Monday, November 27, 2006

CD Reviews



Gary Steel

Does anyone seriously expect ROD STEWART to ever make another record worth hearing? It’s about 25 years since the bottle blonde caterwauled his way through his last really great one, after all. Even so, ‘Human’ (his first for the label responsible for so much great soul and r’n’b, Atlantic) does have an unusually sincere feeling. There’s the usual Stewart problem of too many faceless collaborators to produce a distinctive sound (this one has a galaxy of producers, and was recorded all over the show), but by letting his employees get on and do all the instrumental parts without his input, and concentrating entirely on his vocal performances, Stewart has hit on a good thing. Any rumours of voice loss after his recent surgery are maleciously fictitious: unlike the worryingly epiglotal Jimmy Barnes, or the powerless latter-day Joe Cocker, Stewart’s voice here is at its best since his prime, and really does come across with the kind of soul that he hasn’t mustered in years. Boasting a song written by flavour-of-the-year Macy Gray (actually written by Macy and three others!), and a duet with someone fetchingly called Helicopter Girl, at its worst, ‘Human’ sounds like a too-milky version of the dreck that passes for contemporary r’n’b. And I get enough of ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ blasting out of K’Rd whorehouses on my walking route every day.
Another old duffa getting an airing after decades in mothballs is Dan Hicks (& The Hot Licks). Beatin’ The Heat (Surfdog), despite the scary collaborative vocal billings (Bette Midler, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits) is a record like they just don’t make ‘em anymore. Yes, it’s actually FUN. Hicks sings songs in a somewhat offkilter, droll fashion that’s always sardonic, and his Hotlicks are delightfully light and old-fashioned (you even hear the occcasional squeezebox and plenty of fiddle). Features a fine rendition of Waits’ ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’, and a re-run of that great Hicks number, ‘I Scare Myself’.
While we’re dealing with old crusties, the new one by Eric Clapton is worth a passing mention. ‘Reptile’ (Reprise) uses the backing group from his disappointing duet album with BB King, with the addition of pianist Billy Preston, and the Impressions on harmony vocals. It’s a back to basics blues affair that, while hardly breaking new ground, may well be regarded in time as one of Clapton’s finest. The material - an uninspiring collection of old standards and mild originals - is ordinary. What makes it stand out is the playing. No-one younger than 40 remembers that Clapton was once called ‘God’ for his fearsome guitarring abilities, and he’s done his best to bury the fan worship over successive decades. But here there are some truly wonderful moments of scintillating electric fretboard flurries and nimble semi-acoustic runarounds. Nice.
You know that a group has used its allotted shelf-life when their new record is proudly launched with a loud sticker proclaiming ‘as featured in the Ansett TV Commercial’. Simply Red were always flaming targets for critical brickbats: the perfect 80s (s)wine bar schmooze group, it’s difficult to muster a defense. However, ‘It’s Only Love’ (Warner) - a kind of ‘best of’ - does reveal that Mick Hucknall and his sessioneers had a real knack for blue-eyed soul, slick arrangements and memorable sing-a-longs. Never hip, but not as godawful as their critics would have it, either.
Sometimes it’s the critically acclaimed acts that, in retrospect, turn out to be godawful. Highly rated 70s glamsters Sparks have been given the kiss of life for Balls (Festival), a record that just dilutes the outrageousness of their early work and ups the poofy quotient... here they come across like the bastard children of Queen and the Pet Shop Boys, with all the disco ball rhythms and diva affectations you would expect. Odd.
No divas in sight at The Gathering, the South Island’s premiere trance event. Out there on the perimeter, repetitive beats and unknown substances drive semi-naked nouveau hippies wild. But it also attracts those who prefer beatless atmospheres, and ‘Leading A Horse To Water: Gathering Ambience’ (independent) is an attempt to represent that side of the festival. Lo-tech cover reproduction and so-so mastering aside, it’s a fair swipe of Kiwi soundscapes of the young generation, from Ben Harris’s electronic spatials through to Bruno’s garden of serene delights, Charlotte 90 Degrees’ glitchy post-classical constructions to SJD’s odd yet soothing backwards acoustic loops. Everything is segued for maximum flotation tank effect.


‘Around The World Of Music Live At The Loaded Hog’. Now that’s a title that fair drips off the salty old tongue. The indefatigable KELVIN ROY (with the BlueStars in tow) run through adept renditions of thirteen jazzy standards (on his own label Martian Music), the perfect memento for all those who weathered the group’s polite cocktail grooves while witnessing waterfront wonderment at America’s Cup. So then, it’s not the Friday night Hog when loads of horny 18-year-olds get up and boogie in tube-tops to the latest trashy pop songs. No, it’s polite, fortysomething jazz, r’n’b, blues and Latin-influenced tinklings with a few of Roy’s own compositions thrown in for good luck. Oh joy.
Praise the Hog, I mean the Lord, that the DEEP FOREST concept of the ‘Pacific’ goes no further than French-oriented territories. Their latest Euro-beat travesty travels to Tahiti where they sample the Tahitian Paparai Choral, but otherwise pretty much conform to the usual mix of tepid electronica and vague, melancholic melody. On ‘Pacifique’ (Sony), Eric Mouquet and Michel Shanchez still appeal to one’s fruity sense of exoticism by combining gorgeous sampled ‘ethnic’ voices and those cocktail lounge piano lessons. Mind you, they might put a few mums and dads off their sausages with those few songs which buck the formula by going all pots and pans crash bang in the beat department.
JOSHNA has no need to use sampled voices: she is owner of a deliciously pure, honey-flavoured vocal apparatus capable of expressing both great joy and sensual longing. Somehow, this Auckland singer has worked in relative obscurity since the mid-80s, when she released the heartbreaking Kiwi classic, ‘Thread Of Gold’, with her group Turiiya. That song gets a slight reworking on ‘Magnificence’ (Acoustic Wave), an album of off-centre power-ballads that the singer-songwriter occasionally allows to be disrupted by an almost Euro-house club backing. While the music is often accomplished, the arrangements suffer through the sheer cheesiness of the programming. For me, the talent and the soul shine through, but I wish this hugely gifted woman would choose a more tasteful road.
Some would argue that Kruder & Dorfmeister are ALL taste and no substance. These Viennese kings of the slow groove have defined a new aesthetic of perfectly cool musical opulence. From their first records in the early 90s, where they stylishly posed in mimicry of Simon & Garfunkel, everything this duo has touched has turned to gold. Primarily known for their groovealicious remixes, the Kruder & Dorfmeister/Vienna sound incorporates dub, funk, jazz, techno and drum&bass influences in a way that few have successfully replicated. ‘The G-Stoned Book’ (G-Stone) is a luscious indulgence: a compilation of Kruder and Dorfmeister’s record label, together with a cd-sized 338-page book. The book is an odd compendium of essays, cover art and rather dubious photographs (scantily-clad girlfriends, various faces of sub-porno sleaze). The cd is Kruder & Dorfmeister’s personal selection of their best, including side projects Tosca and Peace Orchestra. Undeniably over the top, but beautiful, and maybe the easiest way to get a helpful contextual grip on the K&D thing.
While Kruder & Dorfmeister trade on their smooth grooves, the latest MANIC STREET PREACHERS album is all ‘up-yours’ snottiness and nasty, distorted guitars. Destined to go into the public memory as the band whose guitarist went missing and was never found (presumed dead), Manic Street Preachers really deserve better; they’re a talented trad-rock ensemble, and the essential ingredients (James Bradfield’s pining tenor, the tuneful, soulful pop with a little dash of militant punk) remain with the group as they grow chubby in middle-age. ‘Know Your Enemy’ (Sony) somehow eludes classic Manics status by trying too hard to be angry. They up the garage/punk quotient here, proving that they have lost none of their wayward sense of injustice about the world and its many and various stupidities, but they needn’t have bothered; the group’s militant days are over, and I can’t help but wonder why they don’t just roll over and enjoy the passionate, melodic aspects of their muse.
BETCHADUPA have an immediate problem: Neil Finn. That Kiwi icon’s teenage son, Liam, is the focus of Betchadupa, whose second short player, ‘The 3D EP’ (Flying Nun) is, um... not bad. What I mean, if you get my drift, is that this is enthusiastic, energetic, playful, occasionally engaging power pop/rock. But it’s short of being fully-fledged, or fully developed. In other words, Betchadupa may one day be essential, but right now they’re simply promising.
If it’s old-fashioned soul you’ve got a hankering for, ‘Soul Makeover’ by NICOLE WILLIS (Sanko) should do the trick. This is a beautifully old-fashioned funky soul stew with all the right analogue references, but it’s got at least one slinky foot in the 21st century courtesy of Finnish wacko Jimi Tenor, whose subtle electronic tweaking spruces things up with synth esoterica. Recommended.


One month. Four extraordinary Auckland-made albums.
With a cluster of innovative releases led by the Cloudboy cd already with us in 2001, island life has never seemed so sensually pleasurable for those whose inner ear is attuned to the subtle tweakings of the audible universe.
Dimmer, SJD, Dooblong Tongdra and International Observer have accidentally engineered simultaneous release of their new projects, each one offering a different approach to the mechanics of grappling with leading edge technology; each of them finding a way to force feed their rich personalities through the sometimes ungiving rigidity of circuit board, synthesiser module and computer programming.
And each is essential listening for anyone looking for a way to have a shot at joining the present musical tense.
Shayne Carter has already featured in Metro’s pages, but his first post-Straitjacket Fits release as DIMMER deserves further analyses. I Believe You Are A Star (Sony) is a work of unbridled control, determinedly reigning in the available elements, and honing everything down to the most perfect, necessary detail. Despite its seeming simplicity, the music resists harnessing within a short review, but it’s a record that is sure to garner Carter significant international praise for his unique vision. It’s not the odd collision of influences (soul, funk, minimalism, psychedelia) that make this album, it’s the numerous small gestures which are rendered with such poise that the listener starts to magnify the many perfect morsels into a garden of sonic delights. Sometimes it’s the way a woody-sounding acoustic guitar will rub shoulders with a mellow electric line, or a deeply funky bass riff; other times it’s a spooky multi-tracked Carter vocal or the strangely strafed rhythmic trickery or the colouristic keyboard washes. Mostly, it’s a terrific conquest for man over machine. Carter has shown that it’s possible to exploit new technology to a creative end, while redefining the role of traditional singer/songwriting. An astonishing achievement.
Like Dimmer, SJD is a voyager from the singer/songwriter school. The first time I encountered Sean Donnelly, he was giving a solo folksinger-style performance with acoustic guitar in the kitchen of a grubby student flat; mere months later (in 1999) the first SJD album, 3, appeared in selected retail outlets. Donnelly had embarked on a journey to the centre of the sampler: James Last horns were audaciously plastered over racy funk grooves and fruity lounge, and that was just the start of his education in the art of collage. Having garnered appreciative reviews nationwide, SJD set about mastering the medium on Lost Soul Music (Round Trip Mars), which is a quantum leap from the playfully ragged transpositions of 3. Like Shayne Carter, Sean Donnelly has found a way to combine his unforgettable heart-on-sleeve songs and gorgeous singing with state-of-the-art technology. The big difference is that SJD shows a curiosity for pure electronics, and a tendency to go hogwild with sampling. Lost Soul Music is a stunning and complex second album which takes multiple listening sessions to get to grips with. Occasionally, it feels as though everything but the kitchen sink is being thrown into the pot, and sometimes the transpositions of sounds and styles are just too great, while always entertainingly audacious. Crucially, it’s the numbers where Donnelly allows the pure songwriting skills to seep through that have the greatest impact; there are a couple of ballad moments where his eery, almost Roy Orbisonesque vocal delivery sends shivers up the spine. There’s nothing else quite like the best moments of this record happening anywhere in the world. We should be proud.
DOOBLONG TONGDRA is another clever clogs with - as the name suggests - a funny bone that just won’t let up. Discontinued (Why Bother?) is much more overtly electronic than Dimmer or SJD, favouring the clipped and clinical clicks and cuts of synthetic sounds, with judiciously chosen sampled dialogue and a predilection for electric piano melodies and the odd mutant killer guitar riff. If Frank Zappa had grown up in Titirangi and was currently in his mid-20s, he may very well have been making music like this: sometimes knotty, always smart and decidedly off-centre, Dooblong Tongdra favours twisted time-signatures, bubbling synthesisers and a wanton desire to provoke its listener. This second Dooblong disc takes some lessons in dubology and ends up being a twisted - yet relatively accessible - emission from the parallel universe.
Building up an enviable reputation for epic live sets over the past three years or so, INTERNATIONAL OBSERVER have finally gifted us with a sample of their graft on Seen (Different Drummer internationally; independent locally). The duo of Tom Bailey (in another life the man behind the Thompson Twins and Babble) and turntablist cohort Rakai are prone to deliciously engaging five-hour marathon sets, where their slow, languorous, smoothly beautiful dub-engineered electronica can display all its colours. Seen is fairly true to the dub aesthetic, while subtly and unobtrusively interjecting clever, tasty morsels of electronic debris to add to its abiding flavourfulness. While the world is switching on to dub-influenced groove music like Kruder & Dorfmeister, there’s still a shortage of albums on the world stage that sustain those low-down’n’sexy grooves for a whole hour on shiny disc. Auckland is indeed lucky to be graced with one of the tastiest additions yet to the dub-groove milieu.

August 2001

A huge segment of the music industry is dedicated to persuading us to spend our discretionary dollar on reliving our yesterdays. For those who find the 21st century just a little scary, it’s possible to find any number of cosy corners of music nostalgia through which to escape our contemporary neuroses.
This month’s nostalgic blast comes from THE POGUES, whose ‘The Very Best Of...’ (WEA) will reignite a few memories of drunken nights and wasted days for many ex-punks. At their peak between 1983-85, the rough-as-guts Irish rootsiness of The Pogues was a welcome antidote to pop charts that were drenched with the slick new romantic makeup boys. Leader Shane MacGowan had hit the headlines as a young punk rocker in the late 70s, when someone nearly bit his ear off at a Clash gig; as the creative force behind The Pogues, Shane’s ruptured groan of a voice carried with it a certain poignancy that was reflected in his best lyrics. You just couldn’t help feeling like this bedraggled, stray tomcat needed some looking after. Most of the time, however, the group were simply a good excuse for an unpretentious knees-up, and it’s ironic that their most memorable song was written by others (Ewan McColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’) and that the most fondly-remembered (‘Fairytale Of New York’) is a duet with McColl’s sadly late lamented daughter, the wonderful Kirsty McColl.
Shane McGowan always sounded like he had just woken up in the gutter after a long night drinking and fighting. Grubby. ELEVATOR, on the other hand, are clean, clean, clean. It’s in the sound, and in the message. ‘Music’ (Grass Roots) is an impressively produced debut by an Auckland group that mixes the skittering, programmed rhythms of drum&bass with honest-to-God real instruments. God? He’s pretty big in their picture. Singer Julia may emote in a style not unlike Portishead, but these songs are mostly about her relationship to the big guy in the sky. Well wouldn’t you know it!
Very brave are the people behind Monkey Records, who have released the decidedly odd and rather unique ‘The Wisdom Of Insecurity’ by DYSTOPIA. This Auckland-based ensemble includes the spoken word ruminations of Liz Maw, with keyboards, sitar, and environmental sounds coming together in long droning pieces. It has a kind of meditative yet depressing feel, and it’s certainly one of a kind, though perhaps of very limited appeal.
BEN FULTON’s ‘Stronger Than Love’ (Magic Theatre) is a singer/songwriter affair (guitar and voice, with some acoustic bass, cello and percussion) which goes for an eery Nick Drake-style melancholy sound. I mean, the very first song is called ‘You Will Suffer’, the third ‘Melancholy’. Fulton communicates his pain well, though his lithp can be a bit offputting.
If you’re genuinely distressed, or depressed, please don’t listen to KRISTEN HERSH’s ‘Sunny Border Blue’ (4AD). The ex-Throwing Muses singer, whose celebrated bi-polar condition recently led to an incident in which her children were seized by the state, has made a record that reflects her torture. As always, Hersh’s emotive voice and elliptical but expressive words touch the listener, but why would anyone in their right mind want to stand this close to madness?
Doomed and dead is JEFF BUCKLEY, who made only one album in his lifetime. Since his death, his record company have released a studio album the artist never intended for release, together with a bunch of rough demos; followed by a double live album. And now, yet ANOTHER live album. ‘Live At L’Olympia’ (Columbia) gets problematic for those who have played the tiny Buckley catalogue to death (hrmph) already. Then again, these slightly hissy 1995 desk recordings of his triumphant Paris concert were Buckley’s favourite, apparently, and there are moments: every Buckley song calls for some vocal improvisation, so things never become boring... his songs required a real balancing act, vocally. Special moments include the Robert Plant imitation, the Edith Piaf imitation, and the beautiful ‘What Will You Say’, featuring Alim Qasimov.


* TOPP TWINS - Grass Highway (Topp Twins): strident Patsy Cline emulations that sing with the rustic sensitivity of a hacksaw blade cutting through corrogated iron.
* ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA - Zoom (Epic): reunited practitioners of bombastic symphonic dross. Not needed, not wanted.


* Various - Indian Masala Mix (Ecco Chamber): Hindi/Tamil filmsongs given the good groove treatment by Viennese djs Kulisch and Vana. Hot.
* TOOL - Lateralus (Zomba): Heavy yet astonishingly skilled concept album for mixed up guys in need anger therapy. Not exactly the most Oprah of mindsets, if you know what I mean.


The candidly-documented ‘difficult second album’ by one of the best-selling groups in the history of NZ pop turns out to be not half bad. Really. Boh Runga and her boys have attempted to make a record that more accurately reflects the group’s live energy than that excellent but often moody debut. So... how to make a galvanising listening experience out of a unit who so easily betray their somewhat plain pub-rock background? There are no magical new directions, the songs are largely formulaic, and between the notes it’s easy to detect the sweat and rigour that went into the months of hard graft that gave birth to the record. But somehow, despite it all, ‘Magic Line’ is a solid, well-crafted pop-rock artifact that has a good share of tricks up its sleeve, little production flourishes that, to this reviewer, hark back to a pure pop aesthetic that seems delightfully naive and attractive in this cynical post-pop environment.

From the singer-songwriter whose piano-stool gyrations could reduce a man to blithering wretchedness, an unashamedly eccentric collection of uniquely rendered cover versions, all written by guys (some with a decidedly misogynist streak) and sabotaged to her own balmy ends. Not to forget that Amos made one of the most fetchingly bizarre 90s covers with her ballad version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, this album takes this idea a whole conceptual leap forward by transmutating several of the pieces Tori-style to the point that it would take a genius to recognise the song’s origins. By hiring sonic whizzkids like King Crimson’s guitarist Adrian Belew, and sticking so religiously to her personality extremities, Amos has fashioned an album that, while a difficult listen at times, effectively rewires and comments on songs by artists as stylistically opposed as Eminem and The Beatles, Depeche Mode and 10cc.

FAN DANCE (Nonesuch)
Sam Phillips was a recent defector from the white Christian gospel circuit when I interviewed her a decade ago, having made the
choice to swap evangelising for the more abstract domain of heathen expression on brilliant albums like ‘Cruel Inventions’. I asked what Christianity meant to her at that secular point, and her apt and astonishing response was: "What does love require?" Now, if Bush and Bin Laden were to walk around with those four words on their minds, then the world might be a safer place to live in. As it is, Sam Phillips has quietly maintained a small but fervent fan base around her slim volume of recorded work, all of them produced by her husband - another muse worth exploring - T Bone Burnett. ‘Fan Dance’ isn’t the greatest album Phillips has ever made, or will do. For better or worse, it moves away from the Anglo-pop influences of previous releases to a more earthy, stripped-down approach featuring the considerable talents of guitarist Marc Ribot. But it hardly matters whether this is a world-beater or not: there’s something about Phillips that defines her as a marginal yet special presence on the music scene. I would call it the willpower and ability to communicate truth through music. But while her songs vibrate with integrity, her quirky presentation and disarmingly simple yet cryptic lyrics mean that, unlike so many other well-meaning singer-songwriters, she’s never a crashing bore.

Cow Records
It’s worth noting the superficial similarity between Kiwi singer-songwriter AJ Bell and Australia’s critically acclaimed Paul Kelly. On his second album ‘Hi-Biscuit’, Bell has crafted an an hour of low-key excellence that has everything that dull Australian could wish for but never achieve; Kelly’s voice is tuneless and monotone, Bell’s has a natural sing-song quality and real grain; Kelly’s songs and delivery are without wit or humour or colour, where Bell’s has those things in spades. Peppered with unselfconscious Kiwi references (one song is called ‘Jonah, The Comeback’), the arrangements of these songs are rich, and the whole damn thing was put together in the heart of Sandringham, surely one of Auckland’s most neglected but rockingest suburbs. There’s nothing hip or of-the-moment about these diaries of life at the world’s bottom, and that makes it an even more unexpected, delicious pleasure.

Perfect Summer fun! Bearing only a passing resemblance to the more Shadows-influenced of surf music instrumental groups of the 60s, Christchurch ensemble Surfing USSR (who must be a hoot on stage) present a cd jam-packed with sixteen guitar-led tunes that are more Jewish kletzmer than Beach Boys, and a riot of odd fun from start to finish. Featuring incredibly skillful fretwork and tightly-controlled performances that have a real intuition for the required poise and pounce of such styles, ‘Surfadelic’ is one of those records that is either the life of the party, or gets short shrift from style nazis who always want the latest Euro-trance nonsense at their Christmas knees-ups.



Shapeshifter Realtime (Kog)
Reportedly, this Kiwi drum&bass collective whip up a real storm in the live arena, largely because they’ve successfully converted a machine-led musical genre to a real-time, energetically performed phenomenon. Unfortunately, the human interface isn’t all that apparent on their debut cd; happily, their blend of slamming, relentless beats and jazz-inflected textures is quite sufficient to produce the intended euphoria. Someone should tell them how to spell ‘saxophone’, however.

The Beta Band Hot Shots II (Regal)
Destined to remain on the fringes because, stylistically, this group are impossible to pigeonhole, the Beta Band have fashioned an exquisite second dose of their mercurial brilliance that veers from sublime loose grooves to songs expressed in an impressively foppish singing style that hasn’t been heard since the prog-symphonic era of Caravan and the Moody Blues. Yay.

The Clean Getaway (Flying Nun)
Overrated in their prime as one of Flying Nun’s earliest, terminally hip successes, these days the members live all over the show, and come together when time permits. Despite this ‘hobby’ vibe, ‘Getaway’ is an enjoyable album that meshes surprisingly well, with many moments to surpass their early work. Or perhaps they’re just getting older and so am I. No-one, however, should have allowed Robert Scott near a microphone.


Mercury Rev All Is Dream (V2)
One of the most critically-acclaimed groups on the face of the earth strain
hard for the teary fragility of Neil Young at his emotive best… and fail to
muster even a passable pastiche of the old dog-haired rocker.

Starsailor Love Is Here (Chrysalis)
Another wretched attempt to emulate the strangulated vocal gyrations of Jeff Buckley (RIP) that usurps its name from Tim Buckley (Jeff’s dad, RIP) best album, and backs it all up with contrived songs and a typically unimaginative, shoe-gazing English strum. Horrid.

The Feelers Communicate (WEA)
I don’t care that heaps of dosh was thrown at this followup to the massively successful debut; or that these Kiwi boys felt they had to get ‘international’ producer Gil Norton on board. A boring album is a boring album is a boring album. So nothing has changed on planet Feelers then.

gary steel can be harassed at


If we were under attack from an airborne army of frisbeed cd releases, there’s no way that even a crack team of ground troops with the latest firepower technology could take them out before they starting slicing heads off. In the last ten years, the number of new releases has got out of hand, making it impossible for even the most dedicated music follower to keep up with any specific genre... and pity the musical generalist! Each month, Metro provides you with a selection of the hottest releases, but it’s inevitable that some of our reviewer’s most treasured finds don’t make the page. Here, then, are ten albums from 2001 that you may have missed (we almost did!) and that we think would make your Summer listening time more intense, more pleasurable, more durable!

La Prochaine Fois (NinjaTune)
Riz Maslen (aka Neotropic) is known primarily as one of the too-cool crew at London label Ninja Tune who works at breaking down the barriers between contrasting musical styles, aided by electronic gadgetry and sampling technology. But her third album is a revelation, mining the rich seams of impressionistic classical, pastoral English folk, and noirish jazz. Maslen is unafraid to use unsettling spatial effects, backwards vocals and any manner of sound combinations to create that rarest of artifacts: a genuinely experimental record that is a beautiful, magical, witchy experience for the home listener. Accompanied by Maslen’s ‘ambient road movie’ on cd-rom.

Bodily Functions (K7)
Similarly elegaiac, occasionally upbeat, dj/composer Matthew Herbert has fashioned an extraordinary album out of samples of surgical procedures and beats from his unborn child... and it’s a truly beautiful, moving experience! One of the few genuinely genius House music djs on the planet, Herbert here moves off the dancefloor to ruminate on relationships (the body politic), on a disc that - with the gorgeous vocals of his wife Dani Siciliano - would seem to be paying tribute to 40s torch song as it subtley updates the genre. Lovely, rewarding. Honest!

Ha (Island)
Originally brought to attention with his tabla work for Massive Attack, and his Anokha club for young London-based Indian drum&bass exponents, Talvin Singh is fast becoming a cross-cultural ambassador of Peter Gabriel proportions. His second album is a bright surprise after the disappointing debut, ‘Ok’ (and that’s all it was, folks). ‘Ha’ is a fantastic pan-global fusion featuring a galaxy of enchanting vocalists and instrumentalists (both traditional and contemporary), all of it propelled along by breakbeats that turn it into one of the most entertaining musical travelogues since Brian Eno and David Byrne’s seminal ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’.

I Believe You Are A Star (Sony)
The close-to-legendary ex-Straitjacket Fits man Shayne Carter may have taken an age to come up with this initially underwhelming and rather short Dimmer debut, but every second counts on this near-perfect winner, an album that captures its moods perfectly, and pummels them into submission using layers of subtle sonic integrity and expressionist savvy and a veritable world of poise: Carter is constantly the cat about to pounce on its target, making ‘I Believe You Are A Star’ the kind of artistic rumination that keeps you on your seat. Not The Feelers, that’s for sure.

5. SJD
Lost Soul Music (Round Trip Mars)
Unlike Carter, Auckland chap Sean Donelly wears his heart on sleeve. Like Carter, SJD expresses his songwriting muse through the current computer/sampling/electronic interface. This second SJD disc is a stunning work, integrating Donelly’s surprisingly Orbisonesque vocal pitch with dashing, surprising snippets of modern classical, groovy lounge and a kitchen sink’s worth of entertaining sideways glances.

Agaetis Byrjun (Fatcat)
One of the big surprises on the alt.rock/post-rock map, this hauntingly different Icelandic group has been hailed as the Next Big Thing (expect the anti-reaction soon!) but ‘Agaetis Byrjun’ almost lives up to the hype. It’s an otherworldly thing, with alien-angel singing, an attractive ethereality, together with the occasional firepower of Neil Young-style guitar fury.

Run Come Save Me (Big Dada)
If it’s firepower, energy and pure fun you’re after, try the second album from British-based hip-hop exponent Roots Manuva. Rapping with a pronounced difference, the Roots lyrical vision is pure wackiness. But the real genius of this album is in the way it strays from the typical funk backing tracks into techno territory to produce an amalgam that sounds like the freshest thing you’ve heard all year.

Inner Space/Outer Space (Ninja Tune)
Two German electronic dilettants working in Santiago, making a third duo project that is influenced by the funky electric jazz of Herbie Hancock and Weather Report, but takes it to entirely new and brilliant cyber planets.

Seen (IO)
Auckland-based duo make an electronic dub-based album that’s so beautiful, so perfectly melodic and meditative without being soporific, that listening to it repeatedly is like the process of falling in love. Kiss-kiss!

Numero Deux (Guidance)
Two Italian chaps with impeccable taste and the ability to put all their influences into a hat (influences that are heavy on Italian film music and lush grooves), swirl it around and come up with something that, while making for a superior espresso experience, also pays off with some thorough repeat plays. Yum.

gary steel can be harassed at

January 2002

You can sense the collective cry of relief from record company and conservative critics as Radiohead seem to backtrack from the impressive experimental introspection of their last two albums to that safe place: the concert podium. ‘I Might Be Wrong’ is a live album matter-of-factly drawn from four shows, and though it might at first appear a safe bet and a nice Summer delight for fans of the group’s more conventional rock drama ‘OK Computer’, it’s not quite the easy ride some might envisage. Yes, Radiohead do boil down the studio ingredients into an elemental energy suitable for the immediacy of instant communication between artist/fan, but that doesn’t make for a boring, old-fashioned concert documentation. Instead, there’s a real sense of both the classic rock foundations and the boundary-stretching being inherent in the band’s personality, and finally, the performances themselves are positively riveting.

This old fool has always had a soft spot for wee Kylie, the former Neighbours girl-next-door who didn’t seem to have a hope in hell of forging a career in nasty London, let alone the ability to reinvent herself over and over again; the flimsy pop starlet of bubblegum producers Stock, Aitken & Waterman to that awesome Nick Cave duet, and inbetween, attaining the dubious distinction of diva supreme with the gay parade. Here she is again, wiggling her nude rump and crooning an utterly lifeless, generic series of thirteen disco pop songs. Pity: while Madonna was at least clever enough to employ and exploit some of the leading innovators of contemporary music technology, Kylie’s comeback is so devoid of risk-taking that there’s no edge, no stimulant in this product. It would have been so easy to satisfy everyone, simply by employing some talented git to add a little wit and piss-taking humour here, or some audacious musical backgrounds there. ‘Fever’ doesn’t even break a sweat.

It’s irritating, and ultimately depressing, but one of the inevitable consequences of living in a country with a comparatively small population is that ‘middle-tier’ artists haven’t a shit show of making a living out of their craft, no matter how talented and worthy. Greg Johnson has been beavering away for decades now, both as a quality pop singer/songwriter, and in his workingman’s guise of jazz crooner/trumpeter/bar-prop. ‘The Best Yet’ is a stunning collection of Johnson’s pop artistry. Full of fine hooks, bitter-sweet lyric observations and memorable melodies, these songs have stood the test of time just as well as those by our more celebrated pop heroes (Dobbyn, Finn, etc). Perhaps what kept Johnson from the top echelon wasn’t lack of edge, but one of those strange quirks of place and timing. Perhaps in the more amenable contemporary environment for Kiwi tunes, ‘The Best Yet’ will instigate a resurgence of interest in one of our finest.

McCartney unintentionally pointed out his major problem in an episode of Beatles producer George Martin’s fascinating ‘Rhythm Of Life’ documentary. Discussing the magic confluence of inspiration and good luck involved in coming up with an original-sounding melodic sequence, he explained how easy it was to come up with melodies that already existed. While other artists spend their days trying desperately not to copy their heroes, McCartney can’t help repeating himself. ‘Driving Rain’ sounds like an album McCartney at least felt compelled to write, containing as it does a level of intent and angst not felt since the early days of his early 70s group, Wings. Most of the pat, too-comfortable aspects of his typical solo work have evaporated with this release, and it’s a convenient presumption that the coming to terms with his wife’s death has renewed his vigour. Tragically, the songs sound like pale shadows of his work in the Beatles and Wings: it’s not that they’re lacking, just that there’s an awful lot to live up to, and unlike (say) Bob Dylan, McCartney hasn’t developed a craggy old-guy persona to match the youthful version the world loved to love.

Speaking of craggy old guy personas, groaning Cohen (or Laughing Len to his admirers) has sounded septuagenarian for his entire thirty-three-year recording career, so it’s no surprise that he sounds no older now that he’s in his late 60s! No-one could call Cohen’s poetic muse ‘uplifting’, but his fans take a great delight in wallowing in the carefully orated melancholic sing-speak poetry of the Canadian legend. One person’s depression is another’s perfect moment, and Cohen is full of perfect moments: his grainy voice, beyond time, somehow finding (with great simplicity) a way to impart wisdom about love, sex and the psychogeography of the soul. Having emerged from seven years of silence in a Buddhist monastery, one might wonder what Cohen would have to say. Plenty, as it happens, though there is an air of gentle resignation here that was nowhere to be found on the anger of his previous album, ‘The Future’. Sadly, Cohen has relied totally on Sharon Robinson to produce, programme and co-write the compositions, rendering a musical offering that lacks spit and mettle. But Cohen’s music backgrounds have often been strangely geriatric; get over that, hear the voice.


Programmed To Love (EMI)
Idiot dance magazine ‘Mixmag’ called this the ‘first great chill-out album of the 21st century’ and sadly, they’re probably right. The work of electronic groove duo Simon Mills and Nail Tolliday, it has a gorgeous, languid feeling that should make it a barbecue favourite this Summer.

Alicia Keys
Songs In A Minor (J-Records/BMG)
Sickeningly talented child-prodigy-turned funky teen r’n’b diva. Personally, I’m not big on what passes for r’n’b these days, but Keys’ effortlessly impeccable singing/writing/arranging, and production that sounds like a million bucks (oh, baby, that bass!) has me involuntarily grinding my rheumy hips.


Robbie Williams
Swing When You’re Winning (Chrysalis/EMI)
Only an gibbering fool or a megalomaniac or someone on a serious cocktail of unhinging substances could convince themselves that they could get away with something as garish, unconvincing and, well... AWFUL as this album of misjudged torch-oriented, orchestra-accompanied cover versions. As a pop singer, Robbie, you rocked. This, on the other hand, is a stinker.

Various Artists
Pils On Tick (Kog/Universal)
Docked a sinister notch or two for the stupid drug play of the title, this latest taster from Kingsland name brand Kog is a somewhat shapeless exercise in conformist ordinariness: lashings of mundane house (Cuffy & Leon, Subware) and drum&bass (Shapeshifter, Concord Dawn).

