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.