The Reduction Agents

James Milne’s reduction agents spawned out of his Brunettes association with Ryan McPhun – which also created the McPhun -led Ruby Suns. Milnes variation create country-tinged pop tunes, infused with a dose of Dennis Wilson era beach boys harmonies and white-boy soul.

The group released a wonderful debut single with urban yard in 2005, a slippery, groovy pop classic.
In 2006 the group made a big splash with their excellent full-length debut, plus Milne’s own solo debut as Lawrence Arabia – both a highly recommended pop sensations!

Discography (picks in bold)

  • Urban Yard lathe-cut 7″ single [2005 self-released]
  • Dance Reduction Agents [2006 Lil Chief LCR014]

See-Also

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.

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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