April 2002


Imagine if the post-pop genius of England’s XTC (anybody remember XTC?) was resurrected in Japan, and refashioned to fit the times. Romping home as album of the year so far, ‘Point’ is that rarest of beasts: a retro-fitted pop concoction with a dazzling array of references sculpted to perfection in a cyber-laboratory that allows any kind of combination, no matter how audacious, without the whole coming out sounding like the audio equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. Cornelius – known as Keigo Oyamada to his mum - has a long history in the creative underworld of Japanese pop, but this is only his second release in the West. And what a scorcher: somehow the cultural distance from most of his influences allows him to reach recombinant contextual conclusions that make for good entertainment and good art. Try putting creamy vocal harmonies against a bombastic Led Zeppelin riff. Ah-ha, sounds good! These combinations are brought to life with such skill that they work wondrously, and they never fail in their capacity to bring a smile to the lips. It’s when Cornelius puts an astringent acoustic guitar alongside the perfectly tuned and timed accompaniment of cricket song and makes it work that I give up and say something simple: go get one.

Warner Music

I could tell you that Alanis is quite endearing in her overtly wordy, brainy press release (in an age of chronic record industry illiteracy), and that the concern she shows for cultures and countries and men and women working together to solve their problems in the personal politik is strangely fetching. And you wouldn’t buy the record. I could tell you that Alanis has re-emerged shorn of those sneering vocal mannerisms, and that her new record finds her finding a natural freedom as a singer-songwriter, self-producing and self-determined and surrounding herself with friendly guests that add warmth and make the whole thing sound wondrously relaxed and surprisingly non-corporate. And you still wouldn’t buy it. (You wanna know a secret? Sorry Alanis, but neither would I). Alas, poor Alanis will never escape the ridicule resulting from the mass-culture saturation of her kazillion-selling Jagged Little Pill, and its moment-defining mid-90s angry young woman schtick.

George V

Destined to find its way into the homes of adoring urban sophisticates with more cash than cred, this double cd is segued and sequenced by a chap called David Visan who, it must be said, is a taste-free zone. Okay, so you fawned over Enya and romanced to Enigma and shagged to Deep Forest, and eventually found your way to the garish chillout grooves of the Café Del Mar series (Ibiza with a hangover). Buddha-bar is an outrage: as if the title concept wasn’t significantly sacrilegious, insult is heaped on in spades as various world musics are mangled by a succession of nobodies without an iota of cultural understanding or musical context. Two tracks (by Nitin Sawhney and the Gotan Project) stand out from the swill of swelling, sugary strings, together with unholy combinations of ouds, sampled divas and beats. Disc 1 is labeled ‘dinner’; disc 2 is ‘drink’. Is that a bottle in front of me, or a frontal lobotomy?

Mo Wax

Reggae is so enmeshed in the Kiwi cultural mindset that its origins as an alien import from the politically turbulent island of Jamaica seem downright odd. But when mainstream New Zealand thinks of reggae they think of his High-ness, the late, the honourable, Bob Marley. Contemporary Jamaica is saturated with ragga or dancehall (ragga being to dancehall what rap is to hip hop), a perky, rhythmically insistent music form that is, as the name suggests, geared towards getting up and wiggling one’s bottom. The problem with most ragga is the overtly misogynistic lyrics, with the added difficulty that the best dancehall tunes tend to circulate via that antiquated medium, the seven-inch single. ‘Now Thing’ – subtitled ’15 Dancehall Instrumentals’ – finally offers a solution, by compiling a compelling platter devoid of any substantial vocal intrusion (except for grunts and effects). There’s a simple sense of playfulness and fun here that should put a smile on anyone’s party spirit.


These are confusing times for those of us who are old enough to remember when an album was… an album! When Viennese duo Tosca released the phenomenally popular ‘Suzuki’ in 2000, who would have thought that subsequently, two remix albums would ensue: ‘Suzuki In Dub’, and now a project in which one particular Suzuki track (Honey) is remixed thirteen times. It’s almost as if the album has been structured to accompany a particularly sensual romp between the sheets: what passes for a vocal here is essentially a sexy moan, and you get to hear it hundreds of times during this unbroken ebb and flow of moist electronic dub action. Given any quibbles about paying full price for many versions of only one song, the various mixologists have created a beautiful and surprisingly varied set of takes that carries us through from deep, woofer-shredding dub to uptempo house. And the sheer attention to detail in every piece (and the sonic space they move in) quickly impresses with its sheer superiority.


Melody AM (Wall Of Sound)
Tasty little number from a country that UK musical colonialists Wall Of Sound have recently discovered, Norway. In the past couple of years, the frozen country has been responsible for some of the most intriguingly playful electronic music in recent memory; Royksopp are playful, alright, but their orbit is a freshly minted funky groove/lounge sound.

Dead Famous People
Secret Girl’s Business (Tripping Usherette)
Imagine if The Chills, circa ‘Pink Frost’, had conquered the known universe. In that environment of fairground organ, marijuana melancholy and slightly sozzled pop nostalgia, Auckland girl group Dead Famous People might have been huge. This compilation from the 80s and early 90s gathers the group’s shambolic, naively charming back catalogue into one convenient package.


The Golden Hum (Elektra)
Just another bunch of bleating, self-important, utterly humourless Radiohead (circa OK Computer) soundalikes. That is, filtered through mid-American sensibilities. Which makes it all so much worse.

Lovers Live (Epic)
Don’t get me wrong, this old sucker’s got a huge soft spot for ‘Your Love Is King’ 80s caramellow crooner Sade. But this live album is interminable, and who needs concert renditions of very intimate songs in front of a noisy crowd of thousands. Pointless.

May 2002

Virgin America
They say these guys could be the first big new thing of 2002. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are two San Franciscans and one expat Pom making rough-edged, post-garage rock that, unlike the White Stripes (though just as retro) have a definite accessible pop edge. There’s resoundingly nothing new here, but perhaps its refreshing for kids these days to actually hear what a group is supposed to sound like when its rehearsing and getting excited about the primal surge of rock'n’roll, and they do capture some of that, being influenced by groups like The Who and early garage-to-psych bands. Does the job.

No doubt about it, this is fluff, but 23-year-old Brandy’s third album is an example of the alarming craft going into contemporary R&B. For all the mind-boggling stats on display on the epic record company press release, and a bio that asserts the former sit-com actor’s newfound individuality, this is nowhere near the top end of the genre (Jill Scott, Missy Elliott). However, production methods that ten years ago would have been considered avant garde have been seamlessly integrated (as they have with new generation hip hop) and it gives the clichéd cooing a twist of lemon that makes it quite palatable. And full marks – in a culture that endlessly promotes junk food lifestyles – for promoting the benefits of healthy veganism.

Kog Transmissions
Just when the House music cultural pond is becoming increasingly vermin-ridden and stale smelling, Auckland-based Leyton goes and releases… a House album! But wait: say what you will, this is phenomenally accomplished stuff. Combining his ambient electronic roots with the dub echoes of the Berlin minimal techno scene, and an easy to love lushness that brings in trance-inducing congas and a scattering of guest stars, it’s an album with just the right dimensions of texture, groove and fresh’n’fruity zing. Very clever, is this chap, inviting the gorgeous Josephine and Black Seeds’ Barnaby Weir to provide for all those who find mesmerising dance-orientated instrumental tech-house too taxing. On the evidence of this oddly-titled album, Leyton (also the man behind ambient project Rotor+) will not be amongst the underground innovators of Kiwi electronica. Instead he can be proud of his masterful command of the medium, and a recording that would win hands down in a contest with most international exponents of the genre. Shit, it’ll go far.

Call me sexist (or ageist) if you will, but there’s something faintly embarrassing about a 50-something-year-old woman rasping out disco songs intoning lines like ‘it’s time, for sex, with strangers’. That’s on the opening track which, as with several other songs on this disc, is co-written by the very hip Beck. It’s on a track conspired with Jarvis Cocker of Pulp that it all becomes cringe-inducing, with a line that alludes to the infamous ‘spit on my snatch’ lyric from an album of genuine power, 1979’s ‘Broken English’. (In this case, ‘Now everybody wants to kiss my snatch/To go where God knows who has gone before’) Believing her own hype (not the footnote in pop groupiedom alternative viewpoint), Faithful has enlisted the likes of Blur and Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) to help her through, but it’s half-arsed (even her ‘poignant’ tribute to femme fatale Nico) and mean-spirited and ego-driven, just like her autobiography.

What Are Records?
Following relatively hot on the heels of his back-to-basics, Nashville-recorded ‘Say It Is So’, this time Finn has tried to keep it simple and raw by loading his hard-drive in Auckland and Waiatarua. ‘Feeding The Gods’ refers to the songwriting process, and it could go down as the least pretentious ‘concept’ album in the history of contemporary music: the songs all explore aspects of singing, songwriting and performing, without once complaining about life on the road, the venereal diseases of groupies or the price of illicit substances. Uh no, folks, Finn’s on a quiet bender about finding his bliss, and that’s the impulse the semi-legendary ex-Enzer has to write and perform. But is it any good? Well, the first half may appeal to those who – like Finn – are feeling a need to explore the rootsy woods of US For me, the worthwhile stuff kicks in half way through, where Finn’s natural, endearing awkwardness and fetching eccentricity rears its head on a bunch of numbers that feature weirdly stretched singing effects, subtle electronic treatments, Don McGlashan playing his fabulous euphonium… and where his voice enters history as a kind of Kiwi cousin to England’s awe-inspiring iconoclastic singer, Robert Wyatt.

Put these old coots out to pasture, will ya? Your worst nightmare: take a bunch of rock’n’roll legends, most of them certifiably geriatric, and accompany them with the ingratiating tv host (and ex-Squeeze pianist) Jools Holland (who gets to get pictured with the stars at every turn, smiling nerdily while they scowl) How to ruin reputations. Sting, an ailing George Harrison, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and many others are along for the ride, but it’s the women (Sam Brown and Mica Paris) who slightly redeem things. That and Welsh madman John Cale, who fakes it through an outrageous almost-camp Johnny Mercer composition.


Fatcat & Fishface
Dogbreath (Jayrem)
It’s become a cliché, but the best ‘made for kids’ art is basically INSANE. The human species never loses the desire for play and total silliness, and adults who tap into that make the finest works for kids of all ages. Fatcat & Fishface are obviously demented, and they ROCK.

Waves (Crydamoure/Virgin)
Anyone enamoured with the French twist Daft Punk give to mechanical techno will enjoy this segued collection of 12” singles brought together by Daft Punker Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, and a chap called Rico. Dance your nuts off.


Frank Sinatra
Romance (Warner)
I’m sure Sinatra’s classic Reprise albums are every bit as artful in their schmaltzy ‘songs for doomed romantics’ way as all the critics say all the time, but this double cd compile is scrappy, predictable, and highlights all the most bullish aspects of the Mafia’s favourite crooner. And record companies wonder why punters are downloading.

Rod Stewart
The Story So Far (Warner)
Two good cds could have been got out of a generous combination of his Mercury label years (‘Maggie May’, etc) and his decadent American ascendancy (‘Tonight’s The Night’, ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’). Instead, this is an abysmal trope mostly through his later years. One word about those 80s synthy songs: PARP!

June 2002

I’ve no doubt that this will be an astonishing crossover hit. What a waste, therefore, to report that what sounded like an intriguing project, drowns in its own sentiment. Armstrong wrote the string parts for Massive Attack, and has become an orchestral arranger of some repute. On this huge, expensive, lusher than lush album, strings vie for attention with an impressive grab-bag of guest stars, including Bono (U2), Evan Dando (Lemonheads), drum’n’bass ‘legend’ Photek, and Glaswegian rockers Mogwai. Despite moments that hint at what could have been (Swati Natekar’s spine-tingling Hindi vocals), too often the sugar content is just too high, and this unfortunate situation is just reinforced by Richard Claydermanesque piano parts. Armstrong unwittingly points out his own failings by sampling progressive rock group King Crimson’s ‘Starless’, in which the purposefully artificial ‘fake orchestra’ of the mellotron provides the perfect foil for Robert Fripp’s indescribably aching guitar melody.

Wall Of Sound
Some of the best Kiwi sounds have come from the isolation of being out of the pop culture slipstream. It must be nigh on impossible to achieve the requisite, necessary distance from the prevailing trends anywhere on mainland England, so it’s heartening to hear an album from the Isle Of Wight that does just that: The Bees is primarily the work of a fellow called Paul Butler, a 23-year-old who already has a startling musical resume in a discography of independent releases with likeminded funk-electronic-jazz-fusion groups like Fretless AZM. Teaming up with pop conceptualist Aaron Fletcher, Butler and Co have fashioned an intelligent pop confection that defies any sensible attempt to define it. Always a good sign! But basically, Sunshine Hit Me is, indeed, a worthy dose of blue skies in Winter, as it eschews electronica for a polished home-studio take on the kind of classic pop that appeals to the hardcore music cognoscenti: between the two members there’s a musical world that spans Afro-funk jams and Beach Boys harmonies, and a host of other influences that may be less detectable, but all go towards making this one of the most intriguing pop releases so far in 2002.

It’s like science fiction, really. To think that a man with the name ‘Bryan’ could have been considered the epitome of style and class back in the 70s. After a long layoff, the voice of Roxy Music steps forward with a disc that anyone but a dwindling dinner party of die-hard fans will find hard to forgive. For a start, that instantly recognizable, effete croon has gone and got craggy and old. And while Ferry may have benefited by bringing his sound up-to-date, he has chosen to surround himself with equally craggy compadres in the likes of Dave Stewart (Eurhythmics), Chris Spedding and Mick Green. With Roxy, Ferry effortlessly combined style and content in a unique setting; ‘Frantic’ sounds like the work of a man who once wore tuxedos to every engagement, and now can’t be bothered stepping out of his house slippers.

Calm down, Gary. You’ll end up sounding like a record company press blurb. Oh, what the hell! Diorama is a stunning, superlative power pop fusion that sets new standards of craft, adventure and ambition for a trio who are barely in their 20s. Obviously they picked the innards out of their parents record collections, because this album (their third) takes 60s symphonic pop and melts it together with some fine hard rock riffing to make a record that is perfectly of the year 2002, yet is also an instant classic that harks back to previous eras of pop and rock. And all with a degree of skill, and barefaced honesty that avoids the usual pitfall of young musicians trying way too hard to sound cool. Silverchair aren’t cool, but they don’t care. Despite their youth, they do care about pop art. And to think, they come from Newcastle, that dire distant suburb of Sydney.

It’s difficult to be a connoisseur without being a snob, but where fellow Bristol collective Massive Attack were a connoisseur’s band who crossed over to a big audience, Smith & Mighty are like a Lion Red version for the masses; all the ‘right’ moves are made on a third album that mixes up good-time dub, break-beat and soul influences and overlays them with sometimes appealing female vocals. Which isn’t to say it’s all tepid nonsense: there are some fine moments of deep-end dub and every now and then, Rob Smith, Ray Mighty and Peter D. Rose really hit their stride. The serious music person will be annoyed by the obligatory ‘get up and dance’ lyrics, cheesey keyboards and vocal moments that sound at times like wannabe Destiny’s Child. The rest of us will look past that and simply enjoy. Gulp.


Handcream For A Generation (Wiiija)
They once sounded like Oasis with a Hindi accent, so it’s quite gratifying that – even if it does feature a 14-minute epic featuring Oasis man Noel Gallagher – that this one is almost impossible to get a handle on, so wide is its ambit round its interests (funk looms large these days).

Georgina Zellan-Smith
New Zealand Piano Works (Zellan)
Returned expat Zellan-Smith gives spirited solo piano renditions of often gorgeous works by David Farquhar (who was born in Cambridge, New Zealand, studied at Cambridge, England, and eulogises Cambridge, New Zealand on this cd), and Edwin Carr (who lives on Waiheke and writes about Waiheke on pieces like ‘Sea-shore’). Not exactly chart material, but…

Simply The Best Songwriters (Warner)
Overdue double cd celebration of the singer-songwriter genre, starting with the folk-influenced crew of the mid-60s, and moving right along to the present day. It’s great to get Nick Drake, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley and Donovan on the same disc; a minor quibble is the addition of recent wannabes like Jewel, Ryan Adams and Alanis Morissette.


Music Kills Me (V2)
It will appeal, believe you me: how could a band go wrong with fruity French groove locked to a live band with guitars? If it sounds different, it is. It’s also rather dull.

Matty Warmington
Flow (Loop)
It’s horrid having to niggle about local releases, but ya gotta be honest. Warmington’s folksy (sometimes epic) songs are impassioned and even quite accomplished, but a vocal style modeled lock stock and barrel on Jeff Buckley gives it no reason to breathe.

July 2002

So… Prince is back being Prince. As if anyone still cared. Actually, if anyone DID still care, The Rainbow Children might be getting the kind of ‘comeback’ album accolades it probably merits. Okay, it’s docked for the freak’s tendency to propagandise his new religion (Jehovah’s Witness, unfortunately), but otherwise, this is the kind of sprawling, somewhat directionless semi-masterpiece that if produced in the 80s, would have set the royal empire alight. This time, Prince has finally discovered 70s jazz-fusion, so in amongst the typical daffy voices and tight, soulful arrangements, there’s a smattering of showy instrumentals and incidentals that could come from a Weather Report or Return To Forever record. The sad thing is that musically Prince is at last venturing out and the level of musicianship here is extraordinary (flutes and mallet instruments rule!), but of course the world’s ears are now closed.

LAND (1975-2002) (Arista)
Patti Smith is undoubtedly one of America’s justifiably iconic, legendary, important figures. And for all sorts of reasons above and beyond her musical contributions. With her classic 1975 debut, Horses, she rewrote the book on women in rock, helping to define a new genre, punk rock, in the process. Tough, streetwise, with an ambiguous sexuality, she was as mean and nasty as any guy, and twice as clever. This is a tough review to write, because Land is a necessary and overdue assessment of Smith’s career and artistic legacy to date; a lovingly assembled double cd with sizeable booklet. It’s great that her latterday return to the stage is acknowledged, too. While those records have failed to grace the world’s charts, they amply demonstrate that there’s still anger and passion and intellectual gravitas post-marriage and motherhood. However: I never rated Smith’s work after Horses, mainly because that record’s gritty, agile, powerful rock was all-too-soon co-opted by a big American, anthemic rock sound that always seemed like too much bluster.

COMING HOME II (Stereo Deluxe)
Call me a grumpy old curmudgeon, but there’s something in me that wants more from music than functionality, background or purpose-built sounds. I want magic. If it’s magic you’re after, go elsewhere. But despite a title that makes me want to puke (‘Here is the new sound wallpaper that gives your home a fresh glance… Coming Home II is the compact universal furniture that creates atmosphere, warmth and cosiness in any space’ goes the rancid press blurb) German label Stereo Deluxe have come up with another of their post Kruder&Dorfmeister tasty treats. There’s a Latin feel to quite a bit of this, but also those deep dub-influenced grooves that bring in the odd bluesy vocal. It’s all impeccably flowing, beautifully presented and sounds gorgeous. I really shouldn’t dig it, but after a hard day of slog, Coming Home (II) sounds like a titillating proposition.

There’s something delightfully sweet about this album. Sure it’s nostalgia: subtitled ‘The Legacy Of Sun Records’, contemporary artists from Paul McCartney through Chrissie Hynde, Elton John, Bryan Ferry and Chris Isaak do their mostly faithful renditions of classics from the birth of rock’n’roll; a birth that came about as a result of the pioneering 50s label, Sun. That original Sun sound (the artists included early Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis) still retains its simple, naïve charm and strength over 40 years later, and it’s immediately apparent that these artists (most of whom are not exactly young themselves) have a tremendous love for the label and its artists/songs. The only time things don’t sound quite right (that is, just like the originals) are when Matchbox Twenty rock it up, or the Howling Diablos featuring Kid Rock go a little crazy right at the end. (Oh, and there’s that chap Dylan, who sounds increasingly like a castrated duck). Not a touch on the originals, but still lovely.

SIDEWAYS TOO (Round Trip Mars)
As you would expect from Stinky Jim (host of 95bFM’s long-running Stinky Grooves show), his second label compilation distills the real oil out of the kind of freaky fruit-bat blends that he plays to perfection every week. Except that this selection consists of local discoveries (apart from Aussie friends-of-the-groove Tooth). While the key three tracks are by local legends who appeared on the original Sideways project – International Observer, Dooblong Tongdra and Phelps & Munro – the lack of killer new discoveries doesn’t stop Sideways Too from being the most persuasive pack of funky-ass Kiwi electronic grooves to have been compiled and presented to the public ever-ever-ever. Suddenly there’s a plethora of homegrown recordings on retail shelves, but few of them show the kind of smooth-flowing, yet intelligently left-of-centre distinction that emanates from every sweetly-scented, perfumed pore of Sideways Too.


Latin Deluxe Vols 1&2 (Cinq Etoile) Don’t usually go for this sort of immaculately blended Latin beat nonsense, but these two discs are so consummately produced and packaged and every tune selected by DJ Monte La Rue just morphs so smoothly into the next that this makes for the perfect wallpaper.

Desmond Williams
Delights Of The Garden (ESL)
Subtle blend of groove styles that reflect Williams’ genesis (hails from Jamaica, lives in New Jersey) intricately weaves easy to love, good-time influences of reggae, dub, Afro-beat, Latin and contemporary breakbeat. Tasty concoction from the label owned by Thievery Corporation.


Van Morrison
Down The Road (Exile)
Oh dear. Poor old Van is ready for the rest-home, on the evidence here presented. The whole thing is woefully nostalgic, from the cover (a photograph of a shop dealing in ‘Memorabilia & Records’) to the sleepy boredom within. Senile, if not completely demented.

Trinity Roots
True (Trinity Roots)
Apart from a few moments of appealing lysergic drift, there’s nothing on record to justify the hype the Capital city roots rock/reggae contingent are getting, and this trio play a fuzzy, ill-defined blend of catch-all clichés that would once-upon-a-time have been dubbed ‘pub rock’.

Le Kiwi
A New World (Mystic Dawn)
Oh deary me! New Age aesthetics meets mangled fruitbat guitar, cheesey keyboard pre-sets and even a fake South American flute. Kiwi old-guard musos (ex-Underdogs man Doug Thomas) make a record mum might like.

Complete Greatest Hits (Elektra)
Completely undervalued because they never were quite hip enough, Ric Ocasek’s group of American New Wave popsters may have a sound that has its routes planted firmly in the late 70s/early 80s, but its stood the test of time, due to its infectious synth-driven riffs, power pop melodies, and sheer enthusiasm.

You Got Your Wish (Atoll)
Gorgeous, delicate tangos and instrumental miniatures from Besser’s Auckland-based band of three Nzers, two New Yorkers, one Londoner and a Russian. Besser’s swinging yet sweet response to his move to the humid climes of Auckland, it’s a worthy release with a couple of poems by the original Afghani poet, 13th Century poet Rumi, an intelligent response to last year’s twin tower attack. Spoilt only slightly by Jackie Clark’s sometimes shrill vocalese.

August 2002

It’s a pleasure to hear the old ponce letting his Scott Walker-ish torch inflections shine forth, on good songs, uninhibited by the overreaching of his recent uninhabitable concept conceits or the masks he felt necessary to don for most of his star-studded career. Like his best balladry (Ashes To Ashes), the key tracks here (Slip Away) click right into that forward-backward anti-gravity device that finds a way to chart space while making a nostalgia of the future. There are a few boo-boos (the gratuitous guitarring on some songs… bring back Robert Fripp!), but who would have thought that Bowie would cover a Neil Young song (I’ve Been Waiting For You) with interpretorial zeal AND make a stone cold classic of it?

Never been much of a Costello fan – that adenoidal vocal style, those contrite lyrics – but When I Was Cruel plays up all the best traits of the veteran singer/songwriter. Bearing the energy and memorable songs of his early years as a thin tie guy with the Attractions, it’s a subtle but effective updating on the sonic front, using contemporary sampling technology for added wobbly fun. But most importantly, this is a sharp songwriter/performer whose new songs are smart (as always) but also have heart. And the old duffer even has the cheek to use an extract from Abba’s Dancing Queen on one track. How cool is that?

Let’s forget about Moby’s self-righteous and contradictory personal politics (an animal rights vegan whose songs have been sold lock stock and barrel to the evil empire of the advertising world) and his little spat with Eminem (as if any of that mattered one iota). We’re talking music here, and Moby’s biggest crime in my estimation is to have done what hundreds of other mega-hit artists have done before him: make records that are mundane, half-baked, turgid, derivative excuses for new sounds. The only possible consolation in Moby’s conceptually shaky and imagination-lacking pillaging of blues and gospel over weak grooves is that people might be led to find better examples of the genre. Unfortunately, Moby’s exposure through ads goes to prove a musical truism: people tend to confuse genuine attraction to a song with a sickly nostalgic memory of having heard it somewhere before.

One of the first signings to Madonna’s vanity label Maverick in the early 90s, in hindsight the unpronounceable Ndegeocello could be credited with having kicked off a whole new wave of conscious, sensual yet righteous soul and funk (Jill Scott and Missy Elliott followed a full decade later). Yet despite the bootylicious bottom end (she’s an applauded bassist) there’s something willfully intellectual and politically right-on about her four albums that can turn off those who don’t like being hectered. Still, the topics and treatments are complex and the music’s low-end funk of an alternative MaiFM style. A nice antidote to Eminem.

Understandably, the fetchingly naïve teenage confessions of Runga’s platinum debut have vanished from this world-weary followup. Committing the cardinal sin of writing a song about the drudgery of life on the road (Get Some Sleep), Beautiful Collision bears all the awkward signs of an artist trying too damned hard to write an album to convince her corporate bankers that she’s making all the right moves. If that sounds harsh, it’s worth pointing out that despite Runga’s predictable co-option by the dinosaurs of the multinational record industry - which in real terms means too often resorting to clichéd melodic progressions and too many lyrics with allusions about the weather – there’s still an unforced beauty to Runga’s central style, and her innate charisma and smouldering soul shine like a beacon through the corporate maneouvres.


Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
Critical fave, US rockers go all avant garde round the edges, sign to prestigious label, and make one of those classic intellectual rock albums that ends up on magazine ‘best of year’ lists, and sells like a dog.

Neil Young
Are You Passionate?
Despite manufacturing an excrable jingoism in the wake of the Trade Towers fiasco, Young’s latest is a rather pleasing dabble in Stax-style grooves with Booker T on hand to up the soul quotient.


Electric Lotus
DJ Baba G, Dan The Automator and DJ Swamp share duties on this thoroughly regrettable desecration of Indian/Pakistani music that puts a dj spin on things that hasn’t half the charm of the silliest Bollywood soundtrack.

Patriotism is about as poor an excuse for supporting something as I can think of. Joost Yangeveld’s collaboration with Jason ‘Rockpig’ Hall is slick enough, but it’s carbon-copy ‘funky’ House with no distinguishing characteristics, except for the track featuring Sandy Mill’s sassy diva vocals.

September 2002

DIVERSECITY (Capital Recordings/Rhythm Method)
So the process and outcome are fairly predictable: get some nice drum sequences, some funky bass lines, a bunch of hypnotic keyboard washes, and steal small snatches of vocal fragments (either orgasming divas or tv-speak) which are distorted and looped to increase the hypnotic effect. By now, these cafe-friendly sounds are familiar. As with any genre, however, some do it better than others, and this Wellington project (his name is Miles Tilly) - while not achieving one whiff of originality - has made a sonically superior, stunningly sleek album that works perfectly in its chosen area. I long for the humour and wonky fusions found in the more innovative electronic groove releases, but this no-surprises cd is like eating your favourite dish in your favourite restaurant for the 100th time: just as good as the first.

WE ARE SCIENCE (Mantra/Shock)
It had to happen. Every era gets its revival eventually, and what's happening with the 80s right now is that the Manchester scene - from Joy Division/New Order through to the Happy Mondays - is being dusted off and re-appreciated. None better to provide an update on the dark drugged dance of those bands than electronic chanteuse Dot Allison. Dot's onto a winner with this self-produced mini-masterwork, on which her ice-cold coo nudges up against rock angst and the perfectly inflexible rhythmic spew hammered out by ancient-sounding synths and drum machines. But it's the songs themselves that nudge this into must-have land. After the first listen, like the best pop, the memory of these songs nags until once again, the play button must be activated for a repeat performance.

RUNNING DOWN THE KEYS (Lupin/Global Routes)
One of the great things about Lucid 3 is that they're not hip enough for 95bFM. This Kiwi three-piece, featuring the gorgeous vocals and songs of Victoria Girling-Butcher, writes intelligently and provocatively about the sexual diaspora, summoning the ghosts of Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Kristen Hirsh without ever aping the open heart surgery of those great female artists. Bic Runga could well take a leaf from Lucid 3: while the songs are soaked in traditional methodologies (where they work to their advantage), there are also drum machines and artificial textures where they work as mood or textural colourings. Okay, so there's a little of the strident psycho-babble of Alanis Morissette in evidence at times, but for the most part this is an exceptional, world-class record that's executed with the kind of conviction that artists only have when they know they're damn good.

1 GIANT LEAP (Palm Pictures/FMR)
I still don't get it. Two English guys record backing tracks, then take them all over the world, and con everyone from Baaba Maal to Michael Stipe, Shrinvas to Robbie Williams, Whiri Mako Black to Maxi Priest to do their thing and add to the stew. All in pursuit of some vague, feel-good concept like 'explore the unity in diversity'. This should be horrid stuff, willing ethnic suckers putting their talents onto the producer's Apple Mac and having it mauled to suit their pre-recorded rhythms. Um, it's actually very enjoyable, sorry to say old chap. Why does it cut the mustard, against all odds? Probably because just about all the star cast keep things subtle. There's no grandstanding, just a willingness to do whatever is required. Sure, it is a ropey concept, but as an alternative to all those execrable 'chill out' albums, this one fulfills that function, yet is a kind of titillating aural travelogue with a themic, cinematic tone.

Debut album from young Aussie band that has led to inevitable comparisons with lauded garage group The Strokes. The Vines, however, have come up with an irrepressibly hook-filled album that perfectly balances its raw, slight Nirvana-esque moments with gorgeous Beatles-influenced melodies... along with a touch of Brit-pop via Supergrass. There's nothing fundamentally new here, but perhaps the group's Australian origins give them a perspective that can allow instant access to the most delightful moments of both their American and English influences, taking in thirty years of pop and rock and coming up with one of those semi-classic first albums that are filled with a kind of glorious, energised naivety. Moreover, there's a genuine musicality for arrangement and instrumentation that contrasts nicely against its rough edges, and goes against the monochrome ordinariness of so much backwards-looking pop.


Te Vaka - Nukukehe (Spirit Of Play/King)
World-acclaimed, Titirangi-based Samoan/Pacifican ensemble with a third album that somehow manages to be both mainstream and irresistable. Devoid of the try-hard hip-hop apings of much contemporary Polynesia, Te Vaka update traditions, write their own material, but keep the central dynamic alive with great choral work and percussion.

Various Artists - Pacific Hotel (Oceania/King)
How to do the chill-out groove thing right. Lusciously-packaged double cd which gathers a surprisingly diverse - yet still eclectic - selection from Australia, France, Hawaii, New Caledonia, Fiji and gold ol' New Zealand. Kiwi acts include Salmonella Dub and Big Belly Woman.


Various Artists - Buddah-Bar Presents Living Theatre Vol. 2 (Kunduru/Border)
How to do the chill-out groove thing wrong. Faked compilation actually by Joseph Baldassare, this grooveless hour-long preamble is drenched in cod-Euro sensibilities. Demis Roussos revival, anyone? We not need!

The Hives - Your New Favourite Band (Shock/Border)
Yeah, like we really need a bunch of snotty Swedish tossers pretending to be the answer to everyone's Iggy & The Stooges and Buzzcocks dreams. Yeah, it has a calculated rawness. It pushes the right buttons. So what?

October 2002

The orgasmic Arabic vocals of Natacha Atlas are enough to send any grown man into wormy squiggles of delight. Firstly as a guest with mid-90s ethno-fusion group Transglobal Underground, then on similarly electronically altered solo albums, Atlas has continued to wend her remarkable, perfectly pitched and paced desert dramas around contemporary dance styles. With her latest, she takes as inspiration Sufi poets and transcontinental philosopher Gurdjieff, and fashions an almost beatless album for quieter moments. Her voice is still mesmerising, but this time, the musical accompaniment is fathomly rich in its ambient, evocative textures, featuring such unlikely musical bedfellows as zither, clarinet, sitar, violin and various ‘computer malarky’. Gorgeous.

Worldwide 2 (Talkin’ Loud/Universal)
Not a double marathon collection like the first, but a more controlled selection by the UK dj. Peterson has impeccable credentials, and knows how to choose the crème de la crème of tracks, though it should be noted that he does straddle that fine line between harbinger of sophisticated contemporary soul, and flaccid acid jazz. By including deceased solar righteous jazz icon Sun Ra alongside a similarly conscious jazz/funk piece by the Cinematic Orchestra, Petersen redeems himself, and there’s plenty of other tasty niblets here, but one has the suspicion that groups like Jazzanova, 4Hero and Nu Spirit Helsinki are standing ground rather than moving things forward.

OBJECT (Machine/Universal)
Napier-based singer-songwriter Paul McLaney is now up to his fourth release, and what a progression from the barrel-fermented melancholy of the debut to the arty abstractions of ‘Object’. Those abstractions – computer-powered interventions creating weird sonic spaces - proved a barrier on initial plays. ‘But where are the songs?’ I asked. Like Radiohead, McLaney is pitching for a pop music that works in ways that pop music isn’t supposed to. It’s not immediate. It gains depth and lustre with successive listens. For all its nods towards experimentalism, however, this IS pop music, and it’s pop music soaked in the kind of heart-on-sleeve emotional punch favoured by the likes of U2, all powered by McLaney’s remarkable voice. Those songs are there, alright, like little nuggets of gold.

COME ON IN (Braille/Global Routes)
David Long gave The Muttonbirds many of the group’s best moments; his elliptical guitar work and odd ideas helped to keep them from the meat-and-potatoes rocking chair rockers they later became. Long – now Wellington-based and more famous for his production of Fur Patrol’s hit album – has come up with the kind of record that just doesn’t get made anymore. Harking back to a point in the late 60s and early 70s when the music industry famously failed to stop a flood of esoteric releases with ‘no commercial potential’, ‘Come On In’ is characterised by its bold eclecticism and its surplus of ideas, which means it’s a publicist’s nightmare. At first, I was disappointed by its ragged folksiness, but across the album’s ten tracks there’s a wealth of intoxicating diversions (try the mellotron-wig-out of ‘Hurtle’). One for those nuts who enjoy ‘adult oriented pop’ that resists definition.

