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)

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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

Lil’ Chief / EMI NZ [2002]

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 thats 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), 60s 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 60s 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 60s 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

Lil’ Chief / EMI NZ [2004]
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 50s/60s 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 fuelling 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 sombre tracks, constructed from a reverberant 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 (the 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 cd-r 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.Rnas for videos there’s a plan to do a video for ‘Slow Fuzz’, so hoping that works out.

Lawrence Arabia

The one-man band that is James Milne – with eclectic and more fractured recordings than his material in the Reduction Agents (or for that matter former band the Brunettes). Milne is a charming story-teller, heavy on the whimsy and clever lines, low on the pretense – his live shows are something to behold and his recordings are just as fantastic.

After an oddball and poppy self-titled debut album, Milne’s 2009 follow-up ‘Chant Darling’ was an even bigger success The single ‘Apple Pie Bed’ (which he wrote and performed with the Phoenix Foundation’s Luka Buda) picked up the 2009 APRA Silver Scroll song-writers award, and exposed his songs to a wider audience.

2012 looks to be a busy year as Lawrence Arabia prepare to release ‘The Sparrow’ in July, and Milne is also busy acting and performing for the intriguing short-film ‘Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium’ (which is currently coming to the end of a PledgeMe funding drive – check out the details here).

Discography (picks in bold)

  • Lawrence Arabia [2006 Lil Chief  / Honorary Bedouin Records Lcr015 / Hbd002]
  • Chant Darling [2009 Honorary Bedouin Records Hbd003]
  • The Sparrow [2012 Bella Union]

Awards
APRA Silver Scroll 2009

  • Lawrence Arabia – Apple Pie Bed

Taite Music Prize 2010

  • Lawrence Arabia – Chant Darling

See-Also

The Nudie Suits

Quirky whimsical 3-piece based around one-man studio mark lyons, along with cohorts dionne and tam taylor. haphazardly recorded during the late 90s and early 00s, and then finally released in 2003, the thoroughly involving songbook debut was created using simple technology – the cd booklet proudly proclaims the album was recorded with ‘martantz ec1 consenser microphone that cost my grandfather $14.95 in 1978 from farmer’s department store’.

For all this lo-fi indulgence, the nudie suits seem to squeeze out more intricate instrumentation and joyful songs than most digital studio’s would ever record. Released on the charming Lil Chief records (home of the like-minded Brunettes), the album features contributions from a number of auckland retro-pop regulars (such as the Brunettes Jonathan Bree, Malcolm Deans, Paul Mortenson, Ricky McShane and Scott Mannion) and is full of wonderfully twee songs and delicate lap-steel and hawaiian guitar work.

discography
picks in bold

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