Are there any plans to release the material?

I was impressed by the re-takes of ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’ and ‘Nothings Going To Happen’. We were really happy with how the Helen Young session worked out, particularly as we only had a short time to learn the songs with the other people (we hadn’t played with any of them before and only had two days to practice). We’ll possibly do a short-run pressing of them sometime in the future to sell at gigs.

What’s your most proud moment on the album?, I guess your aware I’ve been thrashing ‘Should I Wake Up?’

Most people who hear the album seem to mention ‘Should I Wake Up?’ ‘Slow Fuzz’ and ‘Broken Cup’ are probably my favorite songs on the album.

Are you a picky song-writing?, do you think taking such a long-time between releases has worked well for your albums?

I never intended to do another solo album. It just requires soooo much work, so i guess it took 8 years to muster up the enthusiasm to go through it again (plus we did three tall dwarf albums in that time)…All the songs were written over the 18 months i was making the album, i didn’t have any songs hoarded away, and in the year since i finished it i haven’t written anything. I think it’s good to have a break from writing (and playing music) to keep it interesting and enjoyable.

Any plans on any live performances or videos for the album?

I did the Wunderbar gig in Lyttelton a few weeks back and also did two shows with Pine in Auckland last weekend. I’ve always been reluctant to play solo, but I’ve actually been enjoying it! I ‘d actually really like to play some more. As for videos there’s a plan to do a video for ‘Slow Fuzz’, so hoping that works out.

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.

The Brunettes

[flickr-photo:id=515329042,size=t] sunshine and candy-canes, the brunettes are a hard-working and extremely promising, genuine kiwi pop band – a rare thing in this day and age. forming around heather mansfield and jonathan bree’s girl-boy vocals and a plethora of instruments used both on record and live (heather being a rather talented multi-instrumentalist), the band expanded to a 5-piece for the release of their brilliant 2002 release holding hands, feeding ducks – a beach-boys / 50s girl-group pop inflected album which was to be released independently, before emi scooped them up for distribution at the last minute.
[flickr-photo:id=515328094,size=t] since then they’ve been furiously beavering away at new material, putting out the charming (and often bizarre) boyracer ep and making low-key tours both nationally and internationally. the incisions‘ nick ‘harte’ hodgson joined as drummer in early 2003, as the band entered the studio for their follow-up release. harte left the band on the brink of 2004, concentrating on his new full-time project, the shocking pinks.
by mid-2004 the brunettes had once-again cemented a new line-up, and their sophomore release mars loves venus (taking the name of their ultra-rare debut lathe-cut 7″ ep) was completed with the line-up of mansfield, bree, james milne and their new drummer ryan mcphun.
[flickr-photo:id=515357717,size=t] with the success of their 2nd album the group once again departed for foreign shores, taking in south-by-southwest and