Last year’s Gorillaz debut was one of those unexpected hits that gives the seasoned music buff hope in a future for a vibrant pop culture. Who would have thought that an almost anonymous collaboration between hip-hop, dance and rock fiends with a stylised cartoon look would capture the public's imagination? This time, thankfully, Blur’s Damon Albarn is virtually discarded in a classic dub-style reinvention of the original album. This is great stuff: ignoring the current vogue for lame remixes, they’ve gone for a full, rootsy, 70s-style dub mix, which means lots of unfathomably deep throbbing bass and a beat that will have even the least pigmented human being skanking in their boots. It’s overflowing with a warm, flowing lava of friendly grooves, and happy enough to bring a smile to the face of the most hardened grump.


Layo & Bushwacka – Night Works (XL/Border)
A genre album so far above its game (tech-house, they call it) that you forget what kind of music it is, and just get off on the grunty, funky, yet always pleasingly textural grooves. Bold but intricate, this makes for a satisfying listen as much as a butt-shakin’ dance.

Piano Magic – Writers Without Homes (4AD/Border)
Good to see the 4AD label getting back to what it does best: ethereal, ambient mood music for those quiet, reflective moments. Piano Magic is a beguiling mixture of old-style, Cocteau Twins-inflected sheen, and a more contemporary rapture.


Splitter – Devil In The Detail (Double Happy/Zomba)
There are some cute parochial touches on this Auckland group’s second album, but these guys sound like they’ve just studied the manual on how to write and play like a 60s pop/rock band. All the right references (Beatles, Kinks, spot your favourite) but what’s the point?

Bruce Springsteen – The Rising (Columbia/Sony)
The Twin Towers bombing may have motivated the most overtly ‘American’ of singer-songwriters to look out of his New Jersey mansion and pen odes to empty skies and buildings that no longer blot those skies. Unfortunately, inspiration failed to show its beaming face.

Fans of the laconic, anaesthetised, acoustic-oriented folk-blues singing/writing of Ben Harper (who appears as a guest) and Keb Mo will go for Johnson's schtick. Pleasingly wry observations are made from hum-drum situations, and Johnson's simple application of softly grained voice, mildly funky bass and drums and bluesy guitar make for a perfectly unthreatening record you can learn to enjoy with ease.

November 2002

CARBON (Loop/Border)
Wellington sound designer Jeremy Geor seems to easily conjure the kind of musical alchemy that eludes 90 percent of the contemporary beat brigade. The arrangements on his second album are sometimes jawdropping: the guy has a natural sense of the drama that can resound in the interstices between beats, swelling strings, and other components that in less talented hands would sound routine. Oh deary me. If only I could be as positive about guest vocalists who think it’s alright to come up with lyrics as cliched as: “How can you do this to me?/Feels like I’m going crazy/I just can’t take it no more”. Some pruning, together with some personality infusion, may have turned these often impressive tracks into an album with a sense of totality and purpose.

TROUSER JAZZ (Ninja Tune/Flavour)
Does humour belong in music? Of course! There’s not enough of it in our miserable attempts to emote through organised sound, so here’s Mr Scruff to redress the balance, with his second longplayer (and eccentric groove label Ninja Tune’s first foray onto the British charts) of playful funk and jazz-influenced pate. Trying to put this one in a particular bag is asking for confusion: I’ve heard it described as House, due to its danceable beats, but Scruff’s inventive approach nips any stylistic straitjacketing in the bud. Like the first, thematically it’s full of fish references, and it’s the kind of loopily eccentric disc that manages to press all the charm buttons.

DJ-KICKS (K7/Border)
Anyone out there remember the outrageous surge of post-punk fun in the early electro-synth jingles by the Human League, Soft Cell, and the like? Playgroup’s Trevor Jackson has built his project around his filtered memory of the era, and this dj selection is a great party choice for those old enough to have been there. Not that its 24 tracks are all old stuff, but Jackson has captured perfectly the bouncy, naïve party vibe, the cheap synths and drum machines, and the way that punky electro, early hip-hop and avant-disco all collided to make for party anthems that somehow have a whole lot more charm than the collected works of Ibiza.

SONGS FOR THE DEAF (Interscope/Universal)
The perfect bridging of the generational divide, QOTSA make hard rock the way it was built to last in the late 60s, but with (of course) a very ‘now’ take on the form. Importing just enough of former group Kyuss’s crud heaviosity, duo Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri have lucked on a brilliant cast/extended family to support ‘Songs For The Deaf’, including former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. It’s a record that has the kind of tunefully urgent singing not heard in rock since Cream’s ‘White Room’, brilliantly set against the chunkiest guitar slinging and the most grinding drum/bass axis imaginable. In other words, it’s heavy but rich in its song form and texture in a way that has eluded this genre for years.

Given the revival that’s underway for the cheesey, yet somehow assuringly melodic dance music of the 80s, it seems somehow pertinent that back then, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith comprised the briefly big Freur. In the 90s, they changed their name, added DJ Darren Emerson, and came back as post-acid house ravers Underworld. Chartwise, they were undisputed kings of the scene. A Hundred Days Off is their first longplayer since the departure of Emerson, and it’s the best thing they’ve ever done by a country mile. Proving themselves masters of the medium, Underworld turn out a disc that relishes in the speedy euphoria of its hypnotic club thumpers, and adds some unexpectedly gorgeous ambient pieces just to tantalise. Next time, let’s have more of these.


Former Hallelujah Picasso man Peter McLennan’s part organic, part cyber project lurches in so many directions that it’s sometimes hard to get a grip. Aside from the obligatory ‘shake yer booty’ vocal urgings, however, it’s a rip-roaringly enjoyable ride that keeps it as floral and fun-based as McLennan’s Hawaiian shirts.

The funniest sendup of Goth culture, period. And it’s from Auckland, of all places. The guitarist is called Ego, the keyboardist is Morgana (why not Morticia?), and brilliantly, the drummer is simply known as Unknown. It’s the most morbid, miserable, barely in-tune thing you’ve ever heard. What’s that? It’s for real? You’re effing joking!

FRESH JAMS (She’ll Be Right/Global Routes)
Subtitled ‘A Collection Of Fresh Down-beat Jams’, every song here involves curator, Chrischurch lad Jody Lloyd. Mixing up music styles that shouldn’t belong (dub with Celtic, anyone?), sometimes it’s all a bit much, but Lloyd must be commended for his attempt to bring in some Kiwi flavours to these global grooves.

CAFÉ DE FLORE (Universal)
Sub-titled ‘Rendez-Vous A Saint-Germain-Des-Pres’, it’s the perfect sexy Summer compilation for those looking for a dose of French style. Mostly drawn from the vaults (Serge Gainsbourg, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Brigitte Bardot), the 21st century is nominally represented by Diana Krall, Lakasha, and others).

December 2002

THREE (MGM/Global Routes)
Three reasons to dislike Butler: 1) He’s Australian. 2) He sings in that distractingly self-obsessed wounded-dog style so beloved of contemporary Americans, 3) He’s Australian. But now we’ve got that out of the way, I can report that Three is really very good. Critics have likened him to Ben Harper on account of the acoustic rootsiness of his lineup, but that doesn’t get close. Where Harper chooses a monochrome sound, Butler’s is rich, layered and full of dynamic interplay between the instruments. The dynamic is the thing, because Butler’s outfit can go from a folk-style amble to a full-on power-crunching rock climax. Luckily, he doesn’t capitulate to the American hard rock hegemony that insists on angsty verse/bone-crunching chorus, but plays around with more old-fashioned concepts of power and velocity.

From a dark, seldom revisited corner of the early 80s Auckland music scene comes a welcome whiff of Fetus Productions, a long-awaited official compendium of the group’s seminal tracks. Despite Fetus Productions’ infamous outrageousness (explicit autopsy footage projected at their gigs, singer Jed Town’s extreme aspirations extending to having his teeth filed to points) their music is more often than not replete with a post-punk take on psychedelic 60s song, and their instrumental sides are shot through with gloriously atmospheric cinematic drama. A classic, noteworthy, and resolutely Kiwi group, Fetus Productions represent a whole post-punk scene in NZ that desperately needs historical revision and reassessment.

Sometimes cleverness can kill. Lemon Jelly know this, so they create their beautiful, poised, picture-perfect sound art with a sense of serene simplicity. Like both Marc Rae and Saint Etienne (see below) there’s something about Lemon Jelly that makes them quintessentially British, and despite their particular skills springing from the detritus of contemporary technology (theirs is a hybrid between sample-based music and electronica) there’s a feeling of old-fashioned English countryside about their followup to the equally colourfully-packaged debut, ‘KY’. Sporting a gorgeous sense of melancholy, laced with a lightness of touch and an ability to choose the most sublime (yet on the face of it, often quite stupid) vocal samples and melodic fragments, ‘Lost Horizons’ will put a smile on your face. Now everybody sing: ‘All the ducks are swimming in the water/Fal-de-ral-de-ral-da’…

RAE ROAD (Grand Central/BMG)
Dance duo Rae and Christian were always just a little polished and safe. Sometimes you have to split the atom to explode the talent, and it would appear to reside in Mark Rae’s musical orbit. His debut solo album is inexplicably, unexplainably, brilliantly groovesome. Like Mr Scruff, Rae has got a thing about fish (check the hilarious artwork), and the whole project is wearing a mile-wide smile. Essentially a producer/ideas-man, like many of today’s dance-oriented artists he takes the postmodernist seat and hires those he wants to bring his project to life. Who cares how it’s done, it all swoons along on the best bubbling funk grooves, summery melodies and instrumentation, and guest turns that are never allowed to derail the Fun Train (female vocalist Veba gets a few soulful turns, as does ragga rapster Joseph Cotton). Raw and with an inspired, sure-footed sense of its own groove superiority, ‘Rae Road’ rocks.

FINISTERRE (Mantra/Shock)
Four years since their last outre dish and it would be entirely reasonable to expect the sideways-steeped pop of the slightly twee Brit threesome to be sounding a tad 20th century. Not so. Is the current musical climate really such a dull pastiche of real life as to imbue this early 90s combo with rich hues, style to kill and and enough depth to sink the fangs into? Finisterre finds Saint Etienne in deliciously loungey mode, and Sarah Cracknell’s voice has developed the kind of slightly smoke-inflected rasp that made the late Kirsty McColl such a delightfully droll English songbird; just the right touch for a record that’s consummately a product of Blighty, replete with lashings of wit and a few bawdy squirts of eccentricity.

STARS: THE BEST OF 1992-2002 (Island/Universal)
Ireland’s dreariest group celebrated on a disc that seems to last forever, AND a day. What was it we ever liked about these faceless dickheads and the yodelling diva?

LIVE IN PARIS (Verve/Universal)
You know jazz is in a bad way when someone like Krall musters critical acclaim, and notches up the kind of sales that make her one of the few jazz acts in the 21st century the major labels are willing to foster. This is inoffensive cocktail jazz, primarily standards, with a few concessions (Billy Joel and Joni Mitchell covers) to pop mainstreams outside the jazz slipstream. Oh, and she’s not bad to look at. Yawn.

IT’S A SUMMER FEELING (Capital/Rhythm Method)
The instrumental lineup (organ, sax, flute, drums) deprives the album of tonal variety over the length of a longplayer, but this Wellington group have been given a particularly fruity recording that captures all of the throatiness of the Booker T-like low-down funky grooves. Throw it on on one of those late afternoon barbies. Just don’t try and understand the liner notes: your head will hurt afterwards.

LOTUS BEAT (Visitors)
Assembled by German-born Kiwi electronic keyboardist Peter Haeder, this ambitious project (also featuring the trilling vocals of Jyosna) incorporates Buddhist chanting and singing. Devotional techno surely has scope, but it’s marred by beat sequencing that might trance the dancefloor, but in no way conforms to the subleties required.

January 2003

Depends how seriously you take your rock, really. Death In Vegas are steeped in the rock trash mythology, which means that, while it’s taken seriously, it’s also taken with a dash of lemon and tequila and a sly wink. On their third album they celebrate the Kenneth Anger/Satan/Cult angle that’s been a part of the rock nexus since evil bastards came along and influenced gullible hippies in the 60s. As ever, their combination of real rock band and loopily sampled stuff makes for an addictive if sometimes sharp listen. On closer inspection, it’s really a bunch of stylish love songs, with vocal contributions from Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), Dot Allison, Paul Weller, Liam Gallagher and others. The sound of India – a very hip sound these days – also gets infused, with the help of elderly Indian violinist Dr L. Subramaniam.

The D3 album was great because it was a garage rock record with a really chunky, ‘produced’ sounds at odds with the scratchy lo-fi associated with the genre. Now, the sound associated with NZ’s sacred-cow label Flying Nun has undergone a revision with this shiny, impressive second album from Fang. All the classic Flying Nun hallmarks are in place: the ‘we’re too cool to be clever’ pose, the dark side of pop jangle and barely there vocals. Sonically, it’s great, mainly because there’s real detail in the recording, and the record has – like the Chills before them – lashings of the most uncool instruments in rock: keyboards. In this case, it’s loads of organ and other sounds that add up to a picture rather than a monochrome world of angst, though the angst is all in place, with a little bit of Nick Cave-style post-gothic shadowplay as well. If Goldenhorse just made the classic Kiwi pop record with a little bit of Phoenix fizz, then Fang have just made the old tawny port version of that record.

Tom Findlay and Andy Cato are two more producer-types who concoct their music by taking a little from everywhere. They’re like seagulls who happen to like music: musical scraps, that is. Their first three albums were popular but, to my ears, undistinguished chill-out grooves. This fourth album is an attempt to spurn the genre they helped popularise (but never did anything creatively substantial with). It’s a major defection, plumping for a rock/soul hybrid that takes in all sorts of influences, including psychedelia and English folk. There are guest stars like 80s soul hybrid Neneh Cherry, and 60s folk Woodstock icon Richie Havens. In other words, there’s no real link to the previous incarnation of Groove Armada. This is a song-based defection from the land of nod-groove. It still doesn’t cut the mustard, and if they had the courage of their convictions, they would have changed the group’s name.

NIRVANA (Geffen)
Chewing over the best of a band that only managed three albums in its short lifetime, this self-titled compilation further confirms what a brilliant, if limited songsmith and band leader Kurt Cobain was. Songs like ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Lithium’, mired as they are in the scurf of grunge, are just about as perfect pop/rock records as you get. Limited? Yes, there are limits to the potential of rage expressed in song after song, and the soft/loud dynamic featured in most of their songs, while powerful, is a formula that palls over the long-distance. The real jewel in the crown of this album isn’t the spiffing remaster, or the unreleased single mix of ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, but the previously unheard song ‘You Know You’re Right’. In the light of Cobain’s miserable fate, the ragged vocal and howling repetition of the word ‘pain’ sends shivers up the spine.

You’d think that at sequel number four, this compilation series from Chicago-based label Guidance would be getting a little tired. Not so: this is possibly the strongest one yet, with the usual quality choice of material, careful placement and attention to getting just the right mood to proceedings. And of special significance this time round is the inclusion of two tracks by Auckland-based electronic dub acts, Sola Rosa and International Observer, the second of which was recently released as a vinyl-only single in the UK. Forget those execrable chillout compilations; this is chilled enough, but it’s got the requisite soul and sweat as well. Summer barbie hit all the way.

SHINE (Decca/Universal)
Oh deary me. A bunch of anonymous string players botching up the classics (and Led Zep songs) by putting horrid club-footed beats through everything. Sure, the Indian flavourings are fetching, but what a crock of doggy doo. Really!

VOYAGE TO INDIA (Motown/Universal)
A fine contemporary r’n’b album (nout to do with India, by the way) that derails itself because it’s oh-so-po-faced and serious and doesn’t have a funny bone. Earnest all the way, it could do with just a little dirt under its nails.

JERRY 4 W.A. (Dirty/Universal)
Momentarily entertaining, if irrefutably awful Henderson Hip-hop. Who would have thought? My mum would want to wash out his mouth with soap, such is the filth emanating from this white Westie. But the problem isn’t the vocabulary, it’s the monotone of his delivery. Even a bunch of refreshingly nutty instrument samplings can’t save him from the bores bin. Good for a laugh, though.

DUB COMBINATIONS 3 (Kog/Universal)
Another worthy instalment of an instrumental tradition that’s inevitably going to continue to grow while the song-tour based aspect (Salmonella Dub, Trinity Roots, Rhombus) goes from strength to strength. The first and last of those are both featured on this very delicious Sunday afternoon roll a joint compilation. But who is this ‘Harry Steel’?

Beautifully packaged (as are most Loop label compilations) double cd commemorating 25 years of Wellington’s student radio station. But it’s non-historical: a contemporary selection, with the ‘groove’ acts on the first disc, and roughly rock-oriented acts on the second, although many of those (Zuvuya, Black Seeds) also have the groove factor (via reggae/dub/electronic leanings).

Double cd, and everything you could possibly need from the legendary seminal label that spawned Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and more. It sounds inbred to you, too? That only adds to the charm.

February 2003

100TH WINDOW (Virgin/EMI)
Let’s admit it: they’re legends. But despite having established the template for a decade of sampladelic groove delights with their epochal 1991 debut, Blue Lines, the Bristol collective’s schtick has always been a good deal darker than that of their contemporaries. By 1998’s rock oriented Mezzanine, they had slimmed down to a business-like core of Daddy G, 3D and Mushroom, and at the time it seemed no more than a workmanlike plod. Five years on and its followup treads an even darker path, and confirms the grim beauty of that earlier album by wallowing in the mire one more time. Minus the rock moves, 100th Window does follow a similar format, except Sinead O’Connor replaces Elizabeth Frazer as the featured female vocalist. Not exactly in sync with our glorious Summer, this one will be glued to many turntables as the days grow shorter, and the cosmos seeths with the desire for bloodshed.

FABRICLIVE 7 (Fabric/Rhythmethod)
John Peel is Britain’s most respected dj, but he belongs to a different breed (and era) of dj to the sort normally promoted by the Fabriclive releases. Peel has been soaking up new sounds and broadcasting them on his BBC show for 30 years, so rather than the typical beat-matched dance set, his Fabriclive is a fabulously eclectic selection of 24 of his favourite songs. Though he’s been broadcasting since the psychedelic era, Peel specialises in what can broadly be termed a punk aesthetic: from the spiky, literate vitriol of The Fall to the gorgeous reggae of Culture or the faster-than-the-speed-of-sound rapping of MC DET, Peel selects a set of energetic songs that somehow holds together with the glue of hardcore fandom. It’s almost enough to restore your faith in the craft of dj. If only more djs were as expansive and diverse and era-inclusive as Peel.

NO BONES FOR THE DOGS (Pressure Sounds/Chant)
We’re right into the old reggae down here on New Zild. Reissues of crusty old Jamaican music from the 70s are devoured with an alarming degree of enthusiasm. Like any archaelogical dig, there’s going to be a lot of very ordinary stuff found. Because of the enthusiasm surrounding those awesome years of Jamaican reggae and dub experimentation, much crud gets reissued and acclaimed as the work of genius. Every now and then, however, a genuine nugget of musical brilliance gets unearthed. This is such a case. Adrian Sherwood’s reissue label Pressure Sounds has done a sterling job on this compilation of sheer wonder, which grabs some of the dubbier rare sides from ‘The Mighty Two’, producer Gibbs and engineer Errol Thompson. This is the kind of dub reggae that has sonic depth, and a righteous beauty that’s joyful and just plain deep. A balm for the soul.

A LIVING ROOM HUSH (Ninja Tune/Flavour)
A clever clogs reviewer described this album as ‘Thelonius Monk with Aphex Twin up its arse’, and he’s got a point. The Norwegian collective have made one of the best jazz albums this reviewer has heard for a long time. Not content to sample obvious horn lines and grooves from the Blue Note library, they’ve come up with an intriguing concoction that luxuriates in the kind of gorgeous, smokey unison horn arrangements, depth of composition, and subtle twists and turns that are rare even within the greater canon of jazz. Think of the more inward-looking moments of Horace Silver, or the beauty of some of Herbie Hancock’s 60s work or – more blatantly – Frank Zappa in his jazz guise. Like Zappa, Jaga Jazzist play it just straight enough to subvert the medium to their own ends, with the canny introduction of electronic trickery, which allows compositions to veer off the travelled path and osmose into something outside conventional templates. A killer.

Barry 7, Ann Shenton and Steve Claydon are Add N To (X), and Loud Like Nature is about as much fun as anybody could have with pop in the 21st century. As an electronic band they were always different from the pack: how many bedroom circuit-gazers ever got picture spreads in The Face? Their fifth album shows them to be one of the cleverest bands on the planet, as they dissect the glam scene of the early 70s in a way that avoids the trap of merely aping their forbears. It’s a wild, crazy ride that makes it impossible to find any convenient bag to file them in: their famous analogue electronic equipment buzzes and throbs, 60s legend Kim Fowley howls away on two vocal appearances… it’s a dumpster full of forgotten musical trash, and Add N To (X) know how to get each component working and (more importantly) working together. Don’t go figure, don’t even try: just soak it up in front of the mirror, and watch the spreading smile on your face.

Violent Turd is ‘Made In New Zealand’, apparently. Um, no. This American release is part of the ‘bootleg’ phenomenon (bedroom djs slamming several songs together that simply don’t belong, either in style or era) and it’s a hilarious non-stop party mash-up mix from start to finish. If you want to hear the Thompson Twins mauled by gangster rap, or the Cookie Monster vying with contemporary electronica, this is a fun ride.

SONGS TO NO ONE 1991-1992 (Knitting Factory/Rhythmethod)
Some trips to the vaults are more valid than others. This one captures THAT VOICE with Gary Lucas (New York guitar virtuoso). Forget those endless live recordings; this is what led to his one album, Grace, and it’s full of exceptional moments, from early gigs to versions of unreleased songs and two remarkably fully realised songs from that debut album. Worthy.

YANQUI UXO (Constellation)
The most critically acclaimed ‘post-rock’ group on the planet, this Canadian group have limited their popularity by staying staunchly independent from the music machinery. Why? Take a look on the back cover, where each of the ‘major’ record companies are implicated in arms manufacturing. The music? These dirgey, riffy epics remind me of some of the less musically proficient, yet self-important 70s groups. The Electric Light Orchestra springs to mind. Still, that back cover is a revelation.

March 2003

KIK OFF (Wall Of Sound/EMI)
Short of classic status it may well be, but the first full length by Cockney hip-hopper Tony Rotton has an irrepressible, cheeky spirit that hasn’t surfaced too many times since the hilarious cheese of Rebel MC in the late 1980s. Instead of guns and booty gals, we get a footie obsession, colloquialisms like ‘geezer’ and ‘ard bastards’, and even a much deserved Ibiza pisstake. This is hip hop with that annoying American ‘urban’ slickness substituted by hints of joyful ragga and a refreshing lack of self-importance or pretension.

FLASH HARRY (Capital Recordings/BMG)
Flash Harry is Barnaby Weir, vocalist with The Black Seeds (Wellington’s very own UB40), and it’s the kind of indulgent vanity project that even the least distinguished members of superstar bands got to make in the 1970s. Ringo Starr’s solo oeuvre, anyone? The collected works of Rolling Stone Bill Wyman? But is it any good? There are plenty of small pleasures smattered all over the show, as Weir shows off his wilful eclecticism, but there’s a down side: ‘I Love Lo-Fi’, for instance, tries hard to forge a link between slow, grunty funk and dirgey rock, eliciting a shrug from the attentive listener. ‘Alright’ boasts a nice, low-slung funk groove, but the lyrics are cliched, and the crusty horns and synth shrieks sound out of kilter. Again, ‘Morning Rush’ has a pleasant groove, but a one-line lyric about the grind of the morning rush doesn’t make it, mate. As the disc wends its way to completion, there’s a sense of many tasty ideas slung over slight and often woefully inadequate songs and lyrics. Not enough meat to warrant the bite.

You expected surprises from THIS? There are few from this solid double cd record of McCartney’s 2001 American tour, unless you count Macca’s refreshingly humorous ad-libbing when he forgets the words of The Beatles’ ‘Carry That Weight’. Or the sing-a-long-a-ukelele version of ‘Something’, which puts solid weight behind the idea that George Martin production on Beatles records masked the old-fashioned music-hall influences on McCartney’s writing. There are a LOT of great songs here though, and better that McCartney should be giving new life to his old songs than the jukebox treatment from some corner bar band. Tracks that crept up on me this time were ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘My Love’. Smoochy, but so much better than I remember them. But how are you supposed to react to an old dude singing “She was just 17/You know what I mean” (‘I Saw Her Standing There’)?

Dan Sperber – formerly of Auckland jazz fusioneers New Loungehead – is capable of some beautiful guitar playing, and he does quite a bit of it here. His nimble fretwork is never flashy, just exquisitely tasteful and effortlessly lyrical. Perfect moments suggest that this collaboration with percussionist Casey has much to offer: the lazy afternoon groove of ‘Every Other Sunday’ with its snatches of Denis Glover verse, the gorgeously evocative psychedelic ethnicism of Gabor Szabo’s ‘Mixrab’, the deliciously downbeat ‘Pre-Loved Goods’, the tender pop of ‘Just’. The problem with this much-hyped project is a typically Kiwi one, where the best ideas are still in germination, and too many malnourished ones are let out for public consumption. For every sublime moment, there’s an equally cheesey sax line, a weak lyric or an unconvincing vocal, or in Casey’s case, underwhelming compositional ideas. With so much to offer, there’s too much that is half-assed about ‘Relaxomatic Projections’.

BLACK COFFEE 5 (Ecco Chamber/Border)
Oddly subtitled ‘Booty Cooler’, the fifth instalment of the German latte groove series is a classic. ‘Connected and cut’ (compiled and mixed) by eMU and the unpronounceable Klangwirkstoff Scheibosan, it’s that rarity in an overcrowded market: the mix compilation that fits together seamlessly, making a whole that’s probably much better than the sum of its parts. Finally, today’s electronic groove alchemists have hit on the wonders of the progressive rock era (1969-73), and the disc fittingly gets underway with Open Door’s version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ Westy favourite, ‘Breathe’. Other titillating samples (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) crop up in this album of ambient expansiveness that makes it perfect for any number of lazy Sundays.

II (Universal)
A great pity that this sad project – a second collaboration between ex-Killing Joke singer Jaz Coleman and singer Hinewehi Mohi – will be the first exposure many will get to Maori culture, by dint of its international release. Uninspired Euro-style easy listening grooves (which are fundamentally lacking the funk) kill it stone dead.

Temple Of Sound
First Edition (Wagram/Border)
New group formed from the ashes of world-groove pioneers Transglobal Underground, Temple Of Sound make a more organic, more vital and essentially, a funkier mashup of their numerous influences on this all-star release. Featuring Natacha Atlas, Jah Wobble, Linton Kwesi Johnson and ex-Stranglers man Jean Jacques Burnel, amongst many others.

Unity Pacific
From Street To Sky (Moving Production/Rhythm Method)
Rooted in the sweet reggae-flecked soul of Herbs, Unity Pacific is the work of Tigilau Ness, whose debut is a refreshingly old-fashioned slice of Kiwiana which makes up for its limited ambitions with its community vibe.

Various Artists
Lazy Sunday 3 (EMI)
Why anybody would want this kind of corporate idea of a compile is beyond me. Lazily grabbing whatever happens to be on the record company’s books, then flogging off a promotional sampler (which should rightfully be low-priced or free) as a Summer delight, ‘Lazy Sunday 3’ doesn’t come close to fulfilling its ambitions.

April 2003

They don’t make them like this in the 21st Century: Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy) has fashioned an album that’s an exact replica of the maniac eclecticism of so many albums from the 1970s. It’s a loony stew of influences that initially throws the unsuspecting listener. We’re so used to genre-specific artists and repertoire at this pop culture low-point that something as entertainingly askew as this is not an easy thing to comprehend. But make no mistake: this IS a pop record. Gough (who won the Mercury Prize for his first album back in 2000) has obviously listened to a lot of US and UK music from the 60s and 70s: there’s smooth soul, adult-oriented MOR, delicate folk rock, psychedelic pop and many other elements to Badly Drawn Boy’s sequel. Which means that the music is full of variety and colour, but what about the songs? They’re great, and exist in that underrated vortex of Brit-eccentric inhabited by the wit and wisdom of acts like The Kinks and The Stranglers (at their balladic best).

FLOETIC (DreamWorks/Universal)
Just as it’s rare to come across a rock album without boorish moments, it’s difficult to imagine an r’n’b album without at least some quotient of cheese. Floetry is no exception, but it is a distinguished debut. Former basketball champs Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart (London-born but Philadelphia-based) are an inspired combination of poetry, soul and hip-hop, and it might prove auspicious to ignore the fact that Michael Jackson chose one of their compositions for his last bomb of an album. Lauryn Hill and Jill Jackson fans might enjoy this musically and stylistically ambitious record, one that successfully avoids so many of the lyrical cliches this kind of music seems to evoke so naturally.

I wanted to slate this record in a typically high-handed manner. You know, who needs another album by a bunch of nerdy Australians who always sounded like second-rate Flying Nun wannabes anyway? And all that. But the truth is that as much as Grant McLennan’s songs have often seemed too comfy balanced against Robert Forster’s precarious edginess; and as much as their arrangements have too often relied on a bare bones folksy drone; and as much as I loathe bands who reunite with what often seems like an express intention to dilute their glorious past… I love this album. The Go-Betweens always relied on droll observations and life’s small tragedies to fuel their particular character, and they’ve simply got more character now than they had back then.

Pop duo Roisin Murphy and Mark Brydon get a lot of favourable press, which confirms to me that the music mainstream needs a root canal. There’s nothing much wrong with these craftsmanlike pop confections. In fact one can detect a good deal of intelligence, humour and even the odd droplet of sweat in these powder-puff clean beats. But we’ve heard it all before. It’s not just Roisin’s strident singing that clones 80s hit stars the Eurhythmics, it’s the whole whiter-than-white Europop construction, which while based on dance rhythms, is about as funky as last night’s road kill. They say the 80s are back, and Moloko’s popularity proves it. Just stop pretending that they’re doing anything artfully new, and enjoy it if you must. (As for ‘Over And Over’, the final track: isn’t that a Sting song?)

DEHLI9 (G-Stone/Border)
Ever tried to concentrate on wallpaper? No matter how aesthetically pleasing it is, if it’s doing its job properly, it slips past your conscious gaze and forces attention to more tangible objects. Austrian duo Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber are masters at the craft of fashioning contemporary musical wallpaper, from all the most stylish and pleasing ingredients. The first disc of this double set could have them accused of resting on their laurels, so unambitious is their agenda. But while they’ve intentionally got their settings on cruise control, it’s worth drifting in and out of these lazy grooves long enough to appreciate the canny sonic design for all its brilliant emptiness. Having dabbled in electronic dub in their past, this time they utilise dub-type effects mostly in the sensory shift of the upper registers, while the bass weaves melodic figures instead of the usual dull thump. This might be stylised to death in places, but at least Tosca are infinitely subtle in their attention to sonic detail. The second disc is ‘based on 12 easy to play piano pieces’ by Huber, and it’s a lovely echoing ambient thing reminiscent of the ethereal work of American composer Harold Budd.

Universal should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act. The one thing this isn’t is Jazz. You could justifiably call it flaccid, poop, sacharine, blah, or just downright Godawful. But this double cd collection of smooth flowing excrement is more of a walk down nostalgia lane than anything. Whoever chose the selection should be flogged until they squeal, because there’s really no rhyme nor reason, and in amongst genuine goodies (goodies, albeit which have already been flogged to death) there’s filler like Martin Taylor’s muzak version of Midnight At The Oasis. No-one could complain about the inclusion of Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, but Curtis Mayfield belongs to the SOUL pantheon, drongos! And so do the Temptations, and Luther Vandross. Simply wrong-headed and very craven.

An Australian whose record is produced by the ridiculously-named Ryan Adams, and which sounds EXACTLY like Neil Young and Crazy Horse circa 1971. With all due respect, why bother?

(2) (FMR)
Please, save us from this worst of all possible fates. Olivia Newton-John, duetting her way through a bunch of mediocre songs, packed full of vulgar arrangements, and eleven hopeless partners in crime. This makes Grease sound good.

IN MUSIC (In Music)
Philippa is one of the Auckland House music cognoscenti: Always searching for a cut that is soulful, essentially funky, and dance-motivational without being hard or brash, Philippa’s ‘In Music’ mix cd successfully establishes a mood that carries through its sixteen tracks.

“Already hugely successful for Universal in Spain and Portugal, Women: The Best Jazz Vocals has been our top selling cd import for over a (sic) last year”. Uh, right. But is there anything on this double helping that any half-brained fan of jazz vocals hasn’t heard three billion times already?

May 2003

REFLECTIONS (Island/Universal)
I couldn’t wait for this to Finnish. Perplexing that, in a time attuned to the ethereality of endless Winter lands like Finland and Norway, multinational conglomerate Universal choose to sign up a cello-sawing trio whose foolishness brings them to a simple and rather one-dimensional concept: hey guys, let’s put the emotive strains of classical instruments up against some heavy metal riffing. Catgut screeching, simplistic melodic progressions, and the attack of contemporary heaviosity holds the attention for approximately one minute, and the overall effect is closer to the amped-up jigs and reels of Scottish group Shooglenifty. Musical inspiration, they say, comes from “Metallica, Slayer, Sepultura, Rammsteain, Schostakovich, Opera, Montserrat Caballe…”

What Lisa Gerrard does best on her own records – and those with former partner Brendan Perry in Dead Can Dance – is create imaginary geographical/ethnological music worlds that evoke some deep pool of shamanic spirit ritual that we’ve somehow lost in our rush towards retail therapy as the new religion. Unfortunately, in attempting to evoke widescreen cinematic moods for ‘Whalerider’, she has drawn the curtains on her former imaginative luxuriance, and we’re left with gentlly swelling strings, and the odd hint of haka. Preferable to most overly illustrative film scores, I would still have plumped for a cd that contained excerpts of her score, along with the excellent Kiwi reggae and dub tracks featured in the film.

