A while back, I started to talk about my 10 favorite Kiwi rock albums. I thought I should finish out the concept, with the caveat that my list is somewhat dubious: I avoided multiple entries from the same act (I’m talking about the Chills and the Verlaines) so that some lesser lights could shine through. At any rate, some recent activity with my #1 prompted full disclosure of the whole list, which goes:
10. Snapper- Shotgun Blossom: This is the sprawl of rock shoegaze dystopia fused to a metronomic beat hemorrhoids would stand in awe of. Every now and then, pop tinctures break through the opium-laced skidmarks. Yo La Tengo fans, rally round. Long lost in the CD age, the band’s eponymous 4-song EP got re-released last year on vinyl as a record-store day spectacular that lived up, for once, to its hullabaloo. Let’s hope the same attention gets shone upon this long-player, their masterpiece.
9. The Tall Dwarfs- Hello Cruel World: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Chris Knox, the speed-talking king of Kiwi lo-fi. Knox never had the forewithall (e.g., attention span) to manage a proper twelve-inch, so this scattered relic stands in for everyone lacking a copy of the Slugbucket Hairybreath Monster EP. After this, there was Neutral Milk Hotel.
8. Straightjacket Fits- Hail: Every music has its awful haircuts, thank God Robert Forster never went this far. Never either did Forster have such a dispirited nitrous revery as the one the Fits managed with “She Speeds”. Laconically wretched, slow motion cowpunk in it’s own offshore way, in it’s hardcore sea-chanty verisimilitude. Did I just say that?
7. Able Tasmans- A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down: The album title should perhaps scare you away, as if this was the Cat Stevens of Auckland, but instead the Tasmans create a floating, kind, thoughtful sound with noise bubbling under that works well for Saturday mornings or eating fruit cut with a knife after dinner. And on this album they bring the tunes. One of those weird records that always sounds better than I remember. The Wrens of New Zealand. Great album cover too.
6. JPS Experience- Bleeding Star: Probably the only band to be sued by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre (an irony of existential proportions), here the Experience matures into a non-pithed Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine without the pixie dust. Just dark enough to be edgy without goth tinges. Robert Smith is still crying about “Into You”.
5. The Clean- In-A-Live: The Clean (or perhaps I should say lead guy David Kilgour) are the laziest band ever, analogous to post-Sherbert Alex Chilton. And like Sir Alex, their métier was the EP, so I’m inclined to push for the epochal (and first) Boodle Boodle Boodle. But the Clean were also a live band par excellance, and this short live set is where they sound like a Kiwi Television or the Jefferson Airplane of your dreams (no Grace Slick!), from whom they steal the title to their best song. Thankfully, this EP was appended to the recent reissue of the not-bad-at-all Vehicle, meaning that this is the first title I've mentioned that you have much chance of hearing in digital format.
4. The Bats- Thousands of Tiny Luminous Spheres: More an afterthought than a band, some folks swear by LPs like The Law of Things (which is pretty good) and Daddy’s Highway (which is not). But what the Bats really are is the Dunedin version of a sixties band, with gem-like songs that shine (like tiny luminous spheres!) among the more-than-occasional rocks on their regular-release albums. This compilation, part of a Flying Nun series that includes excellent overviews of the Verlaines and the Chills, finds the jangle-pop essence of this Clean splinter group. Think the La's without heroin.
3. The Verlaines- Juvenelia: Named after Paul not Tom, the Verlaines are not the only band led by a music scholar (Grame Downes heads the music department at the University of Otago), but they are probably the best. Yes Downes’ songs are full of quirky time signatures, strange chords, tempo shifts. And a propos of their name, his lyrics are chockablock full of literary allusions and hipster asides (“Baud to Tears”, really?). In other words, all the things that make rock music arty and awful. And yet that’s not the way it sounds, in part because Downes surrounds himself with bandmates decidedly on the amateurish fringe, but also because the whole collective can summon the ghost of the Modern Lovers at the drop of a hat. The career retrospective You’re Just Too Obscure For Me might be a good place to start with them, and I’m a big fan of the sweetly melancholy Bird Dog. But Juvenilia, a collection of the band’s early non-LP releases, is where the folks in Pavement and Superchunk fell in love. Fast, angular, filled with tension and release, legitimately hooky semi-pop music at its best. And it includes the first version of “Death and the Maiden”, maybe the greatest Kiwi Rock tune of them all.
2. The Chills- Secret Box: The Chills is whatever rag-tag bunch follows Martin Phillipps into the studio or onto the stage whenever he gets up the gumption to do one or the other. Evidently a sweetly messed up guy, Phillipps has a hard time getting his music out, which means that the five long players (if you count the luscious grab bag Kaleidoscope World) plus two EPs over thirty years have greater intervals between each successive release, and the last one, the Stand By EP, is ten years old now. And just about any record by the Chills could make this list. Phillipps sings in a weirdly affectless yet unmelancholy tenor, and he knows how to catch lyrical lightning in a bottle: An early single, “I Love My Leather Jacket”, concerns the band’s first drummer Bull, who died of cancer and is lovely rather than bitterly sad, a grace note. Secret Box is not any of that—it’s stray tools in the woodshed, musical flotsam and jetsam. Three CDs released in an exceedingly limited edition, Secret Box is full of demos, one-offs, commercials (“Steinlager”!), random bits that certify Phillipps’ obsessive reticence has gotten in the way of releasing buttloads of winning, eventful, never precious pop music.
1. Dunedin Double: No artifact, and just reissued if you can find it in its original format by Flying Nun Records for Record Store Day, this is the seed that germinated the entire Kiwi scene. Four bands, two 12” discs, 45 rpm, 50 minutes, nothing about this 1982 carnival of sorts fit any traditional mold. And it was recorded by scenester/musician/producer Chris Knox on a Teac 4-track that is more legendary in Dunedin circles than Knox himself. This record said something simple: We have an entire self-supporting scene here, we can stand on our own. So the Dunedin sound begins here. But lo-fi does as well, and Guided By Voices for one would never had made sense without this touchstone. The Verlaines and the Chills make their debuts fully formed, the Stones (great name) see red, and Sneaky Fingers cop a bad trip Jim Morrison feel. Sui generis.