DO IT FOR LOVE (U-Watch/Sony)
The most successful singing duo of all time, Philadelphia residents whose sound was once known as ‘blue eyed soul’, present their first album since… 1997? Of course, their hey-day was the mid-70s, and though Hall possesses a voice capable of remarkable expression, the approach is straight down the line, and therefore suitable for what they call ‘Adult Contemporary’ radio, where these guys are kings. Phenomenally competent, catchy songs, but there’s nothing here to suggest it needs your urgent attention.

It’s rare that a rocker can harness the power and complexity of a symphony orchestra, and come out with anything worthy. The arrangements on this double re-recording are often portentous and overbearing, and it would be ludicrous to suggest this as a starting point for any burgeoning fan, but I love it anyway. Joni Mitchell was always much more than the winsome folk singer many wrongly condemned her for; in fact, her canon of material stretching from 1966 to the present makes her one of THE great singer/songwriters of her generation. Always more literate, more musically adventurous, concise and just damn consistent than the Dylans and Youngs, Mitchell’s old records just sound better as time passes. Here, despite the odd clunker, she’s selected many of her brilliant lesser-known songs, and her cigarette-drenched vocal chords allow these new interpretations to breathe life again. A moving document.

US (Blanco Y Negro/WEA)
Colin MacIntyre (this rather preposterous group moniker belongs to a true one-man-band) is tuned into a particular stream of 70s symphonic pop that is welcome its rebirth. Instantly, John Cale’s wonderful ‘Paris 1919’ album springs to mind. Funny: Cale is Welsh, MacIntyre Scottish. Droll, yet deeply passionate, the second album by the former stockbroker lays waste to the unimaginative song craft of the David Grays of this world. It’s chock full of charming, inventive tunes and sounds, and often reminds me of what 80s Kiwi act The Bats could have realised, had their musical craft and ambition been raised to this level. Gorgeous.

PRETTY COOL (Antenna/Virgin)
They used to be called Trip To The Moon and their attempts at downbeat jazz-influenced groove failed to register on the stiffy-meter. Flaccid, they were. Pretty Cool – their third album – is seriously tasty. What gives? Keyboardist Tom Ludvigson and guitarist Trevor Reekie are Auckland stalwarts who have resorted to what they do best: ignoring the imperative to be ‘funky’, they’ve opted for a more electronic sound that would work brilliantly as a backdrop to night sky visuals. Yes, its sound does echo ambient-meisters like Tangerine Dream and Pete Namlook, but they bring in nicely understated dub and guitar and trumpet moments just when you think it’s starting to get a little too astronomical. Impressive.

Musicians are like politicians: they get elected by constituents too dumb to use democracy effectively. ‘Artists’ like Ben Harper are astronomically popular because they’re tuned into the ordinariness of the typical punter. There’s nothing to aspire to here. (And what the heck is that naked woman doing hunched in the desert?)

A pleasing if oddly bloodless debut from an Auckland five-piece whose contemporary jazz feel has a post-New Loungehead, breakbeat/electronica influence showing through on what are often rather languid and – at their best - atmospheric grooves.

DEBUT (Rajon)
Wartime always makes this kind of woolly nostalgia seem acceptable. Mushy easy-listening violin renditions of ‘favourites’, from vaguely jazz-influenced pieces to ‘It Had To Be You’ and, inevitably, ‘Amazing Grace’. He’s a young Kiwi, backed by ‘Gray Bartlett MBE’, and if I didn’t think that they didn’t know better, I’d think this was a cynical marketing ploy.

Gender-shredders return with their ‘mature’ album, having finally opted off the road and kick-started a fresh approach. It’s not that it doesn’t rock, just that there’s a slightly new angle, informed by the slightly sideways skew provided by producer Jim Abbiss. Post-Britpop never sounded so passable.

June 2003

Occasionally you’re forced to ponder those factors which typify the gaping difference between the Kiwi and Aussie psyche. Two words: Jimmy Barnes. Barnes puts in music the Australian attitude: a blunt, mundane, workmanlike approach to life that’s more grunt, fart, holler and scratch your balls than any Kiwi would be comfortable with. We’ve always had an eccentricity to our pop that, try and deny, we’ve never been able to quite suppress: hence the inability of a good chap like Dave Dobbyn crossing over and becoming Everyman like Jimmy and John Farnham. This compilation casts around for Barnes songs that are close to the hearts of his Kiwi fans. Put together specifically for our market, it begins poorly with that crude attempt at the Springsteen plod, ‘Working Class Man.’ Casual admirers will get their fill of tonsil-shredding rawk. He’s probably a top bloke.

TRE (Guidance/Flavour)
Sanctioned as the choice act for dozens of appearances on compilations and television soundtracks (one memorable usage of a track from their previous album, Numero Deux, was the famous drug scene in Six Feet Under), Milano duo the Dining Rooms now grace us with their third dose of cinematic beauty. Like Kruder & Dorfmeister and Viennese act Tosca (with whom they share guest vocalist Anna Clementi) their sound can easily be interpreted as aural wallpaper. Take a careful listen, however, and you realise there’s a good deal more to digest, and despite the smoothness of the grooves, there are quite a few cool ideas running around. Dressed with all the florid panache of a 60s Italian soundtrack, the Dining Rooms don’t give a rat’s fart about frightening the customers by mixing up their styles (there’s downbeat groove, hints of house, and loads of other influences in this intuitively, intimately beautiful blending). Lovely.

Thought lost until recently, the master tapes of this never-issued 1975 album by the seminal Auckland rock group eventually turned up in a dusty warehouse in Ponsonby. Lovingly remastered, Peg Leg gets the attention denied so many other worthy Kiwi releases from that era. It becomes clear fairly quickly that we’re not dealing with a lost classic: the playing lacks the firepower of earlier albums (which benefited from the hot guitar of Billy TK), the songwriting is patchy, and it often seems on stylistically unsure feet. The opening track, a meandering version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird, might dissuade some from enjoying the symphonic progressive rock mellotron madness of For A Friend, or the enjoyably Bowie-derivative Fallen Star. Worth a listen for the wonderful naivety permeating mid-70s Kiwi musical endeavour.

Proving there’s sex and sweat, fun and funk and a load of life left in the groove fusion casket, Juan Carlos Barrios and his Guatemalan mates come up with an idea that’s just simple enough to be great. Taking ‘field recordings’ from his rural homeland and samples from old Latino jazz records, Barrios has come up with an album that levers its slick rhythms with just enough scratchy lo-fi nonsense to add a compelling edginess. Someone out there once called this kind of music ‘trip hop’. If Barrios knows that’s supposed to be yesterday’s sound, nobody’s let on. This is delightfully wonky stuff. Bring on the lo-fi chicken bus!

THE BEST OF (Warner Bros)
Commonly painted as dweeb folk music for passive-aggressive hippies, James Taylor (along with Crosby Stills Nash & Young) heralded an era of early 70s, soporific Californian confessional singer-songwriting that barely hinted at the semi-suicidal junkie within. And for all its ultimate vacuity, these yearning for the simple life songs still have an odd charm, despite his rather flat, nerdish vocals. And those backing cats, those guys with names like Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Danny Kortchmar; well, they were kinda funky in an odd way. Twenty tracks of this stuff would send anyone to the analyst’s couch, but… more importantly, there’s not ONE shot of Taylor’s balding pate in the pic-filled booklet. It was Joni Mitchell who sang of her then boyfriend in 73: ‘I’m watching your hairline recede/My vain darling.’


Okay, so a genuine bunch of hillbillies from the famously inbred Appalachians performing country versions of those brutal hard rock classics by Aussie band AC/DC… well, it’s a brilliant idea! The fact that this group is led by the son of the chap who wrote Duelling Banjos (who doesn’t remember THAT scene from ‘Deliverence’?) is just too spooky. Unfortunately, while it’s well executed, the whole shebang becomes rather one-dimensional after the second or third song. At least AC/DC had the firepower and sheer moronic dynamic to maintain interest until you lost your hearing.

Some things in life beggar rationalisation. Tom Jones’ artistic worth might be negligible, but his cultural cache is, uh… huge. Unlike the similarly hoarse-voiced Jimmy Barnes, Welsh-belter Jones delivers his lines with humour, honesty, and an appealing lack of 21st Century irony. This winning compilation joins the dots between his 1960s hits, and several comebacks in the 80s and 90s. Medley From The Full Monty, with Robbie Williams, demands to be heard.

AN IMPLIED DESIRE (Number33/Global Routes)
Plucky power pop debut from Waitakere five-piece, full of thrashy energy and guileless aspiration for a template that’s sadly threadbare from decades of misuse by boy bands with crippled imaginations. Pop history fails to be rewritten, but their goodtime rock will get them laid at least.

The spirits of Joost Langeveld and Roger Perry loom large over this project, which finally confirms New Zealand’s ability to produce a half-decent homegrown House compilation, just at a time when House music is withering on the vine globally. Crystal clear recording, and a penchant for either disco or funk are what separate these acts. Palatable sounds for astonishingly empty times.

July 2003

Let’s face it, Carly Binding must have had to consider all possible strategies of escape from her True Bliss past: Disco queen ala Kylie? Pop whore ala Madonna? No, let’s go for the sensitive singer-songwriter waif, ala Bic Runga! But as cynical as you can be, Binding’s achievement is an album which works. These are solid old-fashioned pop tunes wrapped in solid old-fashioned arrangements, with the odd bit of orchestral drapery, nice guitars, and not a note out of place. And Binding’s singing performance, though not stellar (natch) or totally distinctive, gets every drop of emotion required. At a sensibly short 38 minutes, and erring on the side of low-key reflection, Binding’s debut thinks it knows how to push the right consumer buttons. And there’s no crime in that.

VISIONS (Ministry Of Sound/FMR)
Is it the vast intake of ecstacy that gives House music producers megalamaniac aspirations way past their abilities? This fellow Dave Lee (hey, I thought he was one of those noddies in 70s glitter slammers Slade!) has concocted an album which is supposed to be some kind of imaginary soundtrack, so between the guest vocal appearances (Seal, Beth Hirsch) and the standard House jumpers, there are swelling strings and bucketloads of snotty slickness. But read the ‘credit notes’ (I know, about as much fun as the small print in legal documents) and you notice the best bits share composer credits with Hollywood guy Thomas Newman (Randy’s Dad). Lee has sampled chunks of most of his pieces, and expects to get hailed as a potential new Hollywood composer? Sad. (There are sample-based artists who have done this thing brilliantly: check the Troublemakers, the Dining Rooms, Snooze. In fact, many of today’s stars are sample-based. But the truth is the creative ones are either usefully recombinant, or incredibly skillful at remaking/altering the DNA of their samples.)

Some things in life are totally, utterly bewildering. To me, the success of Meatloaf the FIRST time round is one of those space-time anomalies. Okay, it’s possible to imagine the supposed charms of ‘Bat Out Of Hell’, riding on the coat-tails of the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and its gargantuan rock-opera arrangements. But Meatloaf was the vocalist, not the writer/musical architect (that was the execrable Jim Steinman), of that 30-million-selling thing which still makes me want to puke when I hear the songs in the supermarket. So… why didn’t the Fat One just retire on the proceeds? Vanity is the only possible explanation for this flyblown, overblown, preening attempt at another operatic excursion. It should be retitled ‘Why Did I Bother?’

For a moment or two in 1982 there were three great wonky pop bands in New Zealand: Screaming Meemees, Blam Blam Blam and the Newmatics. The last named were ska punks with horn section, and their ‘Riot Squad’ song was the perfect anthem for those Springbok-saturated days. But they broke up before an album could materialise. Over 20 years later, we finally have that album, a rough-as-guts patchwork of singles and live performances that, while sounding as creaky and dated as one might expect (us Kiwis weren’t quite as funky in the post-punk era as we are now), also still exudes the energy and spirit of the times.

Kiwi music might have an all-time high profile, but that’s all about the industry of Kiwi music and marketing. One Lung somehow has stayed off the radar, despite releasing a steady flow of self-distributed, promising material over the past few years. Independent label Monkey Records have picked up his latest album, and what would be a marketing and promotions person’s idea of a musical nightmare is a rich listen for those who don’t seek genre-specific sounds. One Lung is a one-man-band, making his pieces by delicately sampling his own and a vast history of recorded music. A One Lung track can easily fuse an atmospheric classical phrase with polyrhythmic jazz percussion and electronic squiggles. Very seldom, however, does his music sound like a join-the-dots attempt at slotting things together. Cleverly, it must be said, he makes cohesive compositions out of the composite parts. Overall, it’s a rich, almost cinematic listening experience.

Fantastic that New Zealand’s most intelligent, innovative pop group ever has its one cd remastered and reissued, but galling that it’s a carbon copy of the original ‘complete’, which failed to include one album track, and stuffed up the intros to several others. Why not a proper version of their album, with extra tracks tacked on for good measure. Not ‘complete’ the way the fans want it.

I really hope Universal didn’t spend all of their hard-earned shrapnel on this bunch of grinding guitar pop monkeys. It’s a punt, I suppose, and if the Feelers can sell records, I guess it is a bit like putting money on the horses. But this slice of tame guitar pop really sucks.

RAINY DAY MUSIC (American/Universal?)
At last, a contemporary country album with a perfect mix of exemplary songwriting skills, detailed lyric extrapolations, and a sound that while deeply nostalgic, manages to convey the subject with both grit and soul. Like The Eagles without drug habits or schmoozy Californian lifestyles.

SOMEWHERE IN TIME (Decca/Universal)
Everyone’s favourite Mormons, The Osmonds were so squeaky clean that you suspected Donny and Marie were actually lovers, and that like the casts of the Waltons and Little House On The Prairie, the milky-whiteness of their on-set caricatures would act as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde to their real lives. Well, Donny’s back and he’s as homely as ever on this frankly trashy ‘Classic Love Songs’ album. A note-perfect rendition of Neil Finn’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ can’t save it, and neither can the stiff white ‘funky guy’ impersonations of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Wish’ or the tinny re-recording of the Osmond’s greatest moment, ‘Crazy Horses.’

GIVE IT A WHIRL (Universal)
Double compilation from the recent television documentary about this history of Kiwi pop; inevitably there are tragic omissions (where are Straitjacket Fits?) but it’s impossible to make a cohesive selection covering the 60s through the present era. Pleasingly chronological, however, and it’s great to hear tracks by a few great groups that have been neglected on cd thus far, including Ticket, and early Dragon (Rock’n’Roll Ponsonby, indeed!)

August 2003

MEFASOLATE (Turbine/InMusic)
He’s engineered the gargantuan noise rock of HDU and the latte grooves of Sola Rosa, and now Dale Cotton has his foot in the door of the chill-out brigade with his own digitally-enhanced pet project. Distinguished by its cool disinclination to lay on the faux funk moves, Mefasolate ticks along on dispassionate drum tracks and lays on spare textures like a man who knows when enough’s enough. Conroy tops itself off by austere Oriental koto pickings, and leaves us with the feeling we’ve had a smooth passage through a scenery that was pretty rather than ravishing.

The zip-lock banana on the cover gives a pretty good indication of the light-hearted nature of this latest diversion from a group that flawlessly manages to combine a New York-style 60s garage aesthetic with 70s British glam and the odd hint of 80s blitz just for good measure. Co-produced with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, it’s the kind of joyous, and utterly infectious pop concoction that is seldom heard in an era that rewards music makers who are second-rate miserabalists (stand up, Coldplay, your number’s up!) Instant ear candy, it may not be deep and meaningful, but we’ll be singing along until the pants come off.

ETHER TEETH (Ninja Tune/Flavour)
Fog is a young American chap who makes music with guitar, voice, turntables (scratching and samples) and any manner of appropriated and found instruments and sounds. But that tells us nothing about the genius of what comes out of all that. It’s impossible to clear the fog and explain what this guy is doing, but let’s try. Imagine a gainfully unemployed, yet creative fellow living in the American mid-West suburbia. Imagine his girlfriend’s just left him AND he’s just been told that he’s got an incurable disease. Would he make a miserable record? Hell no! Ether Teeth is one of those rare albums that stands apart from life and successfully manages to ruminate on all of its splendour and terror, grief and sadness in a way that’s post-apocalyptic, accepting and very beautiful. This is post-rock in the very best sense: effortlessly experimental yet digestible, and Fog finds his voice fully formed on what is only his second album. Bravo.

If I was a member of Radiohead, I’d be pretty pissed off at the luddites who continue to demand a return to the overblown pop histrionics of Ok Computer. Sure, that album landed Radiohead at the top of the pile. And to Radiohead’s credit, they then set about experimenting with the pop form in the great tradition of late 60s Beatles, and numerous psychedelic bands from the same era. Except they’ve updated to laptop technology, allowing for all manner of exhilarating recording potentiality. Hail To The Thief has been greeted half-heartedly as a ‘partial return to form’. How tiring that must be for poor Thom York and Co. It’s a great, exploratory pop album, which occasionally awkwardly, but mostly successfully, combines the anthemic surge of their earlier work with the micro-emotions of their later surgical incisions. There are sing-a-long bits for the die-hards, but it’s the sculpted interior world built up through their exploration of new technology that makes this a great record which repays repeated plays.

To many music listeners, ambient music is a pointlessly somnambulant genre, so Sleepytime seems like a sly wink to folks who can’t help falling asleep to anything that involves texture rather than beats and melodies. Cloudboy member Johannes Contag’s second Sleepytime release is an extraordinary thing. The first epic track is worth the price of admission alone: beginning with a gorgeous ‘classical’ piano refrain, the notes are left to decay and resonote for around fifteen minutes! Sound tedious? In fact, it’s a stupendously gorgeous track, and though the rest of the album struggles to eclipse it, I’m left marvelling at Contag’s ability to subtly reference modern classical and tape manipulation experiments without becoming victim to their thrall. And to fashion an ‘ambient’ album that is strong enough and self-aware enough to avoid falling into new age blandness.


Overblown Arabian kitsch recorded in ten studios from Beirut to Hamburg, featuring guest shots by Nigel Kennedy and the late Ofra Haza… and it’s as limited and pointless as you would expect Euro disco with pseudo-theatrical pretensions to be.

0304 (Atlantic/Warner)
Ain’t it hilarious that, while Carly Binding, unbound, is revealing herself as something of a singer-songwriter, would-be queen of the confessional songwriting school Jewel (who actually had the temerity to publish a book of her ‘poetry’) joins the ranks of Tru Bliss with her latest puffy pop outing.

That ‘difficult second album’ turns into a Second Coming for Kapisi, who has submerged the sometimes meandering orchestrations of his debut under the meat of a much tougher, more diverse project, without losing the essential ingredients. He continues to rail against white man’s religion, predictably succumbs to the MC jousting that’s pretty much par-for-the-course in hip-hop these days, but comes out with an impossibly vibrant, head-strong and enjoyable record that can slug it out with the best of ‘em.

Debut release from Auckland trumpeter Kingsley Melhuish’s group is an accomplished and singular triumph. If at times I yearned for more contributions from guest guitarists Nigel Gavin and Dan Sperber, the horn-based aggregation delivers a varied gumbo of Melhuish originals inspired by (but not held captive by) the loose-limbed jazz of masters like Don Cherry. My only (small) gripe is a recording which fails to pack the dynamic punch this music deserves.

September 2003

My inner snob made my original verdict of this album one of derision. But something brought me back for another listen, and now it’s hogging the hi-fi. Belgian-born, Middle Eastern singer (and belly dancer) Atlas made her name singing with 90s world fusioneers Jah Wobble and Transglobal Underground, and now has a number of solo albums under her belt that span the sample-based techno of her early endeavours to more ‘authentic’ Arabic instrumentation. Something Dangerous treads a hazardous line: like a lot of heavily produced contemporary pop, it involves a number of producers and a pile of different musicians, guest artists and collaborators. Some might find the commercial Jamaican and r&b vocal segments a little too bubblegum, but they provide a fun foil for Atlas’s yearning, incredibly beautiful vocals, which are brilliantly showcased on the celtic-lilt of Adam’s Lullaby, for which Jocelyn Pook wrote the gorgeous orchestrations. A convincingly boisterous blend of styles and languages, Something Dangerous deserves to make Atlas a global superstar.

TE HEKENGA-A-RANGI (Rattle/Out There)
Melbourne and Nunns have heroically rescued a number of obscure Maori instruments from oblivion, and based on their research, composed pieces using mostly flutey tones of around 40 instruments. They produce otherworldly sound; that is, as otherworldly as a remote part of an ancient kauri forest, so hauntingly do the sounds echo our unique environment. On the accompanying DVD, the two talk about their exploration, demonstrate each instrument, and perform pieces from this, and their previous cd. It’s a little dry at times, but taken on its own, the music is a wonderful tribute to the recently deceased Melbourne, and the duo’s almost heroic navigation through a history they’ve had to partly re-imagine.

Former Auckland rocker (Cicada, Dimmer) Andrew Spraggon established the cred of his alter ego Sola Rosa with a couple of delicious electronic dub EPs, but disappointed with his (albeit commercially successful) album debut ‘Solarized’: just too retro-loungey and safe, it was only really of any use as a functional café audio deodoriser. The second album, I’m happy to report, is a much more seductive beast. Slick and slippery as a jelly-wrestler’s ankle and full of drop-dead-delicious moments of pleasingly refabricated aural sculpture, it’s sure to please all those head-nodders who jive to the dub’n’spliff’n’couch potato aesthetic of lounge lizards like Kruder & Dorfmeister. Unfortunately, despite all of the above, it’s still just too demographic-savvy to get any fly-by points for sideways humour or eclectic diversions. Which is another way of saying that while it has as much to recommend it as a top-notch new haircut, it could well do with a tattoo or two.

With the second album since their reunion, Steely Dan find their feet again, thank God. And with appreciation of their sophisticated jazz-influenced pop at an all-time high, Everything Must Go feels like an album that Becker and Fagan slipped into with ease. Rather than the cramped, somewhat shrill arrangements that marked the reunion album, this one capitalises on those qualities that the Dan do best. Almost like an Unplugged Dan, they ease off on the complex arrangements that typify many of their better 70s moments, which reinforces the natural funk swagger of their rhythms and those unmistakably knowing lyrics. And although the title track alludes to a rather odd subject matter – the dismantling of a corporation – it’s great to hear a song as unguarded and personally emotive as ‘Things I Miss The Most’. Oh, it must feel good to come out the other side of that long mid-age crisis.

For all its myriad deficiencies, television’s exploration of NZ music history, Give It A Whirl has spurred a glorious glut of reissues. It hasn’t happened a moment too soon. Pie Cart Rock’n’Roll is a fantastic 28-song exploration of the first flush of Kiwi rock from 1957-1962, and despite the typically appalling fidelity and the odd embarrassing moment betraying our boring provincial past, it’s never less than entertaining, and sometimes a revelation. Check out the wonderfully primitive, almost punk-like sound of Sam Mataparae with the Rocking Rockers. Apart from the expected slew of cover-song imitations (often worthwhile for their unintentional deviations), there’s also a bunch of seldom-heard originals with a firm Kiwi emphasis (Four City Rock, Haka Boogie, The Life I Live). My only gripe is with the record company’s decision to reduce Redmer Yska’s liner notes to a size best-read with magnifying glass. Rather than a flimsy piecemeal cover, this type of release deserves a proper booklet with song-by-song dissertation.


Not since that great Los Angeles multicultural aggregation of the early 70s, War, has there been a band who so happily had a head of funk steam as swaggering as this. A compilation of odds and sods going back to the mid-90s, Vintage Reserve shows why this New Orleans group stay firmly on the touring circuit: while the material might lack that distinctive songwriting touch, it’s irresistibly, organically ass-wiggling.

MEDIOCHRE (Monkey Music)
Imagine, if you will, an introspective Kiwi singer/songwriter (Andy Cummins) interspersing his songs with a segued mix of trippy ambient electronica. While Cummins’ songs occasionally veer towards the unpalatably fraught, manic-depressive end of the spectrum, overall this album is a unique amalgam of styles which are seldom found in the same room, and its lurid, filmic soundscapes add a dimension of intrigue and mystery that no strummed ditties could manage on their own. Refreshingly, those ambient interludes are anything but function-serving backdrops; they’re an integral part of the voyage. But a word of advice: get some sun, Andy.

Get past the barking Rage Against The Machine-style vocals on a few of these tracks, and you discover a group of ferocious apocalyptic post-metal heads whose antecedents are Killing Joke, King Crimson and Tool. The fact that they come from Auckland, and that their music has a bite which is sharp of incisor and brutal in an effectively disciplined way makes it something special.

Under-sung Auckland punk group had some of the funniest, coolest songs of the late 70s, but never got an album under their skinny belts. Better late than never, their singles have been compiled together with radio sessions to form a brief but entertaining album with between-song ‘punk’ documentary narration by Neil Roberts (RIP). Blasted good fun.

Reissue/remaster of seminal double-cd compile concentrating on Kiwi singles released between 1979-82, which means there are loads of otherwise unavailable indie singles loaded with the energy of punk but the melodic invention of the best pop. Essential.

October 2003

WE TRAVEL FAST (Tummy Touch/Border)
Just like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’, Chungking’s debut is infected with the rain and tears of a romance too smashed-up to mend. Tears were flowing as these songs were hatched. The Brighton three-piece apparently used broken-down old computers and rusting guitars (and an ex-girlfriend with a gorgeous voice) to patch their album together. The result is stunning, the kind of record you can swoon too, with layers of floating angel choirs from the mouth of Jessie Banks and an approach to the art of song that’s rooted in the delirious harmony merchants of the 60s. Not since the first Portishead album has siren-like female singer been so well matched with visionary musicians. Like the Mamas & Papas singing Burt Bacharach, ‘We Travel Fast’ has angst and melody and rapture and harmony all in one convenient package.

CALE:DREW (Midium)
Napier based three-piece turn in their stunning second album, which sounds like it was cooked up in an emotion-soaked lab that had the dynamics of post-rock groups like Mogwai reverberating around its candle-lit, lysergic interior. This is guitar music which starts with a whisper and slowly blows into a ferocious gale of sound, only to subside again. It’s a trend that can be traced right back to the last couple of Talk Talk albums in the late 80s, and the Mark Hollis album which influenced HDU… and it’s hard to think of Jakob existing without THAT Kiwi group in its lineage. But for all that, Jakob have developed a sound which has its own personality quirks, and ‘Cale:Drew’ is an exceptional album for those who like exploring those deeper emotional and sonic arcs.

Christchurch (now defected to Kaikoura) group Salmonella Dub are undeniably pathfinders in terms of Kiwi popular music; their brand of performed rock/reggae has wowed crowds up and down the country and left a seething swag of sweaty dreadlocked imitators in its wake. And this is their FIFTH album, already. Trouble is, when they do song-based stuff, it tends to sound like a luke-warm UB40, who are of course, one of the most ordinary groups of all time. And when they’re doing drum&bass it’s simply to rev things up. ‘One Drop East’ picks up on some of the dub remixes from their last album and goes for a reliably marijuana-stoked headspace. The trouble is, like their sometime touring buddies Pitchblack (whose Paddy Free produces here) Salmonella’s admittedly enjoyable rock-dub tends to have a somewhat colourless pall to it, chugging along with predictable echoes all in the right place. Even the dancehall track (tiresomely titled ‘Dancehall Girl’) fails to recreate the urgent beat that the genre requires. It’ll be really, really popular, of course.

The Verlaines are the best and the worst of Flying Nun, characterising the very heart of the legendary ‘Dunedin sound’. Blessed with a career-spanning ‘best of’, we’re given a chance to make our final verdict. Which is? Brilliant, dull, ecstatic, weedy, poetic, droning… the Verlaines are still as great as they are awful. Their tendency to play appalling janga-janga garage ‘we’re as cool as the Velvets’ black jersey pop damns them, but Graeme Downes’ classic verse, together with his classical pretensions, puts the singer/songwriter into the same rarefied stratum as Britain’s Peter Hammill, with whom he shares a somewhat similar dramatic, straining vocal delivery. It’s a unique world he inhabits, and as infuriating as I find much of the musical articulation, The Verlaines are just strange – and lyrically darkly humorous - enough to warrant a musty corner in every Kiwi record collection.

REACTOR (Reprise/Warner)
Of the four Neil Young albums missing from his cd catalogue all these years, and finally just issued in the format for the first time, ‘Reactor’ has come in for the most stinging criticism. Sure, ‘On The Beach’ is fantastic in all its drugged strung-outness, and ‘American Stars And Bars’ features ‘Hurricane’ so it has to be some kind of glorious anthemic peak. But ‘Reactor’ – issued in 1981 just before his wilderness years on Geffen – is sheer genius. For the most part, Young drops his demented melancholia, gets a sense of humour, and turns on the Crazy Horse boogie machine. It’s sublime nonsense from the get-go, as the character in ‘Opera Star’ watches his girlfriend going off to the opera with ‘some highbrow from the city light’, and instead of howling at the moon, imitates the opera singing, chook-like. And in the epic grind of ‘T-Bone’, the lyric consists of endlessly repeated: ‘Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got no T-bone’. This is a man evading life’s pain with humour, and ‘Reactor’ is criminally neglected in the oeuvre of one of the great songwriters. It’s like no other Neil Young album. And it rocks.


MICHAEL BUBLE (Reprise/Warner)
So… Reprise has found a young man who sounds just like Ol’ Blues Eyes, now that Frank has shuffled off to that Bratpack in the sky. Buble (pronounced Booblay) is a Sinatra clone with a few genetic improvements, and a penchant for covering old Queen and Bee Gees songs.

Late release in NZ for Aussie group’s debut: siblings Tyrone and Katie Noonan brim with talent, ability, and both have heavenly voices. It’s a pity, then, that George hasn’t quite found it’s own way. And like too many of this generation, his vocal pyrotechnics are spoiled by the Jeff Buckley/Thom York mannerisms. Next time?

A collection from this almost unknown Christchurch outfit spanning 1995-2003, made in various ports of call from Dunedin through their current resting place, Auckland. Kate In The Lemon Tree is the kind of Kiwi sound I love most. Unlike all the smooth, media-savvy, market-aware product swimming around like ninnies at the moment, this harks back to an era where outright loopiness, fun, angst, personality and musical schizophrenia could all get together in one razor-drilled post punk package

The down side of the new garage rock is that major record labels are signing up bands who can’t sing, can’t play, and have no ideas. Kings Of Leon are the sons of a Pentecostal minister, they sing like they’re chewing on their cuds, and the rest of it’s more fun to write about than listen to. So I won’t do either.

ROUTES (Many Hands)
Eighteen people of various nationalities, but living in Auckland, bring it all on in a frankly absurd combination of instruments (erhu, bagpipes, log drums, changu, tabla, djembe are some of the more unlikely ones). Though the wide-ranging sound makes it more a souvenir than a great album, it’s so full of community spirit and joy that you’re willing to laugh with them, not at them in their attempts at making a musical meal out of such an odd combination.

November 2003

LIVE AT SIN-E (Columbia/Sony)
There’s no doubt that Columbia have milked Buckley’s meagre recorded legacy since his premature death in 1997, at the age of 31 and just about to start recording his second album. The landmark ‘Grace’, hardly a hit a the time, has impacted on a generation of singers in rock bands to the point that between Buckley and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s hard to find a vocalist that isn’t trying to be one or the other (or snappy combo of both). But unlike some of the exploitative live recordings, ‘Live At Sin-E’ legitimately expands on the original ep, released originally to introduce an audience to Buckley’s troubadour style. Just a young man and his guitar in a tiny New York café, spread over two cds in lavish packaging, this captures an informal and spontaneous set that takes in early (and surprisingly developed versions of ‘Grace’ songs), very funny between song banter, and unique interpretations of everything from ‘Strange Fruit’ to Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’ to Van Morrison and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Brilliant and, of course, terribly sad.

SINGLES 93-03 (Virgin/EMI)
The Chemical Brothers are probably important for two reasons. 1) They took the underground ‘acid house’ sound of the late 80s to a mainstream audience in the 90s. 2) It’s difficult to imagine the currently fashionable ‘electro breaks’ scene existing without their influence. The duo’s qualitative importance provides a more problematic assessment dilemma. Their repetitive breakbeats, all set to ‘hi-energy’, definitely stoked many successful dance parties throughout the 90s. And there’s no doubt that the ‘Chemicals’ (as they are known) became formidable music technicians as they learnt how to add melody (ie, guest vocalists) and sound colours to their original monochromatic palette. It’s just that, in the course of this career retrospective (with handy DVD addition), there’s nothing to suggest that the words ‘canny opportunists’ should be replaced with ‘innovative artists’. Moreover, I would add, their rigid techno-rock just ain’t funky.

ON YOUR SIDE (Ultimate Dilemma/FMR)
Radiohead have made it okay for rock groups to invite a little bubble and squeak from the electronic spectrum along for the ride, and Magnet exemplify that working at its best. But at heart, Magnet is the vessel through which Even Johansen (a Norwegian based in Scotland) expresses his emotions. It’s an ethereal sound, somewhat lacking in drive, but there’s no denying that ‘On Your Side’ is a slow grower. Containing moments of sublime beauty that’s at its pinnacle on the grand finale, ‘Smile To The World’, Magnet is a project that – as one female acquaintance put it – will sit better with ‘the ladies’. Why? Perhaps it’s Johansen’s quiet emotionality, devoid of conventional braggadocio, but still cocky enough to cover Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’.

EARGASM (Finger Licken’/Border)
A couch listener I may be, but believe it or not, I CAN understand the motivation to get up and wiggle one’s butt. And I understand that sometimes butt-wiggling to funk or reggae just doesn’t get up enough sweat, just doesn’t work off enough aggression, to satisfy some primal impulse to ‘work that body’. Which is why, I guess, this new dance fad for ‘electro’ is so hot right now. It’s got all the beat and forward propulsion of house, but takes that fundamentally old-fashioned ‘sci-future’ idea promulgated by 80s synthesiser-equals-alienation specialists like Gary Numan, and reinvents them in a club context. Plump DJs are the biggest exponents of electro, apparently, and their first ‘proper’ album (ie, their own, rather than selected) just sounds silly unless you’re dancing to it. The gestures are too big, too bland. And when they try to slow down enough for a ‘song’ (Lamb’s Louise Rhodes; a mummified Numan revived) they just seem like they’re flown in from another planet. Dance to it, sure, but it’s not a half-decent album.

THE GREEN ROOM 002: WAHINE (Loop/Border)
It seems mean to rain on this particular parade: Wellington label Loop Recordings has come out of nowhere to find itself a very strong contender over the past couple of years, and the first Green Room compilation was a raging success. But aside from my reservations about political parties getting involved in music enterprise (Green Room is a kind of musical manifesto for the Green Party), much of the music here lacks the edge, the innovation, the subversive tactic, that makes the onward march of art and culture worth pursuing. Nandor Tanczos says that ‘Wahine is a celebration of women’s voices and the diverse and unique spirit of Aotearoa women’, and I’m not going to argue with that. Too often, however, the voices sound like an exotic topping for some faceless, nameless boffin endlessly grooving with his computer programmes. Almost saved by a prickly Lucid 3, and Metiria Turei’s poem.

Sure-footed debut by members of US alt-rock groups Sebadoh, Lowercase and Folk Implosion combines the epic guitar grind of Neil Young at his heaviest with a country/folk sensibility that swipes sonic strategies and vocal mannerisms from CSN&Y and other early 70s contemporaries. (Wherefore art thou, Poco?) But it has a raw emotionality that sears the roof off any of the saccharine sentimentality of their forbears. Promising, and full of memorable hooks and sing-along-lines.

Even in their New York punk phase, Blondie were steeped in trashy glam. Back then, they wore it well, but they were always close to self-parody. Rehabilitated and remade after all these years, they’ve made an album that’s got its fair share of good ideas, is well played and even (dare I say it) takes risks. Trouble is, it exists in a void, and a group who always used cool youth style as its calling card just can’t project the same vibe as they near their wheelchair years.

BUT ONE DAY… (Decca/Universal)
Plenty of rich emoting and total belief in her performance make German singer Ute Lemper’s interpretations memorable, and though it’s easy to draw the conclusion that her delivery is somewhat overblown (or at least an acquired taste), it’s pretty hard to fault either her artistry, or to ignore that fact that she’s in a field of one in terms of contemporary chanson/vamps. ‘But One Day’ is one of her more accessible outings, on which she makes classic art cabaret songwriters like Weill (and others from the tradition) seem like they were writing just for her.

88 (Tardus)
Pronounced ‘Min-wee’ (apparently), this Nelson trio (two techy blokes and a chick singer) win points for their point of difference: being a dance-oriented electronic breakbeat act with an idiosyncratic vocalist. They’ve shot a large load of beats over their hour-long debut, and ended up stretching their nascent ideas rather too thinly. Having said that, if Ruth Carr’s mannered, slightly Bjork-ish pronouncements don’t prove too big an obstacle, and you forgive the rather meagre variations in tone and texture allowed by a group dedicated to those big clattering rhythms… then they’re a group worthy of at least keeping tabs on.

PAN AM (Flying Nun/FMR)
So, then… these guys are supposed to save Flying Nun from the knackers yard? It’s true, to a point, that this three-piece power pop group have a line in ironic (yawn), smart-arse (blah-blah) lyrics and counter-punch chords and melodies that make most Korporate Kiwi Kock Rock look positively lame. But it’s so connived, contrived, whipped up and thought-out that Pan Am’s ‘alternative’ could just as well have been the product of some group focus session in a board room anywhere.

Subtitled ‘Selected New Zealand Masterpieces’, the celebrated ‘selector’ is Auckland jazz guitarist Dan Sperber, who found 13 Kiwi tunes of an ambient, melancholy hue to bind together on this rather impressive compile. From Goldenhorse, Greg Johnson, and several of Sperber’s own projects to more surprising entries like HDU and Shihad, it’s an alternative take on that necessary beat, the Sunday afternoon chillout cd.

December 2003

One of the few dance duos to have crossed over to mass success, and it’s easy to see why on their third platter. With all the nutty energy of Prince at his 80s best – combining funk, disco and brash rock moves in one peppy package – Jaxx have moved things forward by taking a further step back. Suddenly, the early 80s are all the rage, and like many other recent albums, ‘Kish Kash’ zones in on this fertile post-punk soil. Their particular ‘new wave’ guest is Siouxsie Sioux (of the Banshees) whose distinctive vocals are heard on the title track; canny as ever, they also get current hot teen Dizzee Rascal in on their scheme. It’s a high-energy album where even the ballads have plenty of sizzle and bite, and will undoubtedly be a Summer hit, despite its booming lack of depth.

HOOK (Robin Hood Music)
Neither of McArtney’s well-known bands (Hello Sailor, the Pink Flamingos) have aged particularly well, but he has. Like Dave Dobbyn, McArtney has made it to his middle years with dignity intact, and produced an album rich with reflections. Unlike Dobbyn (whose Th’Dudes and DD Smash were/are scarcely hipper than McArtney’s former groups), McArtney’s voice is a pale thing best suited to the least robust of his compositions. ‘Hook’ may not quite be a classic from out of nowhere, but there’s plenty of evidence that with the jowls of middle years has come an ability to articulate through words and music his accumulated wisdom. Packed with intelligent observations and ironic insights, and the sparse production illuminates those strengths.

In a pop universe less concerned with a certain garagey, scruffy, drug-ridden idea of what was cool, Muse might just be the leaders of the pack. That is, if the dramatic swagger of Queen was considered ‘hip’ instead. Whether their unique surging, slightly camp and very glam idea of pop drives you mad or makes you light-headed with happiness, it seems churlish to pretend that Muse – driven by the Freddie Mercury crossed with Jeff Buckley wail of singer Matt Bellamy – isn’t made of sheer genius of one sort or another. What they do might cross over the taste barrier for some, but the operatic fervour, sheer musicality and ambitious scope of the group’s third album makes it a watershed moment in pop circa 2003. Undeniably brilliant.

GIANT SPHERES (Turbine/InMusic)
A quietly ambitious solo record by Simon Mclaren – former member of Auckland alt-rockers The Subliminals – ‘Giant Spheres’ is really a sleeping giant. It’s one of those great albums that slowly creeps up on you over successive listens. By then, of course, you’re totally hooked into every wee nuance of its delectable forty minutes. Mclaren’s fragile voice only just holds down these wistful tunes, but there’s something attractive about that. That, and the way he writes lyrics that don’t form into stupid couplets, just work quietly at meaningfulness, in a very existential way. And ‘Giant Spheres’ is a very existential, languid listen, leeching its striated psychedelia in a fashion that’s totally plausible in a 21st Century context, though all its references come from the 60s. There’s a wasted, fatalistic quality to these tunes and layers that makes it a perfect wet Sunday afternooner. Maybe even Kiwi album of the year, already.

Like a quirky Antipodean Yanni, Belgium-born, Nelson-based Wauters’ second official release has a sound that’s both lush and florid, yet has all the oddness one might expect from someone in self-imposed exile. There’s something weirdly introverted about this album, which contrasts Richard Clayderman-style piano ballads with darkly humorous songs like ‘The Bullshit Grinder’. The fact that, like its predecessor (Travelling Within) it’s so trenchantly unhip, makes it strangely compelling. The epic ‘Frequency’ shows Wauters’ real musical centre: the European 70s where groups like Tangerine Dream could whip up acclaim with their synthesiser fantasies. Clearly Wauters is a gifted player, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer. It’s just that his odd aesthetic fails to project anything recognisable to the average Kiwi. On the other hand, several tracks would make great advertising jingles.

Also rans

TIL NOW (Muse/Global Routes)
This second album by the Kiwi singer-songwriter has had uniformly fabulous press, so I had to ask my friends what they thought of a record that, despite the brouhaha, I felt sucked. Uniformly, they spoke of the ‘no meat’ production, the ‘drab’ singing, the lack of surprise and drama, and I felt I had to write this review, despite feeling like a prick for slagging a nice guy and a Kiwi to boot.

Sequel where the Irish group meet up with various American guests, getting the Yank perspective on a range of ditties and laments. As admirable as this project undoubtedly is (and popular, given appearances from a vast array of singer-songwriter types) I found myself wishing for a more inspired casting call. How about AC/DC doing their folk song tribute, or Tool doing theirs? Liven things up, for godsakes!

STUMBLE INTO GRACE (Nonesuch/Warner)
A country rock star in the 70s, Harris has finally graduated to writing her own humble songs after a critically successful interpretative career. Her voice is no great shakes, but she carries the songs with such quiet dignity that you can’t help but be won over by this 21st Century pioneer prairie woman.

Randolph’s pedal steel and electric guitarring is extraordinary. He gets a tone that just slides up your spine. It’s a remarkably voice-like, distant cousin of Hendrix’s wah-wah. His group come on with the frantic propulsion of Sly & The Family Stone, the funk/disco of Parliament, and a healthy dollop of contemporary urban blues. Unfortunately, the self-penned material lets the project down. Fine energy, but too little to say.

Powered by the sly wink of Berlin DJ Fetisch, Terranova’s latest charms its way into your boudoir with the same stupid humour we remember in Trio’s novelty hit, ‘Da-Da-Da’. Unlike that one-off, though, Terranova has the skill to entertain for 60 minutes with his mutant vocodered vocals and dance-urging breakbeat skills..

Western pop music is so bleached and branded and low-calory that it’s hard to come to terms with this fabulous Brazilian concoction. Tribalistas is a superstar trio of Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown and Marisa Monte, and it’s a pop album, though its scope is so wide, and it’s so intelligent, sensual and soulful that those of us weaned on typical pop music might find it incomprehensible. Deeply funky without ever giving the cardiovascular system a workout, this is one ‘world music’ project that comes highly recommended.

January 2004

LET IT BE… NAKED (Parlophone/EMI)
No amount of blather can change the facts: 'Let It Be' is probably the most disappointing, inconsequential Beatles disc, with or without murder-accused Phil Spector's masking orchestrations. Unlike the before ('The Beatles') and the after ('Abbey Road') this is a rough and unengaging selection of tunes, and after all these years it's only really the strange emotional curvature of 'Don't Let Me Down' and the beauty of 'Across The Universe' that warrant investigation. Trainspotters might will enjoy the thoroughly remixed tracks, the substituted and omitted songs, and the extensive liner notes. Though the 20-minute extra disc of fly-on-the-wall studio chatter and rehearsal snippets is of documentary interest, I can't help but feel that the 'real' Let It Be is the film. An extended edition of that, warts-and-all, with lots of footage of arguing Beatles, would happily replace this sorry package.

FULL CIRCLE (Universal)
Presumably there's some legal stumbling block here: otherwise, I can't imagine that the crucial songwriters/singers of the Little River Band would opt for the surname treatment. LRB were an Aussie band that did the business: 25 million records sold, international success. Hell, their songs were more memorable than those of Crosby Stills & Nash and America combined. But despite the gorgeous three-part harmonies and the catchy songs, there's still something suburban and safe about them, and they're all trotted out here in front of a very quiet audience, perfunctory yet perfect renditions of a whole lot of songs you didn't know you knew so well: It's A Long Way There, Happy Anniversary, Home On Monday, Cool Change, Reminiscing… Those of a certain age and disposition will buy it, knowing full well that it's about as trendy as grandma's underwear.

This one's been kicking around for months, because I can't get a handle on it. When records are this good, they don't offer up descriptions on a plate. The English group have been called 'progressive rock', but there's nothing instrumentally virtuosic enough to justify that claim. Instead, it's a beautifully organic, carefully orchestrated, moody rock album that certainly does have its origins in the 70s, when 'longplayers' were schematic works rather than just a collection of songs. The way Guy Garvey's vocals are delivered and recorded do carry ghostly reminders of Peter Gabriel's early solo outings, as does the density of the overdubs and the very blue-eyed soul that underpins these melancholy songs. Other antecedents include Talk Talk, whose later music carried with it a similar mix of powerfully emotional songwriting and interesting use of studio sound constructions. One of the best of 2003.

I CAN'T STOP (Blue Note/EMI)
Let's get this over with first: the idea that Al Green could make an album which could eclipse his classic 70s sides is a nonsense. For most, an Al Green 'best of' collection will be enough to allow an occasional dip into his juicy, unique Memphis soul. Still, I Can't Stop is an event: it's an almost complete recreation of his 70s sound, from the reunion with his producer Willie Mitchell to the recruitment of many of the same musicians… even the same vocal microphone (a No. 9 RCA ribbon mic). While it's doubtful that any of the songs here will attain classic status, it's solid stuff, and a joy just to hear his astonishing vocals. It's that testifying, wailing, grunting, amazingly expressive voice paired with the light, fruity Memphis funk that makes you want to play it again and again.

What's WRONG with this picture? Well, let's start with what's right. On Morrison's first album for the prestigious Blue Note jazz label, there are moments of that powerful soul/jazz swagger he perfected in the early 70s. Equally, some of the orchestrations approach the finest of his more reflective work of the 80s. What's wrong is that, for the most part, Morrison's lyrics have become worse than self-parody, and more like the work of a man suffering the early stages of dementia. He WAS a genius, no doubt about it, but while this album improves on his dire recent output, it's recommended that the curious tread warily, and block their ears to the lyrical waffling.

Also Rans

Arriving in a stunning hard-bound cover, the second album by this mysterious Auckland group is unique on the local horizon. Timed perfectly for Summer (not), these largely electronic soundscapes are malevolent, poisoned, horror movie scenarios from the darkside. Powered by slow, lumbering drums and bass, their distant cousin is Manchester group Scorn. Scare yourself to death.

I can understand the attraction of local dub grooves, especially on a balmy afternoon. But this Christchurch producer - otherwise known as Nava Thomas - has made an album that despite an adept way with spacious grooves, fails to assert its personality, or its sophistication in the way that, say, the 50Hz record did. Still, it's enjoyably fortified for Summer usage.

German label Stereo Deluxe have a reputation for identifying and encouraging those with an ear for fine low-down grooves. Unfortunately, this Brazilian outfit completely fluffs it: their anonymous programming disguises any groove value, and a series of guest vocals can’t disguise its utter lack of personality. Really awful.

LIVING ON THE EDGE (Wagram/Border)
The improbably named Pompougnac has curated a number of lavish French slow groove compilations which undoubtedly have found their place in wine parlours and boulevard cafes. The first album under his own name - what does this guy DO, exactly? - is elegant, stylish and very French, despite the inclusion of Michael Stipe's risible vocals on one track. It is also very slick, and very empty.

It’s too soon for the Supergroove revival. Halfway between the fake funk-punk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the sweaty vigour of a black soul revue, on this ‘best-of’ there are too many weak attempts at rapping and cliched moves to give it the necessary ballast. Nicely spruced-up package for Che Fu completists and nostalgists only, featuring an additional disc of redundant remixes and live renditions.

February 2004

Tori, take a bow. You've got to give it to Tori: song for song, she's built up an exceptional body of work. Trouble is, with Amos, you've got to take it warts and all. These songs are mostly confessionals, and you often feel like you're eavesdropping on her most private moments. She has a tendency to overdo the histrionics, and if the songs weren't so beautifully structured, and so personalised, her brand of overwrought balladry could easily slip into the cheese zone occupied by Whitney Houston and thousands like her. But Houston never sang a song like 'Me And A Gun', an account of rape that's still uncomfortable listening all these years later. Despite her obvious debt to Joni Mitchell (with a little bit of Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush on the side), she sings with her own voice, and Amos can rightly be proud of these ambitious little mini-operas. And the cream of her work is here.

Billy Bragg was like a friendly but hormone tortured tomcat; you wanted to take him in and give him a good meal. Like American band the Violent Femmes, British lad Bragg struck a chord with Kiwis in the tumult of the 80s, with his musically austere but humanistic songs about the politics of relationships, and unflinching observations about the political climate of the Thatcher years. For anyone wanting some Bragg in their collection, this double compendium is perfect. Mostly just his honking voice and guitar accompaniment - the second disc elaborates with some iffy orchestrations on some tracks - Bragg's resolutely one-dimensional presentation taunts today's short attention spans, but this is surprisingly enjoyable stuff. Comes with a limited edition bonus cd of rarities.

It seems churlish to rain on the good-feeling, high times of reggae revivalists Katchafire. By tuning into the sound Bob Marley made famous, they've become hugely popular, and (more importantly) hugely LIKED. The trouble is: Kiwi reggae fans have never really moved on from his Bobness, and Katchafire, as friendly as their ambling reggae is, are simply rehashing old sounds and sentiments. Nostalgia is a deadly disease, and these pieces really have nothing to add to Bob Marley's original template. Worse, they just rekindle old cliches about reggae being the sanctified music, and the marijuana being next to Godliness. Stuck in the past.

I get so tired of the misappropriated acclaim that certain music critics - who really should know better - are handing to the kind of Mai-FM style so-called r'n'b. This acclaim is based on a few natty beats and production tricks that ignores the basic problem: cliché rolled upon cliché makes most of this stuff indigestible to all but the pre-teens for whom every 'together, forever' lyric seems like it's from the crown of creation. Alicia Keys has superficial similarities to all this, but her innate talent shines out like a beacon. She's not immune to soul cliché herself, but the sheer musicality of this 20-year-old easily separates her from the pack. The Diary Of Alicia Keys has the kind of old-fashioned soul approach that does an old smoocher like Bobby Womack proud. Occasionally, a certain pomposity shows through (well, she does have a classical background, why not start with a self-important piano introduction?) and it's true that she lacks the sassiness of the other current funk queens. But it's hard not to drown in admiration.

LOOP 05 (Loop/Border)
Wellington label Loop's most ambitious project to date: a combined cd, dvd and booklet in a spiffy case which will doubtless become a sought-after collector piece. But is it any good? Indeedy. Much more ambitious in scope stylistically than earlier collections, the cd offers a selection which encompasses the sophisticated grooves of 50hZ, yet also fits in a track by Auckland's excellent electronic/rock fusioneers, Phelps & Munro. Of course it's heavy on those skanking Wellington grooves, but we can hardly blame them for pushing that particular angle. At least it's winningly free of the usual clunkers. The book is a graphic delight, while the dvd is divided between music clips and short films. No wonder this package was given out to attendees of the Lord Of The Rings premiere. An assured and convincing exposition of Kiwi talent.

Also Rans

IS YOU IS (Sonar Kollektiv/Border)
With the smoothness of Brazilian jazz and the faux acid jazz sophistication of Jamiroqui, this German five-piece make a style of music I abhor. Still, there's a market for this kind of stuff, and Micatone at least allow for a muscular instrumental blend of live and programmed elements (the double bass and drums are particularly enjoyable), and Lisa Bassenge's vocals and lyrics - while stylised past the point of pastiche - have a certain charm.

CITY CHORUS (Loop/Border)
Odd name, odd album, and a Wellington product which doesn't succomb to the mundane rococo grooves that city favours. Distinguishing characteristics are the result of fusing Pryor's singer-songwriter sensibility with contributions from members of Fat Freddy's Drop, The Black Seeds, Trinity Roots and many others. What may have started out as an introverted Kiwi folk artefact is now a sophisticated and rewarding hybrid species.

1992-2000 (V2/FMR)
Probably remembered more keenly for their musical backdrop to the film Trainspotting, and the associated drug connotations, Underworld are undervalued. They made some great, epic acid techno, perfect for those dance parties of the early 90s. Where they beat most of their contemporaries hands down, however, is that they add some deliciously flimsy, yet perfect outlines of pop songs to go with their chemically-fuelled trippiness. This double best-of charts their development, and it's aged remarkably well.

BEST SEVEN SELECTIONS (Sonar Kollektiv/Border)
It's not just garage rockers like the Datsuns who are being feted overseas: this German dub-oriented collection features two tracks by permutations of Wellington's hip-in-Blighty Fat Freddy's Drop. Aside from their languid jazz/reggae fusion, Best Seven Selections is a cut above most other compilations of its kind, because its source material (Paul St. Hilaire, Rhythm & Sound) displays 21st Century sensibilities, while never losing sight of its roots.

#05 (Capitalrecordings/BMG)
If you ignore the last four tracks, which are by turns wrong footed rock and just plain wrong, the fifth compilation from Wellington label Capitalrecordings is a superior exposition of the city's groove based electronic musicians. The first seven tracks (highlights are Jet Jaguar's playful lounge perversion and Mephisto Jones' cyber-Portishead) are full of crunchy beats and juicy grooves and enough computer tricknology to keep the boffins happy.

March 2004

DIG A HOLE (Space)
There are no convenient cliches to describe this album, which has been floating around for some months without decent distribution. A product of Wellington's vivid and exploratory jazz scene, NZ-based Ghanian songwriter Adu approaches traditional subjects (notably, love) with vivid imagery, yet her delivery - droll, expressionless - adds a unique twist. To top it off, the backing (including Adu herself on piano, and a lineup which includes cello, guitar and percussion) has a woody, chamber jazz feel that is unique in a Kiwi context, and is like a small jazz orchestra, loose-limbed, yet structured enough to provide perfect counterpoint to these special songs.

REMIXES (Stereo Deluxe/Border)
If the art of the remixer lies in an ability to make someone else's work resemble their own, then Boozoo Bajou must be top ranking. On this collection divided between others' tracks the German group have remixed, and their own tracks remixed by others, everything comes out of the wash sounding pretty much like the only Boojoo Bajou album, 'Satta'. That is: low-down dubby grooves with some bluesy John Lee Hooker-style moves and the odd flourish of jazz guitar. Very much like the more famous practitioners of similar stuff, Kruder & Dorfmeister and Tosca. Speaking of which, there's the obligatory Tosca track here, but Boozoo Bajou (that's Florian Seyberth and Peter Heider to you) also re-do the work of hip-hop group Common, and the jazz-oriented Truby Trio. That other supergroup of the contemporary lounge fusion set, Thievery Corporation, also do their thing to a Boozoo track. And yet… it's strangely predictable, completely unchallenging. As Summer slowly wanes, many barbecue parties will be humming to this around the land.

ECHO PARCOURS (Stereo Deluxe/Border)
A superior example of the art of groove: while this collaboration between Boozoo Bajou's Peter Heider and two other electronic boffins falls victim to some blandisms typical of the genre, there are moments captured here to warm the heart of even the most cynical listener. The Germans can't muster a lyric or a spoken word (in English) that sounds anywhere near as natural as our own groove fusionists, but they make up for it in sonic detail that thrills on a halfway decent hi-fi, and Trio Electrico's influences are wide and deep enough to take in everything from 'broken beat' jazz to the kind of organ-fuelled funk that New Orleans group The Meters turned into the tastiest grooves on the planet. Eclectic, but it holds together all its component parts like they were suckled on the same wet nurse.

BARCELONA RAVAL SESSIONS (K Industria/Rhythmethod)
The notion of 'World Music' is changing as competing migrant cultures add to the throng and excitement of city living in many of the major metropolitan centres. Ten years ago, a compilation from Barcelona would have been predictably - if entertainingly - Spanish. 'Barcelona Raval Sessions' reflects the downtown tumult of cultural and stylistic quirks, and it's quite something to get your head around. An expansive double cd, it samples hip-hop of several different persuasions quite early in proceedings, but as the set progresses the sheer scope and eclecticism of songs and styles becomes arresting. Many of these tracks have a decided Muslim bent, though the styles range from rock to acoustic to melodic pop and dance. Yet somehow, it all holds together on a compilation that rewards dipping into on a regular basis.

FABRIC 13: MICHAEL MAYER (Fabric/Rhythm Method)
Michael Mayer is one of the leading players from Germany's Kompakt label, which is famed for its purist approach to state-of-the-art techno. For this mix cd, Mayer typically pulls out all the stops to display both his exquisite dj skills, and the talents behind a range of cuts mostly otherwise available only on 12" vinyl. This is an exposition of the best of 21st Century techno, which is sensible enough to keep on its dancing shoes, but despite that still intent on carving out improvements to the art form. Most contemporary facets of intelligent techno are represented. Despite the magnificent crunchy beats and repetitive rhythms, there's often a canny and alluring melodic line running through these pieces, or a deft vocal that sensibly steers clear of the penchant house music has for wringing every bit of fake emotion out of sampled divas. This is way more subtle than that, and a treat for audio buffs, with its attention to sonic detail and sound imagery good enough to eat.

Small fry

LIVING (Columbia)
Irish singer-songwriter's 'long-awaited', 'much-anticipated' second album (the first was way back in 1999) made me yearn for the day when that term (singer/songwriter, that is) usually meant you had at least lyrical, if not musical, flair. Casey SOUNDS like he could have been playing for his supper in the early 70s (anyone remember Harry Chapin?), but the words could be drafted onto any 21st Century pop product, they're so lifeless and uniform.

Second album from Christchurch reggae group lopes along enjoyably, and it's a good deal more adventurous than its often laboured predecessor. Moments of blissful skanking are interrupted by interminable, tortuous 'dancehall'-style blatherings, and cliched MC-ings from a global cast. It would help if they ordained to join the 21st Century.

The digital sharpness of electronic rhythms runs a nicely contradictory path against Duplaix's smooth soul croon - with its inevitable ghostly reminder of Marvin Gaye - and the warm, jazzy stylings of this second album. Comprising dancefloor hits and misses, it's an impressively manicured set from the American producer.

I LIKE IT (Compost/Border)
This fetishisation of the 80s is all very well, but the idea behind this mix cd (four different selectors) is obscure, and the result is a mess. As the title suggests, the DJs are asked to play their five favourite tracks of all time. While it's gratifying to hear revived post-punk (The Pop Group) and synth-pop (David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto) legends revived, the hotch-potch of the sublime and ridiculous is scarcely cogent.

LONGRAIN MUSIC 2 (Instinctive Travels/Rhythmethod)
Styled for Sydney restaurant Longrain, this compilation of electronic grooves unexpectedly exceeds its purpose by carefully selecting fourteen tracks that miraculously combine sophisticated café ambience with stringent rhythms and a nicely inclusive range of jazz and Latin influences. As chill-out froth goes, this stuff rises to the surface. Checkout the Bobby Hughes Combination remix of Zimpala, or SHQ's 'Cubano Chant'.

April 2004

Apart from the title - too evangelical - the second Dimmer album doesn't falter. It's a miraculous resurrection from an artist who seems set on breaking all the rules. Clearly hitting his artistic peak, Shayne Carter has bettered his celebrated Straitjacket Fits work by cleverly resolving his bewildering influences: in the Carter Cosmos, 70s funk feels right at home nestling up against Kraut rock repetition and hip-hop production tricks. But this clever blending would be so much nothing without the superior soul, the blazing intensity, and the spine-tingling subtlety that Carter brings to the art of song. With three slap-dunk classics in Only One That Matters, Case and Lucky One (and a heartbreaking out-of-character ballad in Finality), this is the album where Carter surrenders to his melodic needs, without sacrificing his exploratory invention. And that tricky little guitar solo on Concentration is just, well… perfect.

IS LOVE (Involve/Rhythmethod)
Jet Jaguar makes insect music for humans. There's a whole scene of socially deviant young men making electronic music from clicks and creaks and blips and other tiny fragments hitherto discernible only to members of the insect kingdom. Wellington's Jet Jaguar, however, is one of a select group who uses these techniques to his own, very human ends. Highly crafted and tremendously sly, his music is sexy enough to dance to - if you could imagine doing the Swaying Preying Mantis - and full of subtle winks and smirks. And it's quite lovely, in its alien way. Is Love is Simon Upton's third album, but it was recorded before the more mainstream 2003 release, Think About It Later. Which is very confusing, but unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Most noticeably, Is Love represents a diversion from his slightly more overt groove aesthetic into a highly electronic universe, where the faint echo of a voice can sound like it's beaming in from outer space.

REMIXES VOLUME 2 (Compost/Border)
Think of the words 'spaghetti western', and it's almost impossible not to summon up the richly twanging guitar motif from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Ennio Morricone's work is like that, so deftly does he drape his wispy melodies across a piece. And unlike those overly illustrative Hollywood composers, this 75-year-old Italian thinks and breathes a sexily evocative musical language that makes him the perfect victim of the latest remix jape. The first volume of this project hit our shores mid last year. The second is a massive double set featuring re-workings by loads of unknowns and a few 21st century electronic geniuses, like Herbert in his Doctor Rockit guise, and Japanese legend Haruomi Hosono. German label Compost specialises in an increasingly tepid bowl of latte, but these 27 remixers seem unable to defuse the central charm of Morricone's work, whether it springs from his major motion picture soundtracks, or his gorgeously daft minor commissions. Morricone's damn well perfect to begin with, of course, but if you want some contemporary beats with your spaghetti…

TALKIN LOUD 1990-1994 (Universal)
English DJ Gilles Peterson formed his Talkin Loud label on the back of a much-hyped genre which the style mags named 'acid jazz'. Much of the music we're asked to view as 'jazz' some ten years later is, in fact, an amalgam (or, perhaps, a mutation) of 'acid jazz'. Which is a problem, because this music ignores the basic tenet of jazz: improvisation. Listening to this double retrospective of the label's early years is an instructive procedure: many of these tracks sound like variations on slick 70s groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, who put funk and disco rhythms together with soul emoting and jazzy urbanity to form a unique fusion. Until you listen carefully, that is. There's a British sensibility here. Basslines are distended, and the mixes are clean and pliable and ready for both the club and the lounge, not butchered like most American music for the narrow dynamic range of radios. The gospel-influenced Young Disciples, or the ganja-soaked political 'raps' of early Galliano, are oddly appealing. Despite having ushered in a kind of new jazzy uniformity, many of these cuts represent a unique point in modern music, where influences (from jazz to house to Latin to funk and dub) morphed into a popular new fusion.

Maybe you thought Zero 7's Simple Things was a little on the slow side? Take a listen to the follow-up. It BARELY MOVES. Joining the legion of groups who fail to improve on a killer debut, London duo Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns have clearly laboured over their second album. But where Simple Things took you on a deeply moving melancholic journey, When It Falls is bogged down in a kind of stasis which suggests ennui rather than the soul food I'm sure it intended to gift us. Despite suspicions that at times it was just too slick, too lush, Simple Things seduced and cajoled you into its gorgeous cotton-wool cloudiness: the kind of rainy Sunday mood you just don't want to escape from. When It Falls tries so hard for a repeat performance (creamy string arrangements, filter-tipped male vocals, sweetly bee-stung female vocals, throbbing electric piano), but while the mood is similar, it fails to sweep you off your feet and elevate you beyond its moodiness. And it lacks the superb flow and tension build-and-release of that still-fresh debut. Zero 7 can now comfortably join other great one-offs - Massive Attack, Tricky - whose difficult second album defeated their world-conquering plans.


Play it once, and the deliberate amateurishness annoys. Play it twice, and you're hooked: this sizeable Melbourne aggregation (eight-piece with numerous guest spots) bring an almost autistic naivety that hasn't been as pronounced in pop since the Beach Boys' infamous Smile album. Like Auckland's Tokey Tones, AIH are part of a macro-movement highlighting a kind of semi-unhinged, over-sensitive, book-wormish charm. This can only be a good thing.

The Gotan Project made that most immutable of styles - tango - a hip proposition. Aubele is a genuine Argentinian whose demos came to the attention of American dons of chill out, the Thievery Corporation. Aubele's debut album has one distinguishing characteristic: his fluid, flamenco-style guitar work. Sadly, his fretboard fingering adds a noodly dimension to a Thievery Corporation production that already sounds very much like their own work. Its superficially appealing mix of tango and dub and cooing female vocalists soon palls; these 'worldy' grooves have sprayed too much toxic deodorant on their armpits, and now they can't raise a sweat. So they take a Valium instead, and lie beside the pool.

ON THE SUN (Capitol/EMI)
One maddening cliché after another is trotted out on the Wellington group's second album - and major label debut - where we get turn-a-bout between reggae and funk in mind-numbing, paint-by-numbers succession. Sounding like UB40 clones one minute, Kool & The Gang tribute band the next, the Black Seeds appear to handle everything proficiently, but come across as fatally forced. Not as much fun as a power cut.

RESTLESS TIMES (Sonar Kollectiv/Border)
Superior cyborg soul hybrid from Germany with steely synthesisers and taut rhythms and Hill's smooth-as-silk overdubbed multi-part harmonies. And, for locals, the bonus of a track featuring our own Joe Dukie (Fat Freddy's Drop).

SOULSTAR (Universal)
Sadly, many attempts at 21st Century soul point out a tragic confusion over style. At its purest, soul isn't so much a style as a feeling. Unfortunately, too many contemporary soul stylists get every one of Stevie Wonder's vocal ululations and tremulations down pat, without really 'getting' anything. Which makes Philadelphia star Musiq's third outing all the happier: it's a deeply soulful thing in intent and style, and a delicious sounding thing, too, as he croons his way through an inventive set of tunes with that smooth, chocolate box voice that takes all the right moves from his heroes. It helps that this production is carefully crafted and full of quirks that make it a more fulsome listening experience.

May 2004

Expatriate Napier singer/songwriter McLaney recorded this 'unplugged' session one day last July at London's Abbey Road studios. Coming after the Celtic-influenced, U2-like histrionics of his early work, and the tricky production distractions of his later albums (under the name Gramsci), it's refreshing to hear the man with just an acoustic guitar, voice and tortured muse, expressing himself as he must. The problem with this pretentiously titled album is that McLaney continues to wear his influences too blatantly. This time, it's manic-depressive 70s folk singer Nick Drake and 80s melancholic madman Mark Hollis (of Talk Talk) who figure large in his sound and delivery. Eventual suicidal drug casualty Drake was depressed enough to live his songs; likewise, the Hollis persona is wracked with a larger than life religious zeal that makes his cracked voice meaningful. A brave try, but McLaney's songs aren't quite strong enough for the listener to want to get right inside them, and his vocal delivery still tends towards the theatrical (rather than existential).

"LIKES…" (!K7/Border)
Anyone who considers Norah Jones the next step to anywhere should take a good, hard listen to the debut album by breathy chanteuse Dani Siciliano. Having already given a good number of memorable vocal lines and delicate nuances to electronic alchemist Matthew Herbert over the past few years, she strikes out on her own with a startlingly original work that's at once wilfully experimental, and coyly seductive. Using all the computer technology available to her, she collaborates with the likes of Herbert, and other instrumentalists who provide deliciously spongey double bass lines and arcing trumpet murmurs… only for Siciliano to load them into her computer and mutilate them. The result is an album of intimate, innovative songs where - like Bjork before her on Vespertine - she wrestles some intuitive sense from the insect chatter of the latest technology. This is rich, ripe, sensual torch music meeting the cyborg inner workings of her hard drive, battling it out and coming up with a remarkable, rewarding record.

Veteran Auckland DJ Soane belatedly blesses us with his first album of 'original' material. Driving his 4WD right in the middle of the road, TonganChic is exactly what his fans will be expecting: a selection of pleasantly funky house music with its soul, disco and jazz influences written in dayglo on the DJ's t-shirt. Nothing too startling, then. And though its retro flavour is faintly appealing, the final impression is that there's really nothing more going on here than a beat to shimmy to. Which is exactly what many bars and clubs want: music that isn't 'about' anything, music that has nothing to say. This view is reinforced by the guest intrusion of rapper Feelstyle and former pop/rock chanteuse Boh Runga on a track that would sink like a stone on a top rate album, but stands out like a pearl amidst identikit marine parade detritus on TonganChic.

THE UPBEATS (Loop/Border)
Kiwi drum'n'bass outfits like Concord Dawn and Shapeshifter are celebrated far and wide, but it's hard to hear why in their derivative recordings. Unlike those groups, Wellington duo The Upbeats (Jeremy Glenn and Dylan Jones) add complex B vitamins to their distinctive take on the genre. Their debut album ultimately builds to a crescendo of fast, dance-oriented drill'n'hammer rhythms, but on their way there they fashion a new hybrid form that's got an unusually high dose of all those trace elements fans of songs still appreciate: you know, things like melody, harmony. In fact, together with a recording that's crisp and inviting, they show an unusual aptitude for creating all the essential building blocks of what old-fashioned music fans call 'composition'. The Upbeats know how to create almost filmic atmospheres, and marry them adeptly to those taut beats. The only stumbling blocks are a couple of those soul diva vocals that Wellington bands insist on laying on top of otherwise decent-sounding instrumental grooves.

Extraordinary disc curated by Bevan Smith (Aspen/Signer) of Wellington-based label, Involve, and released with its lucky BMG distribution hook-up by Capitalrecordings. It's a brave and worthy venture: Involve is a label specialising in a very niche market, but one that's fit to explode at any time. Other labels in the game include German names like City Centre Offices and Morr Music, and the style can be paraphrased as a 21st Century equivalent to the 'shoe-gazing' scene of the mid-80s. What does it represent? Shy boys with electronic toys, coming out of their bedrooms and mixing it up with some real instruments and even (shock, horror) a little 'singing'. There's a ton of introspection here, lots of drifting ambience, and a thoroughly absorbing mixture of man and machine, emotion and electrode. About half these acts come from our fair shores, but parochialism isn't on the agenda; it's all about the geographical/musical mindset of these independent-minded musicians doing their thing in many different countries great and small.


SEEK (Compost/Border)
At the tail end of the 90s, Beanfield were one of the more promising European groups working with a sophisticated, innovative blend of sampled and programmed dance fusions. Drum'n'bass, dub, jazz and funk all figured in their universe. Their third album, however, sees the duo losing one member, gaining another, and turning into yet another outfit manfully striding from instrumental grooves to actual songs. And failing. There's too much refinement here. In this product range, the emulsifiers have taken over the asylum.

Debut seven-track mini-album from Wellington group reeks of promise. While there's not yet a 'sound' as such to assign to this eclectic bunch, their mix of alternative country, deployment of droll vocals and delicious, unexpected instrumentation (acoustic and electric instruments play tag with the occasional clarinet) makes for an alluring entrée.

Second album by Auckland jazzbos has a languid groove that suits a melancholy, grey-skied Sunday afternoon. It's tasteful and enjoyably 'musical', and leader Lindsay Wakem's throbbing electric piano creates a warm blanket of sound, but these guys fails to bring anything new to the (jazz) table.

Remember that 'groovy' band you see at parties in 60s movies, firing up those mini-skirted ravers into paroxysms of dancefloor delight? Well, imagine if - following a budget blow-out - that wee garage band had to take over the compositional duties for the whole movie. Auckland five-piece Salon Kingsadore could be that band on this nine-track introduction. Like an imaginary instrumental surf group hired by David Lynch for some surreal homage to an endless wrap-up party, Salon Kingsadore might reference groups like Stereolab and even Tortoise, but come out sounding just like themselves.

RIDDUM WISE (Shapeshifter/Rhythmethod)
Much-hyped Melbourne-based, Christchurch-founded act's second long player nowhere indicates the reason for the accolades (they're previous winners of 'Best NZ Electronic Group', for instance). Presumably, because it's quite hard and quite fast, and it's supposedly 'played' rather than programmed, there's some adrenalin flowing at their 'legendary' gigs. On cd, we might as well be listening to machines, with predictably sequenced piston-beats and dull chord progressions. Oh, and the odd weak vocal.

June 2004

July 2004

Cullum neatly fits the trend towards teens and early 'twentysomethings' displaying super-human talent and maturity. With a rat pack-like swagger, this 23-year-old Wiltshire-born singer/pianist effortlessly achieves what his American counterpart - the too-smooth crooner Michael Buble - can't quite muster. Cullum's whiskey-soaked voice adds spunk to a genre previously atrophied by hotel foyer lethargy. Whether trashing jazzy classics (I Could Have Danced All Night, What A Difference A Day Makes), or reinventing rock anthems (Radiohead's High And Dry, Jimi Hendrix's Wind Cries Mary), Cullum's confidence inspires belief. Sickeningly, five of these tunes are self-penned, and they're equal to the task: the wry observations of a young man, powered by spritely pianistics and a voice that seems to have been around forever.

Oddly, this album by folksy Finnish songwriter Mikael Hakkarainen is released by New Lynn record label, Powertool. Undeniably a home recording, it benefits from the grainy, close-up, slightly squalid ambience. It's an agreeably intimate project, and Hakkarainen has an easy way with classic bi-polar pop forms. Sounding like he slept a century, then got out of bed to render the composition he wrote in a deep dream state (complete with earthy orchestrations, country twinges and sundry sound effects), Sounds Like Siberia is a slight but very gratifying Winter delight. And as a bonus, we've got that cute arctic accent.

It's scary, really, the lengths Prince has gone to emulate, replicate and re-write the sounds, sinews and styles of his best album, 1988's Lovesexy. All the classic Prince signatures are here: the taut funk moves, the jaunty arpeggiated melodies, the clever overlaying of acoustic instruments, the girl-like squeals and falsetto wailing. Fans will cream themselves over this unexpected career-saving manoeuvre, but I hesitate to laud Musicology as a complete return-to-form. While it's never less than a highly skilled exposition of Prince's talents, it's lacking the hormone-driven spirit and sheer sex smell of his 80s output. Well, he IS a Jehovah's Witness, these days. The genius is still sparking away in here somewhere, however, and there's an organic assuredness to the new Prince that the old Prince covered up with young bluster.

It makes for an interesting proposition: an old-fashioned concept album around the idea that, with our increasing understanding of the universe, we have an opportunity to raise our collective consciousness. Yeah, right. Wellington-based composer Sheehan, on the heels of his award-winning debut, Paradigm Shift, gets all cosmic on us. If it had even a tenuous connection to those pioneering space rock records of the 70s, it may have been worth investigation. Instead, Sheehan floats around his tiny blue bubble with all the imagination of a burnt-out asteroid. This multi-instrumentalist is undoubtedly skilled, but so lush are the textures and mundane the beats that they sound like they're sharing a feather duvet with a 15-year-old Enigma album. Such is the ultimate vacuity. Redeeming moment: the disturbed mystery of Miles Away (featuring Paul McLaney on vocals, and electronic manipulation by Bevan Smith).

Full marks to Southland chap Jody Lloyd for attempting to move the margins of NZ hip-hop. His previous work incorporated folk music and iconic Kiwi-isms into a rap framework. Now, as Trillion, Lloyd's latest project has become even more ambitious, employing a poetic approach that will be familiar to fans of introspective English groups, from Matt Johnson's The The to Massive Attack. There are many intriguing aspects to this double-pronged, politically-charged album. Despite a complex weaving of disparate samples, styles and performed musics, however, Lloyd is somewhat undone by poor attention to sonic detail, and songs which fail to hit quite the right riff. Still, its noble intentions deem it of interest.


WALTZ OF A GHETTO FLY (Genuine/Rhythmethod)
Apparently, Joseph 'Amp' Fiddler paid his dues playing keyboards with the P-Funk Allstars, amongst other groovesome luminaries. This solo shot is a wicked mix of 70s funk and soul that gets a skilful 21st Century DNA graft. It's retro-fitted, but not in the least bit cloned.

HOT PLANET (Dougal/Global Routes)
Having played an indefatigable chart around the Auckland gigging scene this past year, Gahu may have accumulated an audience for their debut album. An odd mix of African-based percussion foment and jazz fusion, its rambling vamps are not without charm. But the lack of memorable material, together with some less-than-stellar instrumental contributions, makes this a souvenir, not a great album.

NOODLEHOUSE (Fortune500/Global Routes)
Pleasing, friendly electronica from experienced NZ producer/engineer Jason McClelland, Noodlehouse is the kind of album a child could dig: open-hearted, bright as a bubble, crammed with cute digital effects and happy melodies from old easy listening records. Within its limited ambitions, it's all rather fetching.

BARCELONA PARIS 2ND FLIGHT (Satellite K/Rhythmethod)
Selected by the resident DJ at famed Paris eatery, Hotel Costes, this sequel has no trouble getting its wings for the appropriate demographic. Lavishly packaged, stylishly sequenced, and fairly brimming with quality examples of Euro-lounge grooves (Tosca, Troublemakers, Lemon Jelly), it's also exquisitely boring.

For those not deterred by the brazen marketing suggested by the name, this broad-range double compilation has a truly global perspective, and a bunch of female singers to die for. The emphasis is weighted towards the jazzy swing of South American countries (Virginia Rodrigues is especially recommended), but we also get the yearning heat of Souad Massi (Algeria) and the burning sensuality of Susheela Raman (South India). For good measure, there are English speaking representatives Dawn Penn (Jamaica), Alison Krauss (US) and Sinead O'Connor (Ireland). Rewarding.

August 2004

On close examination of this career retrospective, the suspicion remains that the seemingly defunct Bailterspace failed to live up to the unique, piercing brilliance that was their first incarnation, The Gordons. The Christchurch trio was probably the most original - certainly the most ferocious - New Zealand group, bar none. Relocating to New York did Bailterspace few favours, but they are still a GREAT drone-rock group, whose noise-scapes power along with a malevolent momentum that comes partly from their avant-riffage, and partly from the feedback multiphonics that fly around like sparks from an anvil. This sparsely annotated compilation highlights a few vastly inferior 'pop' cuts, and its eighteen tracks don't allow any of their famously extended brooding epics to materialise. Sporadically awe-inspiring, but a wasted opportunity.

INTUIT (Compost/Border)
This one gives new meaning to the word 'slick'. Thomas Braun and Till Maragnoli are the two boffins who made this unlikely but fabulous collusion work to the betterment of happy music people everywhere: they write the songs and add subtle electronic touches to this revitalisation of Latino, funk, soul, jazz and Afro-beat styles. Harnessing the talent of some vocal legends (Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, for starters) it's the kind of record that will come beaming out of far too many half-assed wine bars, but we can't hold that against it. These 1960s/70s sounds have been re-born in the digital age, re-animated and airbrushed to a level of sonic perfection that's almost edible: funky, complex polyrhythms work seamlessly with perfectly aimed horn lines and burbling organ eruptions. I can't fault it.

Lucid 3 are not just too good for their shirts, but their sexy undies and best shoes, too. In short, the group - recently transplanted from Auckland to Wanganui - are a three-piece led by the clear, ringing voice (not to mention songwriting and guitar chops) of Victoria Girling-Butcher. This is their second album of intelligent pop/rock songs: songs with choruses that could melt your resistance, ballads that break your heart (check out the title track). If that wasn't enough, they're almost ridiculously adept, incorporating an assertive take on current modes. An organic, semi-acoustic rootsy quality (folk, blues and funk) blends perfectly with nonchalant 'trip-hop' beats and contemporary radio sensibilities. Too good.

FABRICLIVE.15 (Fabric/Rhythmethod)
Fabric is an English club. Fabriclive is a spin-off dj series. Where most of these things are dispensable, each successive Fabriclive release is proving worthy of a gander. Multi-disciplinary Anglo-Indian Nitin Sawhney's entry in the series is so diverse it seems doomed from the get-go. Yet Sawhney's set - featuring a number of remixes of his own work, along with remixes for and by the likes of 4 Hero, Nathan Haines, and Burnt Friedman - holds together like an Indian sweet, and it's just as tasty. Where Sawhney's own work can almost drown in its own sugary tears, this set-list builds into quite a storm of drum and bass propulsion. The key word here is 'fusion': nothing is quite as it seems, which means that no matter how lush and groovy these tracks may seem, there's always something just a little bit subtle, and sonically rich, hidden in the mix.

AMASSAKOUL (Wrasse/Shock)
Now this is cool: the second album from Tuareg rebels Tinariwen will have some common points for fans of Malian legend Ali Farka Toure. But nothing will quite prepare you for the alien African rock'n'roll on this disc. Its electric ancestors in the West are the Chicago blues men of the 1950s, whose primitive guitar grind bears more than a passing resemblance. But where Howlin' Wolf's bellow was a mixture of libidinous charm and wife-beating rage, Tinariwen have a typically African sense of joyful ju-ju, and a sense of relationship to their community that takes it a world away from Western rock. These are - quite literally - the sounds of the Sahara, and the grooves on Amassakoul could be powered by camel dung, for all I care. Try this at your next house party. Just don't translate the lyrics for your guests; lyrics which are borne of great social and political struggle and unrest.


BIGGABUSH FREE (Stereo Deluxe/Border)
At their best, Rockers Hi-Fi crystallised the groove experiments of 1990s electronic crossover dance culture into a joyous melting pot of irresistible fun. Glyn 'Bigga' Bush is one half of that defunct duo, and this solo album shows a winning way with its sharp and attractive hybrid of funk, techno, hip-hop, dub, house and God knows what else. At times frothy and wholly undemanding, Biggabush Free is all the better for it.

It's impossible to separate Birkin from the erotic signature she imprinted on the charts with 'Je T'aime Moi Non Plus' in 1968, and other duets with her then paramour Serge Gainsbourg. She has a nebulous grasp of the note, and it doesn't pay to wonder too much about Birkin's skill factor. But unlike today's famous-for-being-famous brigade of talentless zeroes, Birkin has taste and style. Rendez-vous, a collection of downbeat ballads and duets (with Bryan Ferry, Beth Gibbons, Francoise Hardy, and others) oozes French sensuality.

I'm all for white folk desecrating the blues, but George Thorogood and his two pals have spent thirty years BLUNDERING through the blues. Their grinding boogie has added zilch to the totality of the genre they pilfer, but they've still managed to become rich from the plunder. After 30 years, I still don't get it.

AQUARIUS SONGS (Compost/Border)
Seductive dance-floor concoction from UK dj-producer Malik, whose outrageously echoed vocals (covering a weakness, are we?) trace a line through smoochy 70s soul, while the rhythms lead a conga-line of Latin and African influences around latter-day House beats. Smooth as silk and comfy as a feather duvet.

MONKEY MAGIC (Monkey Records)
Nigel Braddock's Auckland-based Monkey Records is probably the most exploratory NZ label right now, putting its feelers into areas untouched by the 'industry'. There's a pensive, elegaic, genre-busting ambience to the best Monkey releases, represented on this recent calling-card compilation by delicious tracks from Shinya, Sleepytime, Hummel and Onelung.

September 2004

Like Jonathan Richman, the Brunettes' schtick involves a knowing naivete that the listener either finds charming or grating. Can I opt for somewhere in the middle ground? This lo-fi candyfloss pop with a knowing tongue has a refreshing, almost late 50s/early 60s 'Happy Days' feel: it's as if heavy rock had never happened, but LSD had still wreaked havoc on the minds and creative processes of its fizzy pop practitioners. The girl/boy rotisserie vocals, and the overtly silly lyrics can seem a little arch and forced. Whatever, for at least their bright, happy 15 minutes, the Brunettes' droll humour will light up the habitually over-serious NZ music scene. And for that we can be thankful.

The critic can easily become immune to innovation, and bored by brilliance. But occasionally, a record shoots out of nowhere, blows your mind and leaves you gulping for air. Pshychic is a jaw-dropping, fresh mini-masterpiece from this obscure Japanese three-piece: just five epic pieces which beggar description, but certainly have a superficially similar sound design to that other genius of 21st Century Jap-pop, Cornelius. At times, Buffalo Daughter sound like the bastard spawn of hypnotising minimalist Terry Riley, or the autistic children of frantically cross-picking King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. But it's far too free-falling to be nailed to any particular genre, just an insanely enjoyable ride by a group who haven't heard it's not cool to be clever. This is how pop music should be: just indulgent enough to let a song grow to a 15 minute-long epic. The directors' cut, then.

This set of solo improvisations could well be sub-titled 'From Scratch to Outer Space': anyone familiar with Dadson's celebrated From Scratch ensemble will be familiar with the general terrain of the sound world here, while the cover etching commemorates a star in the Eridanus constellation named after our most famous experimental composer. Invented instruments abound, with fetching names like Gloopdrum, Numdrum and Zitherum. Understandably less rhythmically focussed than much of his prior work, these pieces encompass overtone singing, and a veritable magic bag of odd sounds which evoke everything from native bird song to battling rubber bands. Top 10 material, then.

HYMNS OF THE 49TH PARALLEL (Nonesuch/Warner)
On her best album – Ingenue – KD Lang refused to admit that torch song sensibilities couldn’t be rendered with a prairie twang, and wrote herself into history as both a trans-genre songwriter and a notable Canadian. Many Grammy awards and a swag of esoteric projects later, she’s come home to the heartland to celebrate other notable Canadian singer songwriters. I can gleefully report that there’s nary a whiff of those great Canadians Bryan Adams and Burton Cummings; with Hymns… Lang has fashioned a gorgeous, eleven-song liquid continuity from the often dark, despair-laden, and always elemental songs of the old guard (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn) and the slightly more modern (Jane Siberry, Ron Sexsmith). Her faultless interpretations constantly reveal the finer points, while an equally flawless backing band is capped by the luxurious orchestrations of Eumir Deodato.

Extravagant design and lush packaging is a significant statement for this Washington DC duo, whose musical and visual aesthetic is imbued with a love for the aural and artistic pleasures of the vinyl record. Though the nostalgia boom for 60s and 70s ‘bachelor pad’ easy listening music peaked in the mid-90s, this superb DJ set proves the genre still has mutational potential. Their canny quartet of ears has captured the most sparkling 60s ‘hi-fi’ instrumentals, a few genuine historical hybrids (check Antonio Carlos Jocafi’s 1974 Latin funk-up), and fleshed it out with the best cuts by contemporary units. Proving that French sensuality, Jamaican bass bliss, liquid African funk, and even Indian sitars can cohabitate on the same CD, The Outernational Sound contains all the right ingredients for a fine night in.


No wonder NZers have tended towards a superiority complex when it comes to popular music: this deadly dull double compilation reminds us of everything that was wrong with Australian music in the 80s. It's nothing short of a crime when music is this devoid of character, quirk, or anything resembling an original idea. The boys do not light up.

HEART AND SOUL (Liberation/Warner)
Poor Joe Cocker. This convulsive ‘Ray Charles’ of the rock counterculture was drug and alcohol-ravaged by the mid-70s, but worse, his voice lost all its weight and gristle. Poor us. Sitting through these three discs is sheer torture. A kind of late-career recapitulation, Heart And Soul is a sad stab at a bunch of old songs with funkless, flaccid backing arrangements. The second disc is a woefully ordinary live performance, and the third a 23-track DVD with an endless parade of hammy femme fatales and more dull 80s beats than you could shake a drum stick at.

Keenly anticipated, this difficult second album by the Brazilian diva finally emerges four years after her justly-lauded debut. This is a subtle, but no less sultry update on the bossa tradition than it would be right to expect from the step-daughter of the original ‘Girl from Ipanema’, Astrud Gilberto. Unsurprisingly fluid and slowly swinging, the largely acoustic canvas is inflected with mild jolts of electronica. The biggest shock is the decision to run with part-English lyrics. I’d rather NOT understand.

Okay, so it's a really awful name, but this unhinged, genuinely odd album deserves a few moments of your time. I still can't decide whether this is totally inspired or the worst pile of doggy-do I've heard all year, but it's intriguing. This New York-based group sound a little like avant-rockers Pere Ubu, and a lot like many other post punk art rock groups from the late 70s (Gang Of Four). But then they throw a sizeable spanner in the works by adding loopy four-part harmony, like the Beach Boys in their most crazed psychedelic moments.

Auckland label Sugarlicks has been promoting their particular skew of Pacific influenced groove fusions (hip hop, reggae, jazz and funk) for a few years now, but this compilation confirms their serious intentions. Coming from the more organic end of the electronically assisted dance market, highlights here are cuts by Wellington-based Murk108 and Mephisto Jones. At its best, there's a genuine Pacific influence and a charming quirk factor; the downside is the vacuity of jazz noodlers like Lewis McCallum and One Million Dollars. Despite my misgivings, this is impressive stuff.

October 2004

MEDULLA (One Little Indian/Universal)
After her brilliant, innovative, yet oddly unapproachable Vespertine album, the prospect of a project centering on the Icelandic imp’s singing ululations wasn’t exactly enthralling. Bjork’s artistry has never been in question, but with her tendency towards histrionic vocals, a little can be a good thing. Medulla is almost entirely a cappella – overdubbing her own voice and utilising the massed beauty of both the Icelandic and London choirs – except for a few programmed beats here and there. Astonishingly, the result is mesmerising; and even more surprising is its accessibility, as Bjork gets her chops around vocal melodies of often hummable catchiness. Chief companion on this captivating journey is the prolific oddball Mike Patton, and a welcome collaborator is 70s jazz/rock guru Robert Wyatt, whose own stratospheric vocal harmonies make him a canny choice for this convincing slice of forward-looking music.

LIFE:STYLES (Harmless/Triton)
Just when you thought every mildewed corner of the world’s record collections had been mined by over-eager DJs determined to find yet another ‘rare groove’ gem from the 70s, Kenny Dope (of the legendary Masters At Work) digs a little deeper. An eccentric compilation that actually works, Life:Styles keys in to the most radical period of funk and jazz – 1969 through the mid-70s – and comes up with a selection as fertile now as it was in the foment of the hippy era and the black rights movement. The Jackson 5 sound much better than we remember, Tyrone Washington blasts us with his raw jazz riffs, Phil Upchurch soothes with his lush orchestrations… it’s all good. And just to show us that anything goes, Dope spins two seemingly incompatible numbers: the tight-bottomed medievalisms of progressive rock crew Gentle Giant, and Black Sabbath’s heavy (but somehow almost funky) masterpiece, War Pigs.

MUSIC AND RHYTHM (Ubiquity/Flavour)
There’s a singular pleasure to be had listening to stiff white dudes trying to be funky black spades. In the 70s, European sound libraries were filled with ‘funky’ music created by anonymous session musicians, then catalogued and made available for films, television and adverts. Shawn Lee’s album is a tribute, of sorts, to these cool time-locked instrumentals. Its 25 brief tracks, subtley tweaked with contemporary breakbeats, are uniformly charming as they plough a line somewhere between Euro film sensibilities, and the bad-ass cool of Isaac Hayes’ classic Shaft theme. This is a fictitious universe where chugging organs, whining sitars, trilling flutes, psychedelic guitars, and the ever-present conga all work towards fulfilling one’s desire for idiosyncratic dance music. And it even has comedic song descriptions. ‘Drum Monkey: Brooding analogue synths boosted by a poo-flinging, vine-swinging drum solo whose bite is contagious as all hell.’ Wonderful stuff.

PAN (Wiggley Tapes)
Two for the price of one! An intriguing concept, or a pain in the posterior? Both, maybe, on this project with separate albums on the left and right channels, by Wendyhouse members EE Monk and Mr Pudding, respectively. On the fourth album by the somewhat itinerant NZ duo we’re encouraged to listen to both simultaneously, or to adjust our amplifiers accordingly. Wendyhouse are a marvelous throwback to the post-punk era of do-it-yourself invention, where ramshackle home-made music was valued as folk art, and an album could contain any amount of experimentation, and stylistic deviation. It’s an intriguing and often enjoyable album, where bedroom electronics often vie with scraggly acoustic guitars and a very skewed idea of pop music threatens to show itself. Instruments listed include: step-ladder, sandpapered Robert Plant cd, toilet-bowel and excreta, frying food and $2 Shop toy guitar. Bravo.


The keening miserabilism of Radiohead combined with the epic etherealism of Sigur Ros, together with massed guitars and an orchestra pit of strings and horns; that, and a guitarist who topped himself just as recording sessions were coming to a close. Hope Of The States have a sound that’s just different enough to take the 2004 Great New Hype award, and a singer whose voice is so thin and inadequate that the critics are already falling over themselves to declare the work as sheer genius.

Contemporary classical composers rarely get this accessible. Welshman Jenkins has fashioned his thirteen piece mass of war and peace – it’s dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo war – with all the dashing, crashing melodrama of old Hollywood. Buttons are pushed squarely, heart-strings pulled plangently, and the massed ranks of the LSO and the Youth Choir of Great Britain swell impressively. Mainly of interest because the texts are infiltrated with some unlikely sources (including chants from the Koran), this is a necessarily sober, spectacularly unsubtle, but stirring listen.

He’s such a stalwart of that crusty, supposedly non-existent, Flying Nun sound, that it seems faintly ludicrous that he could transplant himself to Nashville. In truth, Kilgour’s charm is in the half-formed nature of his songs (as if he couldn’t be bothered quite putting the finishing touches to them) and his droll delivery (as though he could just be bothered getting out of bed to record them), and having a backing band of great competence does nothing to defuse the somehow comforting, warm and wintery sound of this great NZ icon.

THE TIPPING POINT (Geffen/Universal)
Delightfully devoid of commercial hip-hop’s soul-free “r’n’b” trappings, The Roots favour an old-fashioned, genuinely funky sound cultured in a continuum from a time when funk was geared to free your mind AND your booty. To that end, they get things off to a swinging start with a reconstruction of Sly & The Family Stone’s You Don’t Have To Be A Star. And it comes with a handy lyric sheet! With bass enhancement.

November 2004

Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut was one of the few truly great rock albums in a decade where most of the action occurred on the dance floor. It turned out that Tim Buckley’s son had his father’s sometimes bizarrely keening, yet beautiful twisted counter-tenor. Virtually ignoring the then-prevalent grunge trend, Jeff Buckley’s album contained soaring, ethereal and otherworldly songs which echoed the Indian-inspired moments of Led Zeppelin, as well as his father’s folk flavoured mantras. Buckley drowned before he could complete the follow-up, thereby consigning Grace to a time-capsule marked ‘What could have been’. His mother organised this ‘Legacy Edition’ of Grace: beautifully remastered, with a second disc containing demos and live cuts recorded around the same time, and a third dvd featuring a ‘Making Of Grace’ documentary, along with Buckley’s five video clips. Some might consider the presentation a little over the top, but it ably contextualises Buckley’s tragically brief flirtation with immortality.

DEL RAY SYSTEM (Bounce/Universal)
Superbly manicured and tweaked Auckland dance music mutant, curated (and produced, and programmed) by Dean Godward (aka Cuba), the debut Del Ray System is resplendent with guest shots by Trinity Roots’ Dallas Tamara, Teremoana Rapley, King Kapisi, Nathan Haines and other NZ music luminaries. This is a kind of shiny 21st Century funk which incorporates any influence it sees as useful: Latin, house, contemporary r&b, hip-hop. The many musical cliches are easily forgiven, as the various elements (together with a slick, fat-bottomed production) combine to seduce with all the expertise of a top-class hooker. Sandy Mills’ gutsy diva voice is almost unforgivably vocoder-ised, but it works; likewise, the slim nature of Rapley’s song is rescued by an intimate recording of her somewhat tentative singing.

LIVE IN BOSTON (Reprise/Warner)
Forget the single audio cd, and go straight to the marathon concert experience on the double dvd. ‘Shot in High Definition’, warns the cover sticker, and indeed, we get enough close-up shots to confirm that Stevie Nicks has arranged a compromise in her celebrated battle of the bulge. But the key factor in this compulsively grotesque procession is drummer Mick Fleetwood, who attacks his kit with the relish of a 15-year-old, but looks for all the world like some demented fiend from Dickens’ English underworld. Fans of the 70s radio favourites will doubtless delight on their Mac reborn into the 21st Century (albeit without the pivotal character of Christine McVie), and most of the hits and more are trotted out to an enthusiastic arena audience. Me, I found Nicks’ cosmic hippy schtick faintly ridiculous in the 70s; now I just crave that missing vocal register, which is lost to a fine grade of aural sandpaper.

Homelife are a floating 16-piece mob of unhinged crazies from the Manchester, and GuruManHubcapLady is a nut-meat feast for anyone who thinks music takes itself too seriously. Following on from Flying Wonders, their lush, charismatic 2002 debut, Homelife’s collective efforts have given birth to a quietly effective wee gremlin of askew delight. It’s nothing like anything. There’s elephant-at-bath-time horn sections, what sounds like Chinese opera doing it’s own take on the hippy generation, Hawaiian-style exotica performed on the moon, strangely pungent torch singing, and even a few dyslexic attempts at pop song. Honestly, Homelife are utterly impossible to describe, but the cocktail they whip up is fragrant, seductive, intensely tasty, and addictive.

THE GREEN ROOM 003: EARTH (Loop/Border)
The first two Green Room projects were themed compilations promoting environmental concerns (001) and women songwriters(002), and were inhibited only by their patchy track-listings. Lucky third is superior in its execution, cohesion, and general level of artistry. For the first time its compilers have selected tracks from both NZ and offshore, but it’s mostly the locals that shine. Of the international contingent, French band Inrush-A have a fresh zing to their warm, sensuous grooves, and Aussie reggae 10-piece The Red Eyes are all wrong, but are all the more charming for it. There’s a surplus of those positive dub and funk-influenced grooves that have become part of our indigenous musical lore (DJ Vee with the Mighty Asterix on vocals makes a particularly tasty slice of dirty Jamaica via Wellington’s Ghuznee St); but the true stand-outs belong to the singers and songwriters. The fated Emma Paki returns with her haunting mad-cat voice and a song that couldn’t be anyone else, and Age Pryor’s intellectual, bucolic pop is a natural winner.


SO DIRTY, EVERYDAY (Antenna/Global Routes)
Okay, so this messy bunch of louts from Wellington are anything but perfect, but there’s something attractive about the putrid riffage and stupid lyrics in an age of conformist Rock Quest bands. ‘Crumb would like to thank everybody in the world… We hope we haven’t forgotten anyone’, they write in the liner notes. That says something about a group whose members are probably sweet boys, but whose music thankfully sounds more like the New York Dolls than The Feelers.

OUT OF NOTHING (Independiente/Sony)
I’m sure they would love to be able to write a song like Echo & The Bunnymen’s Killing Moon: sexy and broodingly powerful at the same time. But, despite allowing famed producer Youth to boss them around in the studio, the result is about as arresting as a 3rd form high school impersonation of Coldplay. Cold sick in short pants, in other words.

ANTICS (Matador/Rhythmethod)
Interpol are Americans, but their sound betrays a youth wasted wallowing in the epic manic depressions of Manchester’s legendary Joy Division. But when the singer reaches for the skies, his voice takes on a bleating quality not dissimilar to REM’s Michael Stipe. There are moments in which Interpol harness a dingey, majestic power on this, the second album.

AROUND THE SUN (Reprise/Warner Bros)
Widely rumoured as an attempted return to form and format, REM’s latest makes concessions to the songwriting style that catapulted them to fame in the 80s. Michael Stipe is full of observations about relationships and the state of the world. It’s a long trawl through its thirteen well-meaning but often unnecessarily gloomy songs, but taken in small doses, Stipe’s humanity and middle-aged anger hints that he’s not quite ready for the knacker’s yard.

I can’t quite get it through my thick head that this chick is only 17. On this obscenely speedy follow-up to her covers project The Soul Sessions, the English rose collaborates with the A-List of American soul and funk veterans. Her vocals flawlessly emulate those black soul divas from the 60s, while the backing is mostly a kind of acoustically enhanced, organic funk that would only be possible in a post-Norah Jones world.

JUST FOR A THRILL (Ripple/Universal)
This fifth outing from the septuagenarian former Rolling Stones bassist is a slight but enjoyably affectionate trawl through the 20th Century’s rhythm and blues highways and byways, performed by an all-star aggregation featuring Albert Lee, Georgie Fame and Mark Knopfler. Wyman’s own songs have always had a wink and a smile to them, and his curatorial personality transcribes a similar charm.

December 2004

It’s difficult to suppress the suspicion that these guys are the product of some kind of elaborate ruse. For starters, there’s dozens of these freaks, and they all wear robes. Try a blindfold test, however, and you’ll soon find reason to believe. The Polyphonic Spree are alone in reviving an almost forgotten American art form: the gorgeous multi-harmony voices and polished production of late 60s groups like the Association, the Mamas & Papas and the Four Seasons. It’s mainly the work of Tim DeLaughter (surely one of the greatest surnames in pop), whose songs transcend mere pastiche, and whose vocal drawl helps to bring the project into the 21st Century. Far from being a cult or a mere novelty, with their sophomore effort The Polyphonic Spree have become one of the freshest – and most refreshingly nerdish – contemporary outfits.

REAL GONE (Anti/Shock)
Tom Waits remains one of the most visionary, adventurous and unique misfits in all of contemporary music, and Real Gone does nothing to dint the aura. As he hits 60, we could forgive Waits for retreating into his dotage. Instead, the guy discovers human beat-boxing (a rap technique) and applies his own rules to the art. Meanwhile, he employs his son on ‘turntable’ duties. Like Nick Cave, Waits’ gruff-voiced Bohemian schtick sounds like art ideas parading as the real thing; a contrived lo-fi blues dreaming of authenticity, and a tendency to hang pretentious lyrical ideas on the slimmest of pretexts. View the Waits project as a cinema for the ears – a kind of filmic folklore - however, and his persona takes on a renewed virility. Real Gone is real hard to mine for its jewels, but some will find its mix real rich.

SMILE (Nonesuch/Warners)
Smile is the Holy Grail of pop: critics and obsessive fans have scrutinized and fetishized the evidence surrounding the abandoned recording of what was supposed to have been the greatest work in the history of pop. Thirty-seven years later, the Beach Boys’ cracked genius Brian Wilson has finally revisited his demons, and faithfully re-recorded the ‘lost’ album. Is it any good? Well, turns out that much of Smile is available already, scattered across patchy Beach Boys albums from the late 60s and early 70s. Brian Wilson is clearly a little touched, and while wacky Wilson may be the stuff of myth and legend, it’s not always a gift to music. In fact, songs like Vega-Tables confirm that Wilson’s hokey all-American persona could be every bit as cringe-full as The Beatles at their most archly English. But is it any good? In a word: yes. Although these recent performances lack the period charm of the original recordings, the presentation puts one of pop’s best songwriter’s finest moments sparkling context.

Conceived by NZ rock’n’roll archivist John Baker, this collection is a brilliant no-brainer: 31 tracks of primitive rock stretching from the late 50s (Max Merritt’s Get A Haircut is a hoot) right through to current gods (The Datsuns’ Motherfucker From Hell). It’s a brilliant concept that works, portraying an underbelly of NZ rock where attitude is all, and rough as guts does it right. All self-penned, many of these tracks are bona fide classics by the likes of The Enemy, The Spelling Mistakes and The Scavengers. But also an important part of NZ’s sludge-rock crowd are seldom-mentioned acts like The Dum Dum Boys and Flesh D-Vice. At its best, Get A Haircut portrays a scene that’s busy not being self-conscious, dedicated to kicking up a raucous ruckus, and one that’s more often than not blessed with a disarmingly stupid sense of humour.

The 21st Century is proving a boon time for the rediscovery – and reassessment – of lost musical treasures. Shanghai Lounge Divas is an astonishing case in point: recently, hundreds of rare recordings from the decadent pre-communist Chinese cabaret scene of the 1930s were found languishing in a basement. Back then, Shanghai rocked to the somewhat unique Chinese interpretation of swing, and had its own roster of glamorous divas. Shanghai Lounge Divas gives the listener two options: One disc features 24 of these original recordings in all their scratchy glory, while the other is a 12-song electronic remix by Ian Widgery. This re-interpretation bears the comforting if rather tame stamp of Hong Kong’s Schtung studio, owned by expatriate New Zealander Morton Wilson. Me, I’ll stick with those ancient recordings, which resound down the years with accurate emotional impact.

Short & curlies:

The 80s glam-era heroes make their comeback move, and there are moments of disco-funk panache so confident and pop-anthemic that you’d swear they’d never left the building. Distressingly, the totality merges into an album tainted by too many producers, advisors, industry dab-hands and focus sessions, and there’s more than a whiff of the safely generic about the project.

An inspired collaboration between a DJ (Coco) and a classical musician (Puttnam), Remasterpiece seeks to rework mostly late-19th and early 20th Century composers’ works by giving them a bit of the old laptop tweak job. Zeroing in on masters of proto-ambience like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, Coco and Puttnam tread a fine line between sonambulance and quietude. One longs for the intellectual rigour with which Brian Eno approaches the ambient conundrum, but Remasterpiece, despite its many faults, will prove a godsend for stressed out executives looking for some musical nerve-tonic.

PENGUIN ROCK (Shock/Border?)
Yet another producer-type duo come up with a sporadically charming but patchy album of happy dance grooves with guest vocal shots by the likes of Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. For those who can’t get enough of the slightly quirky English sound of Lemon Jelly.

We must not confuse pride in the burgeoning NZ hip-hop industry with misguided claims of artistic merit. World-beating turntable champ and Scribe dj P-Money’s second album is sure-footed, but it is not innovative or particularly distinguished. There are plenty of pleasingly groove-some moments here, but its roll-call of US rappers makes for an album that never asserts its personality.

It’s not a spoof: these guys really are the Berlin Philharmonic’s cellists, and As Time Goes By features their tasteful interpretations of sixteen film music ‘classics’, arranged for cat-gut. This started life as a collaboration with other instrumentalists, so we’re saved from bowing overkill on this politely engaging collection. Weighing heavily on the historic, highlights include the theme to La Strada, and Love Scene from Vertigo.

January 2005

THE DELIVERY MAN (Lost Highway/Universal)
It’s hard to believe that this American-dwelling husband to mainstream jazz singer Diana Krall is the same Declan MacManus: a knotty little punk who wowed the UK scene in the late 70s with the bile and spit and sheer cleverness of his lyrics. These days, Costello is a champion of the great American traditions, and even releases quasi-classical albums. In contrast to so many songwriters of his years, Costello is going through a mid-career catharsis, a prolific stream that seems as strong as nature. Some of Costello’s finest, most fertile, and knottiest work is on The Delivery Man, which swings from country to rock, and even starts with a nasty blast of pure anger and noise (“Button My Lip”). What’s more, this is the best backing Costello’s had in ages, even if it is provided by most of his old band, the Attractions: their playing is unusually dynamic. Right on form.

A TREASURY (Island/Universal)
Drake is one of those sacred dead guys, like Van Gogh, whose early death fuels the fire of legend. His ivy-encrusted, deeply melancholic take on English folk songwriting is draped across a mere three albums. The intensely shy, introverted, whispery-voiced singer died, practically forgotten, at his parent’s house in 1974. Largely because of a sound bite in an American Volkswagon ad, interest in Nick Drake is at fever pitch, hence this new compilation, released in Super Audio format. Contemporaries of Drake like Roy Harper, John Martyn and Richard Thompson (who contributes guitar to several tracks) have a much greater palette; a little can go a long way, as Drake sacrifices musical contrast to concentrate on mood over matter. Still, there’s no denying the beauty of these soundscapes from a doomed loner.

What an utterly stupid idea: a team of contemporary artists and singers remix or sing over old songs by German band leader James Last. Yes, that James Last. The one who made hundreds of Godawful records with titles like Party-A-Go-Go With James Last Volume 36. By and large, his catalogue of oompa-pah arrangements is execrable. Sure, hundreds of electronic and hip-hop acts have sampled his cheesy orchestrations, but surely in an almost satirical manner. On this bizarre project, we get hip-hop group The RZA doing their thing over “The Lonely Shepherd”, and tracks featuring Tom Jones and our own Hayley Westenra. Apart from Nina Hagen’s demented vocalisations, and a number by fat-era Elvis Presley, it’s one to avoid.

IT ALWAYS WILL BE (Lost Highway/Universal)
How many septuagenarian singer/songwriters are there, still singing, still writing, still touring, and moving through life with the dignity of old Willie? Responsible for some of the great crossover hits of country music, Nelson is also a brilliant interpreter, and It Always Will Be is a notable exposition of both. Duets with Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones are a good indication of Nelson’s stock at the moment (there have been a flood of projects and awards in the past couple of years), and the recording captures his almost jazz-phrased voice in all its mellow world-weariness. For a country music outlaw – the marijuana-toking, pigtail-wearing Nandor Tanczos of country music – Nelson’s done pretty well for himself.

The follow-up to Very Short Films, this second DVD of video clips from the Flying Nun vault is a veritable treasure chest of audio and visual riches. While the shambolic nature of the label’s core, early 80s artists have a certain period charm, it’s the genuine oddities and a darker stream of nihilistic rock that impresses most on this 40-song epic. For deserving hits that never were by weirdo would-be pop stars, check out Bill Direen’s “Alligator Song” or Bressa Creeting Cake’s “Papa People”. Of the nasty stuff, Skeptics’ meat works footage on “AFFCO” could still induce the unwary to lose their lunch, while tracks by Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, NRA, Headless Chickens and Loves Ugly Children are disturbing in their barely-suppressed malevolence. Jewel in the crown is HDU’s lovely “Lull” (in its Soundproof ambient remix). The only sour point is the inclusion of audio bonus ‘Flying Nun Pub Quiz’: nostalgia of lamentable pointlessness.

[Subs note: The name Loves Ugly Children does not have an apostrophe. Personally, I am tempted to add one.]


ANDREA (Sugar/Universal)
Bocelli is one of the superstars of the classical establishment, and whatever technical limitations he may have, his voice is a thrilling instrument. Pity, then, that a ‘pop’ album such as this (one of Robbie Williams’ producers is used extensively) is often a crime against good taste, with a level of schmaltz that’s virtually carcinogenic. Still, there’s a certain Italian emotionality here that’s positively winning.

This mixture of old-style funk and contemporary hip-hop really makes you groove. In fact, it has a dedication to the groove ideal that 70s funksters Parliament would surely approve. I’m not so sure about the rapping however, which to these ears sounds rather too monotone and blocked of nose. On the other hand, Submariner’s production is top-notch, and there are lots of studio engineering tricks to keep the masses entertained.

RADICAL CONNECTOR (Sonig/Rhythmethod)
This Cologne-based group once made squiggly electronic music come alive with a playfulness their UK equivalents lacked. There’s plenty of pulsing circuitry and digital processing going on here, but MoM have put together a literally radical album of funk-based songs that’s digitally processed to an almost cybernetic degree.

The trouble with most faux-jazz is that the finger-snapping grooves are masks for a void within, a subterfuge to disguise the utter banality of having nothing to say. So style is all. In its genre, though, Moulin’s latest is leagues above the rest. A kind of electro-house fusion, where the beats are aided and abetted by electronics, the music itself has generous dollops of performed melodies. Picking up on the cool West Coast jazz of the 60s (see Horace Silver) Moulin genetically modifies the blueprint.

APE TO ANGEL (Kog/Rhythmethod)
There’s a hypnotic riptide to this NZ duo’s third album that makes the minimal melodies and scant singing something worth sacrificing in the name of glorious repetition. Though it’s purely electronic, Pitch Black’s music has an ebb and a flow that’s as elemental as Karekare at sunset, and its trick is to make you want the current to pull you under.

February 2005

THREE IMAGINARY BOYS (Fiction/Universal)
Long overdue for a definitive CD reissue, The Cure’s debut album was one of the truly seminal releases of 1979, and along with the Gang Of Four, it represents the peak of existentialist art-school post-punk pop. Its skeletal songs – easily reproduced live by a three-piece – became practice room staples of bands as far afield as NZ, where Robert Smith’s arrogant miserabalist aesthetic matched perfectly the sense of disaffection/dislocation felt by frustrated teenagers at the bottom of the world. It’s a pity that a few of The Cure’s best non-album tracks have been stitched into the fabric of the bonus disc of rarities, which are mostly average demo recordings useful only to the dedicated archaeologist. That aside, Three Imaginary Boys, in all its imperfect, dated glory, is still a key release for anyone investigating a particularly invigorating era.

CRUISING ATTITUDE (Discograph/Shock)
If you’re after a musical seduction device this Summer, this is about as effective a bedroom tool as you’ll find, all wrapped up in a very spiffing package. When Dimitri burst on the DJ scene in the late 90s, his sensual French style with its knowing wink was a welcome respite from an increasingly generic house music scene. This many years later, it sounds as though he’s moved on not one inch, which doesn’t present a problem to his intended audience, but means that Cruising Attitude is very much style over content. And while I’m happy with this percolating away in the background, I’m also aware that some of the instrumental backgrounds – used so effectively in a faintly satirical way on his earlier records – are only so many steps removed from the kind of easy listening tosh your mother used to hum along to. It’s still on the playlist, though.

There’s enough natty patter on this sprawling double platter to keep the word-obsessed comparing lines for weeks. While too many rappers happily habituate the stereotypical obsessions of big ol’ butts, tons of cash (with a little bit of guns and crack on the side), the world of Nas is strikingly complex. It’s not that he’s above a little misogyny (check out ‘The Makings Of A Perfect Bitch’), but he’s got the word power and the brains to take you so much further into a lifestyle that’s a tangled mess of relationships. Most strikingly, this consistently top-ranking record from one of hip-hop’s aristocracy attends to its beat science with a degree of diligence which pays off with earth-shaking bass and sonic detail that’s rare in any musical arena. There’s even room for the star’s father, blues man Olu Dara, to strut his stuff on this expansive and inclusive album.

OPEN SESAME (Lil’ Chief)
Auckland’s Lil’ Chief label had better be careful: it’s on the way to becoming the incubator for NZ’s best original talent. Shaft have a rock’n’roll heart, where most of the Lil’ Chief roster sit on the skewed pop bench, but Open Sesame shares with their other artists a whimsical sensitive lad aesthetic that’s simply charming. The project of Bob Cardy – formerly of madcap Christchurch experimentalists the Axemen – Shaft are a floating retinue who manage a sly, shy brand of pop/rock that recalls The Dribbling Darts Of Love as much as it does the naïve pop of Jonathon Richman. Open Sesame is resolutely a minor paving stone in rock’s rich highway, and there’s a patchwork quality to some of the album, but Shaft have the balls to be themselves, sensitive side and all, which makes this debut a sunny wee listen.

WORLD BEAT SESSIONS (Union Square/Triton)
Subtitled ‘the funkiest Latin, African and Asian world beats’, this double CD improbably mixes tracks by genuine global totems like Femi Kuti with those whose work has been given the remix treatment, and electronic producers who pay hommage to global styles in their computer creations. It’s a potpourri of styles and beats with a firm emphasis on the dancefloor, but some dire tracks are easily matched by moments of brilliance. Bucovina Club’s Germanic reworking of Balkan Gypsy group Taraf De Haidouks’ luminescent enthusiasm is one such moment, as is the genius of Detroit producer Carl Craig’s almost demonic remodeling of Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora.


The Jews Brothers have grown into one of the most reliably entertaining live shows in town, and the Auckland-based group have put together an album that catches much of the loony humour and energy of those shows. While it never entirely escapes the whiff of a souvenir programme, Too Much Talent is just wacky enough to make you want to repeat the experience. And anyone who covers the very cool Slim Gaillard (“Dunkin’ Bagels”) is alright by me.

Remember those perfunctery late 60s American detective series where you occasionally got our brylcreamed hero entering a den of iniquity – some hippy party or seedy nightclub – and a ‘groovy’ band was playing? French DJ Chris Joss has made a whole album of these defiantly dated ‘funky’ instrumentals. Limited pastiche, perhaps, but it’s a whole lot of fun.

Though it’s probably beautifully realised, and adeptly sound-designed, Rhian Sheehan’s music tends towards the pompous and the dour. Which means that it’s a remixers dream, providing a template that’s lush and infinitely malleable. This remix project includes several ‘remakes’, where several of the artists (Signer, Hummel, Jet Jaguar) remodel quite extensively. Patchy, but sporadically topnotch.

It’s the naïve enthusiasm that this loose unit shows for every facet of the collected history of psychedelic music that makes their debut an enjoyable diversion. You can feel the love with which this Auckland-based group have applied to the mastering of 60s-style effects like backwards guitar, modified vocals and even (shock! horror!) Moody Blues-style keyboard sounds. And most of the time, it works.

FABRIC 19 (Fabric/Rhythmethod)
Weatherall is justly famed for his dubbed-out and loved-up mixing of Primal Scream’s debut album: still a defining moment for all those for whom the connection between pop, rock and dance music is a natural evolutionary characteristic. On this disc Weatherall displays his mixing chops on a selection of wicked and impeccably chosen tracks of an electro/techno bent, which means it’s propulsive and urgent in a very thrusting, male fashion. Wearing its cheese on its sleeve, the irony of some of these 80s-referring, cheap synthesiser-infested slices of dancefloor bliss just increases the all-round fun.

March 2005

CHAOS THEORY (Flavour/Ninja Tune)
Chaos Theory is an Xbox game, and this is the soundtrack. Amon Tobin is a Brazilian-born electronic musician who has made five outstanding albums for the very hip UK label, Ninja Tune. In my brief exposure to the world of gaming, I’ve noticed that the music is often clever but cheap-sounding. Not so here. Tobin’s album would suit the soundtrack of a very moody, exciting espionage film. His unique style – which combines a love of nourish cinema soundtracks and propulsive drum’n’bass – has often been called an ‘invisible cinema’, so it’s not surprising that he’s been co-opted into the area of soundtracking. The way Tobin has responded to the challenge is to simply make what could possibly be his best album yet. It’s a rich and atmospheric sound world, entirely instrumental, and the beauty of it is that the explosive, metallic drum’n’bass is used sparingly, which makes it all the more effective. Occasionally nerve-shredding, but a good thrill is its own reward.

WANT TWO (Geffen/Universal)
To be brutally frank, I’m not sure that I like this album: it has the feeling of oddball originality that takes more than mere listening to fully appreciate. It’s the kind of album I imagine you’d have to soak in. Whatever, it’s a terrific achievement. Wainwright is the son of idiosyncratic folk singer Kate McGarrigle and eccentric songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, so it’s not surprising that what we have here is something highly unusual. But nothing could prepare the listener for an album of such scope (and possibly pretension) as his third album, Want Two (the follow-up to Want One, natch). The chap has a penchant for singing in Latin, and for giving the project an outrageously operatic flourish. There are orchestras and too much passion to sneeze at. Is this guy serious? It appears so. If you can handle the ambition (and perhaps, the conceit) of someone part Bjork, part Jeff Buckley, part Brian Wilson, then Want Two is an intriguing proposition.

The last ten years of hip-hop have largely passed me by: the hardcore offence on one side, and the commercial offence on the other, there were too many words with not enough to say. Lately, however, the spirit of late 80s hip-hop is making something of a revival, and it's particularly strong on Xzibit’s latest. If you only recognise his face from C4’s entertaining Pimp My Ride, expect to be surprised: this is some of the most politically powerful and muscular sounding hip-hop since Public Enemy’s great early work. What makes it a listenable experience, however, is its variety. He’s got superstar producer Timbaland in for a few turns, but overall the sound is very ‘phat’, and there’s a real sense of mining the rich soul and rhythm and blues seam of the early 70s for some gorgeous singing and silken sounds to balance out the heaviosity. Weak points? There are a few. But overall, it rocks.

GREATEST HITS (Reprise/Warners)
For many years, Neil Young wouldn’t release his albums on compact disc, having the opinion that the sound quality of the medium left lots to be desired. He was right. His ‘greatest hits’ has finally been extensively remastered to sound as good as it can using this less than perfect medium. The weird thing? Young’s music never really required accurate or exceptional playback capability in the first place. Some of my favourite Young listening experiences have been on shitty old stereos playing shitty old vinyl. It’s that kind of music. There’s no doubt that the music has benefited by remastering, however, if what you’re after is more detail and more breadth of sound. Chosen via ‘original record sales, airplay, and known download history’, this collection has a rather odd running order based exclusively on chronology, so we get two rather ridiculously overlong 1969 tracks to get things going (nine minutes and ten minutes respectively) before those genius hits start rolling by. If you just need one shot of Young, this is for you.

Sold as ‘Arabic moods, souk specials and beats for belly dancers’, this is a rather excellent dj-selected double cd collection of contemporary middle-eastern music. Bear in mind, however, that many of these dance-oriented exponents come from the UK, France, the US… in fact, anywhere but the middle east! With so much crummy, tinny Arabic pap available, it’s a pleasure, however, to plough through this selection of mostly top notch stuff, whether it’s simply influenced by middle eastern sounds (as in the case of Austrian groove merchants Dzihan & Kamien) or the real thing. It’s essentially an album of fusions rather than any attempt to keep things pure, which is gratifying, and it’s brilliant to wallow in some Arabic celebration at a time in history that paints Muslims as terrorists.


A very tasty home-baked concoction from someone who obviously knows his way around a song, and has a lengthy history of musical influence to reign into his assured if somewhat inward-looking sound world. Had Bathgate not been a former member of Toy Love, and half of Tall Dwarfs, however, one suspects that The Indifferent Velvet Void might have met with an entirely indifferent reception.

Prestigious jazz label Blue Note’s latest signing, Amos Lee has a voice a little like Stevie Wonder, but his songs sit somewhere between blues grooves and folk minstrelsy. These are subtle semi-acoustic arrangements with unobtrusive fragrances of string parts wafting through, but only when considered necessary. It’s all very pleasant and slightly introspective, if less than arresting.

A match made in heaven: Brazilian Rezende has a rich yet smoke-cured voice that seemingly effortlessly makes a meal of a bunch of Latin-American classics, along with a smattering of tunes by her collaborator, Wellington pianist Crayford. His work is exemplary, and the album has a beautifully crisp, and detailed sound that perfectly suits the material.

THIS ISLAND (Strummer/Universal)
The origins of this female three-piece are in the early 90s agit-prop feminist Riot Grrl scene, but Le Tigre are empowered by their close integrated acquaintance with computer technology, and energised by dissent from American policies. It’s raw stuff, but at its best, a punky party that combines the energy of early B52s with a political conscience.

There’s a wry sense of humour about this Auckland group, who play the local traps with gusto, and describe their music as ‘noir jazz pop’. Led by the songwriting of playwright Kathryn Van Beek, they’re an acquired taste due to Beek’s nonchalant, lazy delivery.

April 2005

For those – like me – who misspent their youth during the post-punk era (1978-81), 2005 is throwing up some odd conundrums. The low-rent, spiky, exploratory sounds of those days are back: countless groups who sound a lot like the Gang Of Four, The Cure and Joy Division are landing the front cover of NME. Add The Fall to that list of influences and you have the Bloc Party, who have been touted as ‘the sound of 2005’. What saves them from simply being another ‘entertainment’ ala Franz Ferdinand is their seriousness of intent. Like the best bands of ’79, Bloc Party have a political/social conscience, they’re happy to mix edgy guitar lines with taut disco rhythms, and they go the extra yards to dress their songs with colours that ignore the dictates of meat-and-potatoes instrumentation. Mood-wise, they’re a little grim, but the propulsive energy easily compensates.

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – another Bright Eyes album released simultaneously – is merely a bunch of country-tinged folk songs. On that CD, Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) sings his well crafted story-songs to a skeletal backing, albeit one which includes the odd backing vocal from the likes of Emmylou Harris. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn is another thing again. It’s a sumptuous thing, with elegant string arrangements and loads of atmosphere, prevented from becoming over-lush by stray shards of guitar scree and digital irruption. At times it’s vaguely reminiscent of The Cure, if you can imagine Robert Smith as an American in a wide-screen setting rather than a narrow-minded parochial Brit. If you like your singer-songwriters layered and wrapped in sounds which illustrate the narrative in vivid colours, this album comes highy recommended.

AURERE (Little Red Hen/Out There)
Auckland-based singer Caitlin Smith has a brilliant set of lungs. Her vocal prowess is such that she teaches other singers how to improve their game, and you can see why: her intonation, pitch, and generalised delivery are quantized on microbiotic levels. The first album to feature primarily her own songs gets a semi-acoustic, sensitive jazzy backing from her group, and it’s an all-round classy affair. Smith’s songs are of the Joni Mitchell, ‘confessional’ variety, so it’s up to the listener as to whether they want to buy in to these intimate scenarios. Unfortunately, she ends the album with Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along Without You Very Well, a song of great economy of means and emotional precision that tends to reveal the limitations of Smith’s own material.

RED, WHITE & CRUE (Motley/Universal)
Motley Crue are one of those great, larger-than-life bands whose image is pure cartoon, and whose music is gloriously stupid. With their arrival in 1981 came press coverage about their unfeasibly tall hair-do’s. How did they get it up so high? Well, sleep upside like bats, of course. Their debut, meanwhile, ended up in that rarefied part of my LP collection reserved for ‘worst records of all time’. ‘World’s Most Infamous Rock Band’ reads the sticker on this double cd compilation, which gives a nice thumping bottom end to its remastering of the LA group’s brattish raunch rock. Like other so-crap-they’re-great legends (the Ramones, Motorhead) the Crue insisted on spinning their slim talents out over several decades of patchy work, but Red, White & Crue brings the best of it (including a few b-sides, unreleased cuts and entertaining cover versions) to the table. We should be worried: they’re back together, and three recent tunes are included. Could this signal the return of Big Hair Rock?

GRACELAND (Warner Bros)
Paul Simon’s big 1986 comeback – and an album which met with as much gushing critical acclaim as it did denigration in some quarters – has finally been blessed with a decent remastering job, and extra tracks added. Graceland mixed Simon’s rather neurotic New York songwriting with the music of Soweto, South Africa, which caused a minor sensation and led to fame for featured guests Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Nearly twenty years later, does the project still resonate, or were the claims then made against Simon of cultural imperialism now self-evident? Well, the blend of Simon’s songs and the effervescent South African styles still sounds unlikely, but it still works. What does sound odd, from this distance, is the album’s 1980s-style production, which has a horrid oil-slick of thin electronic drums and early digital synthesisers coating the organic and infinitely funky African content. Still, this will be hugely nostalgic to many, and is instantly identifiable.


THE INVITATION (Vertigo/Universal)
Wet as gristle sitting in a soup of self-pity, Thirteen Senses make Coldplay sound like hard souls indeed. Come on boys, get some sunshine, have a game of tennis… Life ain’t so bad.

THEME FOR A BROKEN SOUL (Stones Throw/Rhythmethod)
DJ Rels is a mystery artist and a smooth groove practitioner on a label famed for its alternative hip-hop stance. So far, so strange. Its style bears more than a passing resemblance to Detroit techno, with its squirming, tight-ass bass lines, chattering drum machines, and nicely stereo-panning synthesiser chordings. But added to the sound palette are subtle nuances, such as Afro-Latino percussion, that raise Theme For A Broken Soul from wine-bar status to an oddly compelling late-night lounge-lizard workout.

I don’t particularly dig Snoop Dogg’s schtick, but there’s a reason this cd has been glued to my deck over the summer months: the production is as clever as hell, and the way this disc integrates electronic programming with the most booty-shaking sexy bass moves is undeniable. And it’s got Bootsy Collins.

LOVE.ANGEL.MUSIC.BABY (Interscope/Universal)
It’s not all good, but the No Doubt singer’s solo debut has a sassy sexiness that Madonna could only ever aspire to, and has the kind of fresh humour and sense of sheer girl power fun that made Cyndi Lauper so irresistible. Part 80s homage, part contemporary funk with Snoop Dogg’s production geniuses N.E.R.D on deck, this one is hard to ignore.

A rather lovely double cd compilation drawing a mellow line through both ‘purist’ and electronic fusion material. Nice to see that tiny fishing island Okinawa – with its eccentric bouncy folk songs – given a strong representation. This is all sonically pleasing stuff, and a great Sunday afternoon listen all the same. And for lovers of female vocalese, there’s a surplus of excellent talent from Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan and Mongolia.

May 2005

LAST QUARTER MOON (Verve/Universal)
At last: a new female artist from a major label that doesn’t reek of Norah Jones. Civello comes from Rome, now lives in New York, and her album is a genuinely fresh frisson of Italian, Latin American and jazz influences, with the addition of intimate singer-songwriter sensibilities. An intoxicating proposition, Civello’s finely nuanced, mellow yet emotive singing is the heart of the matter, but the arrangements - which are a kind of chamber cocktail jazz with loads of mallet instruments, pianos and cellos – bring out the best in her. This kind of thing too easily gets put through the schmaltz blender in its production stages, but Last Quarter Moon hits the same kind of husky sensuality that Sade did at her very best.

Eight years on from the French duo’s somewhat gimmicky but infinitely stylish debut album, Homework, and they still struggle to escape a sound that’s almost too recognisable. Daft Punk’s third album gets a few things dead right, however. By capitalising on their strengths (a simple vocodered form of techno that mixes the coldly electronic with what sounds suspiciously like guitar riffs) and developing a very real sense of melodic invention, they’ve managed an album that convincingly entertains. While those who hate the piston-shagging sound of techno will never warm to this, if Daft Punk are allowed a third chance then this should be clogging up the dance clubs this Autumn-into-Winter.

TIDE’S ARISING (ABB/Rhythmethod)
Like that other famous expatriate New Zealander, Nathan Haines, Mark de Clive Lowe has made a name for himself in London’s ‘broken beat’ or ‘Nu Jazz’ scene. On the keyboardist’s sophomore outing, De Clive-Lowe has become the toast of that scene, and the reason is apparent the minute laser strikes the shiny platter. Tide’s Arising is simply the most impressive attempt yet to try and fuse 21st Century beat science with slick funk and jazzy modalities. There’s not a moment of unnecessary noodling here, as the man and his many co-conspirators get right down to the task of making a highly sophisticated, yet always intensely energised and funky record. Anyone who ever dug the sleek, tight jazz/funk of Earth, Wind & Fire will find more than a few things to cherish about this retro-modern triumph.

Remember cow punk? In the early 80s, bands like LA’s X added the raw edge of punk to their country rock songs, creating an occasionally compelling hybrid. Former X-man John Doe has made one of those middle-age albums that impresses because it’s not trying to. He’s lost the punk over the years, and his slightly wounded vignettes and rough-shod performances mean that Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet is like a trust-worthy old friend you want to spend time with. With the likes of Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses) cooing away in the background and an open-ended, bluesy ambience, Doe has come up with an effortless winner.

THESE WERE THE EARLIES (Unspunk/Rhythmethod)
Released last year in the States, and finally available locally, These Were The Earlies is the kind of album Brian Wilson might have made, had he spent his fledgling years at the dawn of the present era. Successfully eluding every attempt to get your head around its musical strategies, but charming your pants off nevertheless, it’s a kind of orchestral country psychedelia from a parallel universe. Heavily influenced by the more wayward 60s pop of Buffalo Springfield and other connoisseur choices, it subtley utilises contemporary electronic technology. Like SJD’s Southern Lights, The Earlies are superior exponents of a musical category consisting of two typically mutually exclusive words: experimental pop. And the group come from two typically mutually exclusive locations: West Texas and Manchester, England. Lovely.


D4 make a kind of garage rock that - at its best – is as dumbly fun as anything from 1966. The songs on this second effort, however, are the slimmest of propositions. Trust Me, inparticular, sounds like it took all of five minutes to conceive and execute. For undemanding ragers only.

KNUCKLE DOWN (Righteous Babe/Shock)
DiFranco is looking more hippy than punk these days, and the edgy persona has mellowed, revealing a more complex, but no less lyrically confrontational portrait. The wordsmithery here is impressively honed and unusually explicit (check out Callous), and the music – co-produced with fellow songwriter Joe Henry – is a delicious semi-acoustic confection peppered with Wurlitzer’s, glockenspiels and melodicas.

Moby has jumped on the retro fascination for all things ‘new wave’: that late 70s, early 80s, post-punk sound epitomised by Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen. Despite bravely attempting a song-based album, and refusing the usual sample loops, the man is fatally hampered by weak vocals, and arrangements that have belligerently failed to germinate in the compost heap of history.

This is the kind of organic, mostly acoustic, deeply Afro-American jazz album that just doesn’t get made anymore. Texas pianist Moran and pals take their inspiration from 1940s blues styles, but shift idioms to semi-improvised jazz that has none of the safe-as-milk classicisms of Wynton Marsalis.

THE LOST DUB TAPES (Inertia/Rhythmethod)
Pieter Bourke has long been a key figure in Melbourne’s industrial techno scene, and his collaborations with Lisa Gerrard are notable. Here he’s working with a chap called Brian Westbrook, and the results are a little sad. If this is truly meant as a homage to 70s Jamaican dub, it fails: The Lost Dub Tapes does nothing to further the form, adds zilch to the sum total of dub’s sonic exploration, and is conspicuously lacking the endless, curvaceous bottom end required of the genre. Miss.

June 2005

Tired, woozy techno ravers need somewhere to go when the party’s over, and this group’s debut perfectly captures the Sunday comedown in its queasy electronic textures and enjoyable (if somewhat aesthetically questionable) down-tempo groove excursions. Aping the working style of earlier Brixton outfits like Soul To Soul and Massive Attack, Boomclick is something of a co-operative, with both male and female vocals. These, however, are merely decorative; it’s the mixture of trippy electronics and gritty semi-acoustic guitar work that give this album its special aroma.

A compilation of tracks recorded for the late lamented BBC DJ John Peel’s show, Government Commissions is a timely reminded of what made this Scottish group so special back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, when the thin jangle of Britpop and the mindless ‘Oonst’ of dance music ruled the music scene. Subtitled ‘BBC Sessions 1996-2003’, this set starts with a series of scintillating, undulating, aqueous, gorgeous and mostly wordless guitar-led ambient pieces. Later, Mogwai let loose on several epics which build to spectacular fireworks climaxes, demonstrating how they helped to launch a whole genre of post-rock groups with a fondness for a slow build to massive musical orgasm.

CUTS (Flying Nun/FMR)
It’s astonishing that one of New Zealand’s most important pop albums – and certainly the key release from 1980 – has taken 25 years to get reissued on CD. Turns out the group were bummed out that the bass was mixed too low; as if poor recording wasn’t pretty much a given back then. Still, those of us who had stopped waiting have been surprised with a bounteous release indeed. Not only is the Toy Love album carefully remixed, but just about every other example of their pop genius is here, including A and B sides and numerous demos. Those tracks, largely on the second disc, reveal a group whose restlessness demanded constant revision of songs. There were more aesthetically commanding exponents of spiky post-punk, but Toy Love (which included later Flying Nun stalwarts Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate) made a pitch for conventionally melodic pop music being as raw, bleeding and authentic as it needed to be. Fantastic.

Weirder things have happened, but not much weirder: embalmed 1970s rock group Van Der Graaf Generator turn up with their first album in 29 years. And it’s a cracker. VDGG were hugely influential while remaining essentially obscure. Led by the eternally anguished singer/songwriter Peter Hammill (whose histrionic Bowie-on-downers vocals and existentialist musings made him a dark predecessor to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis), VDGG sounded nothing like any other band on the planet. Amazingly, they still do. On Present, the classic lineup and sound is intact, without once resorting to nostalgia. These four angry old men make an extraordinary racket that’s as much of a billowing, bubbling, gaseous rage against the machine as anything they did in their heyday. It’s a phenomenally ugly sound, combining simmering drums with wailing, elephantine sax and shrieking organ. Yet it’s also a record that pulls you back for repeat exposures to its dark charms. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a second disc of fecund, broiling improvisations. (EMI also reissue the entire VDGG catalogue over the next few months in brand spanking remastered versions).

KAIKOURA ROOTS FESTIVAL 05 (Dub Conspiracy/Rhythmethod)
Reggae may have been invented in Jamaica, but the way in which it has been adopted and stage-managed in New Zealand makes it even more suited to this particular island culture than the emerging hip-hop. This style of reggae – which easily allows blues, techno, soul and drum & bass granules through the strainer - is a scene that celebrates itself with events like the Kaikoura Roots Festival, and listening to this compilation of artists who played there, you can replicate an endless afternoon of hooch-flavoured aromas, horizontal grass basking and blurry Summer grooves. Featuring well-known groups like Trinity Roots and Salmonella Dub alongside lesser-known (but alarmingly similar) propositions, it’s probably a blessing that there aren’t stand out tracks. That might just ruin the sense of community.


From Cape Verde (and Cesaria Evora’s god-daughter), De Barros sprinkles on Spanish lyrics and Latin heat, while the woody pluckings of her backing group’s acoustic instruments are fleet of foot and light of touch. De Barros’ singing, even at its most impassioned, is leavened by the sense of joy in this music of Cape Verde, and an intuitive mulatto of cultural appropriations.

Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John) may be coasting along in his twilight years. Yep, his early ‘70s albums best sum up his unique fusion of New Orleans juju funk, rock and jazz. But this compilation of four recent albums (and a few unissued tracks) – even with star turns by BB King, Paul Weller, Jools Holland and Randy Newman – shows that the gruff voiced pianist is working with an endlessly regenerative gumbo.

LATE NIGHT TALES (Azuli/Rhythmethod)
Ambitious American alternative rockers put together a compilation that’s a true connoisseur’s delight, and it’s the sort of album that challenges typical preconceptions, taking in an orbit that includes lots of skewed pop (Brian Eno, Chris Bell), forgotten ‘70s and ‘80s classics (Faust, Psychedelic Furs) and even seamlessly includes Miles Davis and 10cc.

Timbaland’s productions have reshaped the hip-hop landscape, adding classy electronic programming and innovative musical elements to artists who otherwise would be struggling with over-commercial pap. Present compiles highlights from his four solo projects, and with expected star turns from Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and many others (and a nine-song accompanying DVD) it’s worth checking.

This fabulous compilation (subtitled Rock Grooves 1969-1975) captures some relatively obscure but mighty fine slices of rock/funk fusion, along with a few iconic names such as Ike & Tina Turner. Perhaps if Sly & The Family Stone had come to rule the earth, this type of riff-heavy rock’n’soul may have led the charge and changed the course of pop history. Archival bliss.

July 2005

FRABIC.22 (Fabric/Rhythmethod)
For those who still get a buzz out of the kinetic ‘alien’ audio-pulsing circuitry of pure electronic music, contemporary techno is something of a refuge. Ironically, the ‘fururistic’ sounds of pure electronica have become inextricably linked to the golden age of electronic pop (1970s) and Detroit and German techno carries echoes of that era. Swedish DJ Beyer could be German, for all the boom-jiggy, boom-jiggy, stiff-backed Teutonic rhythms going on here, and most of the artists he chooses for this seamless mix album sound very similar. With the emphasis on those shuddering rhythms, sometimes without any discernable melodic content, the sound is often rounded out with the computer’s ability to render micro rhythms and sound textures in miniature. While this isn’t one of those must-have classic mix albums, it’s certainly a heady, pumping cybernetic journey and a great exposition of some of the best current techno music.

TAKE LONDON (Ninja Tune/Flavour)
On first hearing, my notes read: ‘One of the more popular of those groups who sample obscure old records, then get rappers in and construct pieces from these ‘collaborations’, The Herbaliser have become over-familiar. Unlike the musically adventurous sampling scientists (Amon Tobin springs to mind), these guys tend to stick to fairly safe territory of rare groove licks. It’s a pleasant concoction, but the formula is getting tired.’ Then something made me want to give it another try. Before the week was out, I couldn’t get it off my personal high-rotate. I take it all back. The fifth album by musician/producer Jake Wherry and DJ Ollie Teeba is a beautiful thing from beginning to end, and easily their best yet. Constructed like an old movie soundtrack, with shades of spy movie orchestrations and ‘70s-inspired funk, the surprise on Take London is the depth and breadth of the arrangements, and a world in which big-band jazz survives side-by-side with intelligent rapping. In a just world, this would be a hit.

THE MURKWON LP (Sugarlicks)
Taj Mahal was never simply a blues man, but a fully-fledged ethnomusicologist, who used blues to launch into an exploration of Afro-American musical heritage, including the Hawaiian grace of his adopted island. His son, Imon Starr, these days based in Wellington, New Zealand, is shaping up to be more than a leaf out of the old man’s tropical palm tree, but from a 21st Century perspective. When he’s not fronting Rhombus or working with Nuvonesia, Starr is managing his own project, Murkwon, of which this is the first album release. Though uneven, it’s an object lesson for other hip-hop heads in all kinds of ways. Its innate funkiness can’t be traced to any cliched, worn-out sample, and its lyrical articulation is fully fledged (stream of) consciousness with enough confidence to plough its own furrow. Murkwon raps, sings and grooves with a confident swagger that might just be a little frightening for all those proponents of the typical musical malnutrition coming out of Wellington.

It’s been described as the best album featuring Robert Plant since Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti in 1975, and there’s some truth to that. Thirty years on, then. While the ‘80s were commercially kind to Plant – who remembers Big Log? – time itself doesn’t look kindly on the wailing one’s post-Zep work. Until now. Plant proves that it wasn’t just Jimmy Page’s guitar and production wizardry that made Led Zeppelin the monster of rock it was. Here, there’s a little of the riffery we loved about that band, but this record does a better job of conjuring up the semi-mystical worldisms of songs like Kashmir, while having its basis in a semi-acoustic folk/blues which at times verges on rough’n’ready early rock and roll. While his voice-box might not have the shrieking power of yore, these are surprisingly resonant songs, which manage to be as young as tomorrow and as old as a river.

THE CAMELS (Loop/Border)
With the late ‘70s and early ‘80s making a big dent on the psyches of young music makers in 2005, it’s not surprising to hear so-called ‘shoegazing’ UK groups like the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine impacting on the current scene. They certainly have on the debut album by Skallander, a duo comprising Wellington-based Bevan Smith and Hungarian-based Matthew Mitchell. Smith is internationally renowned for his electronic work with Signer and Aspen, while Mitchell is apparently famed for his jazz and improvisational chops. Skallander, however, is something different: both musicians contribute guitar and electronics, coming up with a music that’s genuinely impossible to define. Components include atmospheric ambient drones on what sound like both guitars and keyboards, gently picked acoustic guitars, dubby basslines, subtle electronic percussion, and half-whispered vocals. The result is an altogether enticing record which successfully communicates in the most intimate of terms without ever getting at all steamed up. Lovely.

[don’t sweat the small stuff]

I’m as prone to a good novelty record as the next person, but Alabama 3 just humiliate themselves on their fourth longplaying attempt to fuse country’n’techno. This English group’s weak country parodies are pointless when there’s so much authentic, knowing country around already (see George Fulks review). They worked on the Soprano’s theme tune, they don’t here.

Russian DJ Vadim’s phat phunk and wise-acre hip-hop has met with some acclaim on several trips to this city, and more across the globe, but here he’s gone into collaboration mode on a disc with MCs Yarah Bravo and Blu Rum 13. There’s a sunnier disposition than usual, with influences from India and the Caribbean, and an almost smoochy soul feel to a couple of tracks. Despite moments of aural bliss, however, the thing is a bit like a ship with a sail but no wind to fly it.

So carefully do singer/writer Soloman Cole’s songs adhere to the ‘60s pop/soul format laid down by the hit-making Tamla Motown label that it’s both a joy and a pain to listen to these raw, robust renditions. One feels you could examine the DNA of these songs, and it would be a match, even though they’re all original songs, circa 2005. Auckland group Payola will appeal to those who long to languish in the loose limbed expression of the soul era; all others should beware of their slavish attention to the sound, right down to Cole’s rather laboured singing style.

THE GREEN ROOM 004: HOPE (Loop/Border)
Nandor Tanczos ends this compilation series with a slightly self-conscious eco-dub poem. It’s a high note to go out on, and the album starts well, too, with a series of six deep-bassed rootsy tracks from the usual Loop suspects (Trinity Roots, Confucius). The way is lost somewhat with an attempt to represent the label’s diverse styles, though the jazzy grooves of Hollie Smith and the moody pop of the Phoenix Foundation have no trouble standing on their own feet.

GEORGIA HARD (Yep Roc/Southbound)
Intelligent country music songwriters still exist, it’s just rare to find them in the mainstream. Fulks isn’t likely to end up in the hit parade anytime soon, as he mercilessly satirises the attitudes of the power elite in Nashville. Apart from his humorous handle, the biggest obstacle for Fulks might be his tendency towards humour, which echoes ‘70s songwriters like Shel Silverstein (Cover Of The Rolling Stone). But when he’s not doing it for laughs (I’m Gonna Take You Home And Make You Like Me), there’s plenty of heart and thought in his memorable pieces, and the guy has a pleasing penchant to dip into really old-timey C&W grooves, which ain’t a bad thing.

August 2005

SET & DRIFT (Wall Of Sound/Shock)
In a world in which the charts are full of tweeny fodder, it’s easy to give up on pop. But wait a minute, pop music – from the song factories of Leiber & Stoller and Bacharach/David through the entirely of the Beatles and much, much more – was once a legitimate cultural form. Somehow, miraculously, Scandinavian group Diefenbach appropriate decades’ worth of shop-soiled pop styles, and fashion them in fresh flavours. These pop youths are enamoured with the moods and harmonies of the Beach Boys (for instance) without being overwhelmed by their legendary predecessors. Their sound occasionally incorporates a Stone Roses-style dance beat; remarkably, the group is capable of intelligent smooch, tearful breakup paens, and can even rock out when required. This sour old coot had forgotten about the simple pleasures of pure pop, but Diefenbach (named after a particularly annoying character in the film Fargo, apparently) has made it real again.

Sandy Edmonds was a genuine New Zealand pop icon in the latter half of the ’60s, although it’s fair to say that she was defined more by her fashion sense than innovative musical attributes. Back then, in any case, our pop stamping ground was littered with cover versions of overseas hits, and Edmonds’ compilation aptly reflects that, with enthusiastic if ultimately undistinguished versions of many well-known songs. Perhaps the most notable thing here is the still tangibly wacky novelty song, I Love Onions. Though minor in cultural import, any exploration of our often tacky pop history is worthy for archeological reasons. A pity, then, that the (uncredited) liner notes – while telling her story – pay scant attention to standard rules of spelling and punctuation. And while we’re getting picky, why aren’t we privy to information about remastering, and whether original tapes were found?

One of our more successful musicians abroad, Nathan Haines here changes gears from the jazz/funk/hip-hop hybrid of his last two albums, and employs the NZSO to provide rich textural beds for tootling over. Unlike fellow saxophonist Kenny G – a pedestrian player with all the aesthetic finesse of a front-end loader – Haines and his collaborators really work hard to make this a beautiful thing. The orchestral charts are rich and the sound of the orchestra is lush and sonically dynamic. Nothing can quell the slightly queasy feeling that this (largely) covers project has a cocktail ambience that is vaguely lacking in grit. But Haines and band (including father Kevin and brother Joel) map an elegant line through a rich songbook with a few real surprises. Astonishingly, Haines’ vocal performance on Jacques Brel’s It’s Raining Today, while not matching the lustre of the God-like Scott Walker’s rendition, competes admirably with its own mellow splendour.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect group than Kraftwerk, the Teutonic terrors who virtually created the idea of electronic pop, and did it with such precision and intelligence that it’s been impossible to better them. While their music has inspired a number of subsequent genres (early hip-hop, Detroit techno) Kraftwerk’s perfectly formed recorded legacy articulates their genius succinctly. Their melodies had an almost classical form, while their retro-futurist themes were spelt out with lashings of wit and style. Humour and elegance are intrinsic to this very warm, yet also synthetically alien music, and this double live helping recorded at venues around the world is an excellent entrée to Kraftwerk’s world. Having not made a ‘real’ new album since the mid-‘80s, it’s wonderful to hear digital-age renditions of genius tracks like Autobahn and Trans Europe Express that sound as minimalist as ever, yet escape the thin recording quality of those early albums.

Collaborations is an album custom made for all those with a soft spot for Sinead O’Connor, but who couldn’t handle her tendency to vocally harangue rather than emote. More accurately ‘collaborations and remixes’, this compilation (spanning 1987 to 2003) is uniformly mellow, whether bobbing along on the extended bass frequencies of Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart (Visions Of You), or duetting with Peter Gabriel (Blood Of Eden). In fact, even when O’Connor is shuffling up to her Celtic roots, the stylistic aesthetic here is clearly that of Gabriel’s Real World label, with its wide-screen approach to global musics. What’s missing here is probably her best collaborative excursion: her contribution to Roger Waters’ 1990 mega-performance of The Wall. A second volume is threatened, but in the meantime we delight in O’Connor’s sexually provocative re-working of Ian Dury’s Wake Up And Make Love To Me, and her satirical take (with former Specials man Terry Hall) on Dana’s sickly, wretched All Kinds Of Everything.


They’re still just young bucks, but this is already The Coral’s fourth album. Still, it’s the first one I’d touch with a barge-pole. Produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, The Invisible Invasion has lucked across a sound that’s awfully close to bizarre ‘60s group Silver Apples, with those almost demonically repetitive bass-lines and a tendency to chant-sing. Well, that’s one of the sounds they tap into on what often sounds like an (unintentional?) homage to the space-age naivety of ‘60s pop. This album also betrays an interest in other psychedelic garage/pop from the era. It befits them, and hey, you can hum to most of these tracks, too.

THE FUTURE EMBRACE (Reprise/Warner Music)
The first solo album, five years after the break up of the singer’s ‘90s group, The Smashing Pumpkins, is a sorry affair. With smeared synths and guitars providing the queasy backdrop, it’s as though Corgan has accidentally landed in early ‘80s England, and grabbed outtakes from several bands of the time, including The Cocteau Twins and The Cure. Speaking of which, apparently Robert Smith duets with Corgan on his lamentable version of the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody, but I could scarcely hear the miserable one. Why Corgan would want to go down this road of ethereal synthetics and cheap drum machines is anybody’s guess, but it has the unfortunate side effect of exposing the glaring weaknesses of his own vocal capabilities.

NO WOW (Liberation)
This sequel sees the celebrated duo get about as minimalistic with the tools of rock’n’roll as it’s possible to get. Their stuttering, intensely raw, and painfully dirt-encrusted music seems like they’ve tried to re-write the language and come up with a variation on early Sun label rockabilly. It’s an oddly fractured thing, almost electronic but so raw it also evokes early Patti Smith and New York groups like Suicide. I’m impressed.

Peter Neumegen picks away pleasantly on his acoustic guitar and writes keening melodies for Mark Sanders to negotiate on uilleann pipes, the sound of which is nostalgically, yearningly Celtic. Nice. A wee slice of Ireland via Auckland.

[WITH TEETH] (Nothing/Universal)
There’s much to admire about Trent Reznor. He brought nastiness and aggression back to rock before grunge supposedly did so, but with an artfully constructed sound that was capable of taking one’s breath away. At his best, there’s an innate sense of the drama in the savage dynamism, together with a pure pop craftsman’s killer punch. But like The The’s Matt Johnson before him, Reznor has proved himself incapable of seeing past the miserable myopia of his own narcissism. Consequently, while [With Teeth] is both a return to form and a move away from some of the indulgences of his last albums, the man’s insufferable belly-aching can become a bit of a chore. Still, it rocks.

In many ways, Turin Brakes are merely on a post-Radiohead roll of bands imbued with Coldplay’s calculating over-weened emotionalism and obvious song-anthems. But with their third album, the duo have gone back to basics, recording the thing themselves with a relatively basic set-up, and the new approach pays dividends; nuance and subtlety raise their welcome heads in these safe but likable songs which have a decidedly folksy flavour.

September 2005

KURA HUNA (Mai/Shock)
Maori music has some essential problems in translating to contemporary audiences. Pre-European settlement, it’s a matter of conjecture as to what was played; we’re left with chants, and the challenge of dressing the raw material for 21st century consumption. Whirimako Black does it so beautifully, and so seemingly effortlessly, that even those with no interest in our indigenous culture will get an emotional kick out of her fourth album. Kura Huna is essentially an album of waiata (love songs), with Black’s mellow, huskily emotive vocals providing the raw soul, and a tight team of collaborators working up a slick ambient backdrop. Key support comes from multi-instrumentalist Russel Walder, whose keyboard washes are just occasionally on the wrong side of the New Age schmaltz-o-meter, and Nigel Gavin, who picks away evocatively on a number of guitar-based string instruments. Few overt rhythms in sight on this very special album, which with great confidence does exactly what it sets out to do: touch your heart.

For some years Kieran Hebden has been quietly forging his unique and beguiling music. Working exclusively with samples, Hebden peels away the most gorgeous filigrees from British folk, Javanese gamelan, classical minimalism and other styles of interest and curiosity. Working digitally at an almost molecular level with principally warm, acoustic music, Fourtet makes something startlingly fresh out of pre-existent elements. On his fourth album, Hebden has made his best work yet; it’s a largely introspective album, but occasionally his drum programming reveals a funk element that revs things up. Utterly mesmerising, Everything Ecstatic, while entirely instrumental, manages to be musically adventurous, emotionally rewarding, and about as comforting as a perfectly brewed cup of char and one of Mum’s bikkies.

It’s high time that rock’s oldest living lunatic got a decent, career-spanning compilation, and this is it. This chronological double CD is most exhilarating on its first disc, on which we’re given generous helpings from James Osterberg’s most seminal work: the acid-comedown nihilism of his albums with The Stooges, the pre-punk garage blitz of Raw Power, and his moody, powerful, Berlin-recorded work with David Bowie in the late ‘70s. Much has been made of Iggy’s self-mutilation, drug habits and wild man ways, but it’s the unrelenting honesty of these songs, together with his unmistakable deep yet craggy vocals that deserve eulogising. Disc two catalogues his spotty work of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the first three years of the 21st Century. Ironically, those years in which Iggy crept nearest to self-parody were his most popular, hence sad-arse tracks like “Real Wild Child” and “Candy”. Of late, Iggy has rediscovered his garage roots, and tracks like “Wild America” contain more than just echoes of his famously naked intensity.

BELLADONNA (Anti-/Shock)
Daniel Lanois is one of those marginal figures whose ambient productions and guitar prowess added texture to the work of people like U2, Peter Gabriel, and other middling mega-stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Which is to say that there was nothing to suggest the fellow would come up with one of my favourite albums of 2005, practically unsung and almost slipping through the dragnet. Belladonna builds on the ambient work Lanois undertook with Brian Eno in the early ‘80s, but his gorgeous pedal steel guitar work give these surprisingly melodic instrumental ruminations a touch of country. In fact, if there’s one artist and period this album evokes, it’s the desert soundscapes of Ry Cooder’s unforgettable Paris, Texas. A truly bewitching recording for those late night pontifications, its emotional complexity allows it to easily escape any comparisons to New Age floss. Lovely.

Very occasionally, something comes along to confound the clichés it deals in. Far from turning worn-out House beats on their sorry heads, Matthew Chicoine (here known as Recloose), actively languishes in their fetid domain. And somehow, still manages to churn out something fresh. The Detroit native – now based on the Kapiti Coast – has enlisted a stellar support crew from home and abroad, and his sound seems to effortlessly flaunt its mellow soul and jazz inflections, while retaining just a smidgen of the streamlined techno his home town is famed for. With a rich and evocative sound bed (including juicy Rhodes piano and wicked synthesizer), and a roll-call of cheerfully emoting vocalists, Hiatus On The Horizon has an internal logic that rises above the occasional lapse into corny lyric territory.

[also noted]

Jam-packed career-spanning compilation of this chronically under-rated group, which concentrates on its glory years in the early ‘70s; the Purple virtually created the concept of cranking up all the dials to total tape saturation, resulting in their grunty fusion of moronic boogie, with throaty overdriven organ, stupid but effective guitar flailing, and wailing frontman. Basically, all the best of culture smashed to death by drugs and rock and roll.

There’s something heart-warming about a record as cheap, cheerful and basically disposable as Louis XIV’s major label debut. These overtly silly songs – some would call them novelties – remind me of the shambolic nature of early Ween, and they have the same kind of adolescent humour. Of course, hip-hop impacts on even the whitest corners of suburbia these days, and many of the lyrics are talked rather than sung. Most endearing of all is a distinct harkening from this American band back to the days of that most English of phenomenons, glam. Especially T Rex.

STOLEN HILL (Warner Music)
When Moa’s easy way with a song works in consort with the high quirk factor of Ed ‘Cake’ McWilliams’ production, Stolen Hill defines its ground. Despite its share of fine moments (aided in no small part by a stellar support cast which includes most of Dimmer) the ambition of Moa’s chosen song subjects outstrips her ability to articulate them. Nice try.

BETTER TO HAVE IT (Proper/Southbound)
For fans of the classic Memphis soul sound, with its infusion of country values, a reunion with producer Dan Penn after an astonishing 40 years. Featuring Muscle Shoals stalwarts like Spooner Oldham and Jimmie Johnson, and Purify’s own thick-set molasses croon, it’s a warm and inviting revisiting of an era long gone.

Soul and breakbeat fusion project from Auckland that’s endearingly old-fashioned in its use of dialogue samples and semi-recognisable funk groove templates. As it goes on – and it does – Substax get more ambitious, less coherent and the real problem raises its head. Anyone got some songs to spare?

Describing itself as a ‘nu-jazz compilation’, this sixth installment in the French background grooves series tries to vary the formula: for every expertly programmed but worryingly anonymous electronic/jazz hybrid, there’s someone else singing and playing ‘real’ instruments (Jamie Cullum, for instance). Superior latte-swilling fodder.

October 2005

For those who still aren’t in on one of rock history’s more enduring secrets, Can are truly a desert-island-disc ensemble. Operational throughout most of the ‘70s, this Cologne-based group constructed a unique parallel universe in which academic influence and rock culture weren’t mutually exclusive, and where dub-like studio experimentation and ongoing investigations into the hypnotic impact of repetition were more important than conquering America. While their music remains known only to the music cognoscenti, the group’s methodologies have had a huge impact on the rock landscape over the past 20 years, revolutionising successive generations of musical subversion. The second wave of EMI’s reissue campaign begins with 1973’s Future Days, in which the transcendent raucousness of earlier releases is relinquished in favour of a new level of ambient subtlety behind Jaki Liebezeit’s man-machine percussion prowess. Successive albums Soon Over Babaluma and Landed are both essential, and fantastic remastering efforts (including SACD playback for those who have it) replaces hiss-hampered early CDs with a rich sonic playground.

Goldfrapp wear their influences on their sleeves, but get away with it… just. It’s easy to spot the influences – Kate Bush in Alison Goldfrapp’s vocal mannerisms here, T Rex in the intentionally glam-rock moments there – but there’s something irresistible about the way this duo put it all together. Like everyone else at the moment, Goldfrapp have also hooked into the cheap-sounding electro pulse of the early ‘80s, but thankfully, that possible interference is overcome by the fruitiness of her vocal delivery, and the skillful songwriting, which fleshes out the bones nicely. Before pop grew up, the kind of red-hot enthusiasm and sexiness on display here was an everyday occurrence; no wonder Goldfrapp are hot, in a music scene that seldom pays homage to the genuine spirit of pop. They might be fluff, but it’s like French philosophy compared to everything else you’ll see on Top Of The Pops.

EVERYONE INTO POSITION (Beggars Banquet/Shock)
When this group crashes in with all the subtlety of a boy racer at 140mph on a suburban street, you’d swear they were personal friends of Metallica, so hard-nosed and rambunctious are their jagged riffs. But then something happens. By the second track, they’re combining this heaviosity with a razor-sharp New Wave sensibility not heard since the demise of groups like Psychedelic Furs. Then they bring on the shimmering massed guitar waves of shoegazers like Ride and My Bloody Valentine. It’s either a glorious crash collision, or an ill-advised Frankenstein’s monster of sound styles, and I’m not about to pronounce my final verdict. For now, this odd combo of melancholic anthem alternative pop and rousing long haired power rock will happily inhabit my head space.

NOW (Failsafe)
Subtitled Singles & Demos 1979-1981, this is one of five Pop Mechanix compilations released concurrently by Christchurch label Failsafe. What may seem over-ambitious or simply more than we could possibly want from a minor footnote in New Zealand rock history turns out to be a thoroughly educative archeological exercise. Their name may be redolent of an awkward period of post-punk endeavour, and even a cursory listen conjures forth images of thin ties, drain pipes and vaguely ridiculous top-heavy hair-does. But despite these potential draw-backs, Pop Mechanix’ music scrubs up remarkably well 25 years after the event. This was a moment in time when the energy of punk combined with pure pop smarts, and Christchurch groups like Pop Mechanix and The Newz had pub residencies, which gave their music a road-tested quality lacking in many of the more innovative bands of the time. Starting out with Dick Driver on vocals, the group soon switched to Andrew Snoid, who features on their most notable single release, Jumpin’ Out A Window. The group soon took off to Australia, where they continued in various shapes and forms without ever cracking the market, but made a wealth of commercially catchy, yet acerbic, tight pop music in the process. Any student of Kiwi pop needs these albums. Probably not in your local store, so check out

ODYSSEY (Decca/Universal)
Our very own wee provincial songbird chirps her way through a much more ambitious round of songs than we have a right to expect from someone from the ‘light classical’ division, on her second, all-important, international release. She has a good crack at Enya (“May It Be” from Lord Of The Rings), Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), and traditional folk (“She Moves Through The Fair”). What’s weird about Westenra’s appeal – and the claims that she’s got perfect pitch and the voice of an angel – is that her voice totally lacks the transformative edge of a truly great vocalist. From Maria Callas to Jeff Buckley, Kirsten Flagstadt to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the ability to convey emotional truth and a sense of unearthly magic defines the genius of the Singer. Ironically, it may be precisely because of the lack of those qualities that millions will buy this album. If the rather fetching ditty she co-wrote (“What You Never Know Won’t Hurt You”) is anything to go by, Westenra might someday find that edge.

[also noted]

Seven track debut by transplanted South Islander Annabel Alpers that’s a blast of lo-fi honesty. Playing what sounds suspiciously like electronic rejects from the 1980s like bad synthesizers and worse drum machines, she somehow makes them cohere to her beautifully balmy lyrics and naïve singing style. In an era of pointless ‘80s retreads, Alpers demolishes the tin shed style with her piquant personality.

This reissue captures a certain style of very Auckland band at a certain point of pop music’s evolution. For their short lifespan, Danse Macabre were obviously in awe of groups like The Cure and Joy Division, and at times on this lovingly remastered compilation of tracks recorded 1981-82, they could almost pass as a collaboration between early New Order and The Cure in their Faith-era gloomiest. To many this release will be seen as an exercise in unnecessary corpse reanimation, but there are pleasures to be had listening to these tracks, for all their limitations. Luckily, Danse Macabre’s work has been granted Preservation A status, and this release is a fine monument to their short reign.

Though not everything here is sterling, this collection (subtitled The Best Of The Dillards 1963-1979) is an accurate discographical document tracing the pre-eminent electric bluegrass group through most of its career and manifestations, and at its best showing there’s more to Deliverance-style country than dueling banjos.

Lachrymose post-Flying Nun guitar music from Wellington has the feeling of being chipped away at for many months, with many fingers carefully mixing the pie; it’s a slow, narcotic beauty of guitar textures and almost-whispered vocals that takes several hearings to reveal itself, and despite itself (like guest stars the Phoenix Foundation) has moments of alternative pop charm that recall The Gobetweens.

TANGOS & TANTRUMS (Cheap Lullaby/Southbound)
Lewis is a revelation. In a world where half-assed covers artists make careers based on pointless nostalgia, Lewis fits styles from the golden age of song around her effortlessly evocative compositions. These songs of love and lust are sharply observed, and rendered with a wink or a tear, but always with style. Born in London, based on Los Angeles, Lewis bravely enters the era of the chanson on a debut album that nimbly sidesteps any cheap cabaret associations, while still evoking the romance and the sophistication of the 1930s. Alarmingly good.

Is this guy for real? Possibly mythical. Supposedly, McPhun is a native of sun-soaked Los Angeles translocated to Aotearoa, where he has hooked up with an idiosyncratic bunch from the Lil’ Chief stable. These quirky souls include people from the Brunettes, Tokey Tones and Nudie Suits. And it really does sound like late ‘60s Beach Boys slow-cooked in a hangi, then hung out to dry on a windy West Coast beach, with ample hooch floating past. It’s pop, it’s odd, it’s throwaway, it’s genius.

November 2005

“I write reams of this shit every day,” says Cale gruffly on the song Brotherman, and I’m sure he does. Thankfully, this most distinctive of rock singer/songwriters has a pretty good strike rate. John Cale’s brief tenure in the Velvet Underground hardly prepares you for the breadth and depth of his subsequent output, which swings from the baroque pop genius of Paris 1919 to the take-no-prisoners junkie monster rock of Sabotage to the stripped-back pianisms of Music For A New Society. More recently, Cale’s restless spirit proved itself as lumpy, infuriating and brilliant as ever on his electronic comeback, Hobosapiens (2003). To fully appreciate this Welsh firebrand, the listener has to buy into his divertingly odd way with song form; at times, you wonder if the poor chap suffers some kind of musical dyslexia, so weird are the shapes he throws up. Comfortingly, the truth is that Cale is one of the few songwriters still experimenting with those devalued art forms, pop and rock. And on Black Acetate, conventional pop and rock templates are mercilessly undermined by striating waves of electronic noise and fantastic, grinding rock riffs.

SIBERIA (Cooking Vinyl/Shock)
Maybe it was the silly name that stopped Echo & the Bunnymen from conquering the world. If this Liverpool post-punk group with its songs of rolling, brooding power had only named themselves U2… Instead, their early brilliance morphed into a mid-‘80s period of luminous pop classics like Killing Moon before slowly retreating to blandness. With the revival of all things post-punk, the two remaining members (vocalist Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant) regroup with original producer Hugh Jones for Siberia, an album of fairly pleasant pop songs about mid-life drug abuse and irreconcilable marriage breakdowns. Coldplay’s Chris Martin apparently considers it a winner, but it does lack the majesty of yore, sounding more like a join-the-dots creation; a studio dabble rather than an unstoppable group mission. It could have done with some of the skin-thumping that late drummer Pete de Freitas (died in motorcycle accident, ’89) brought to the band.

For many years Fred Neil’s name was omitted from rock histories. His crime? Well, having written a batch of superb tunes in the ‘60s (culminating in Nilsson’s cover of Everybody’s Talkin’ ) he simply walked away from the music scene and consequently, right off the map. Subtitled The Best Of Fred Neil 1963-’71, this compilation is the first to explore Neil’s work across several record labels, and makes a clear case for a reassessment of this major artist’s legacy. While Dylan was still struggling with his Woody Guthrie impersonations, Fred Neil was already using his startling deep voice to get right inside his world-weary songs; and by the time Dylan went conventionally electric, Neil was incorporating much more interesting shadings of jazz and even Indian modalities. Neil was a huge influence on similarly doomed singer/writer Tim Buckley, and this excellent primer will prove an intoxicating elixir for the legions of music fans currently revitalising the byways of forgotten corners of roots music.

THE MILK-EYED MENDER (Drag City/Rhythmethod)
Not since Melanie (Safka) and her Brand New Key in 1970 has a female singer/songwriter shown up with a voice and word combination as distinctive as Joanna Newson; her vocal chords produce a sound that’s almost freakish, but there’s an ugly-ducking quality that, while polarising audiences, certainly finds many ardent admirers. And yes, I’m amongst them. While it’s true that a little goes a long way on this debut, home-made album, it’s also true that taken in small doses Newson’s songs are like little jewels, with the kind of earth/cosmic wordplay that Don Van Vliet used to such great effect in his Captain Beefheart persona. While shortcomings in the recording produces the odd ruffle of distortion, the sharp sonics are balanced by Newson’s playing of the eloquently mellow celtic harp; an eloquence matched by words and delivery that make The Milk-Eyed Mender a breath-catcher.

KONFUSION (Ninja Tune/Flavour)
Polish duo Skalpel have a mission: “To resurrect the dusty and smoky spirit of ‘60s and ‘70s Polish jazz and then re-imagine it for 21st Century audiophiles”. The vibrant Polish jazz scene was seen as deeply subversive in the communist era, and Skalpel examined that legacy on their first, self-titled long player. For all its charm that album was a bit lightweight; a problem that’s addressed on the rich sonic stew that constitutes Konfusion. Keening in on the kind of intoxicating jazz fusion typified by groups like Tony Williams’ Lifetime or Miles Davis’ electric groups, but with an added stately European beauty, the album is full of great, slightly menacing riffs that mutate slowly while trumpets and electric piano add an ambient backdrop. Going by these stolen European jazz samples, artfully rehashed for today’s hi-fi demands, this little-known scene was very cool indeed.


FABRICLIVE.23 (Fabric/Rhythmethod)
The albums Richard Fearless made under the Death In Vegas banner never failed to impress with their dizzying eclecticism, and seemingly effortless shifts between knowing rock moves and dance culture. His Fabric label mix CD gives him the opportunity to flog one particular influence: techno in its steely 4/4 variations. Major long-form squelch and shudder at its very best.

McKeown – here on her fourth long player – has a curiously affecting voice. Unadorned, nonchalant in its almost nuance-free plainness, the naked honesty of her vocal pipes is the best thing about an album which could have done with some minor keys and some instrumental intrigue, but will appeal to those of catholic taste. Lyric fans may also take solace in a series of expertly conjured end-of-relationship scenarios that somehow find hope in misery.

PAJO (Drag City/Rhythmethod)
David Pajo is one of those underground legends whose critical cache (notably in seminal rock group Slint) easily outweighs his commercial success. A difficult little sucker to peg, Pajo never lets the singing and the songwriting get in the way of its intoxicating atmospheres. Built on computer-reprocessed guitar shimmers and subtle additions, the whole thing floats around like it’s suspended in amniotic fluid.

The tragedy of Du Pre’s early retirement (due to multiple sclerosis) forever seals her status as the most famous of all classical cellists. These recordings from the 1960s and early ‘70s, centre around performances of her beloved Elgar, Dvorak and Haydn, and they’re testament to both her technical excellence and precocious dramatism. Three discs worth.

LOVE IS THE ANSWER (Ninja Tune/Flavour)
This somewhat bizarre project has obscure but ‘legendary’ jazz vocalist Trible contribute his raw talent to a bunch of electronic/dance music producers led by Carlos Nino of Ammoncontact. At times, this abstract fusion produces a warmth and depth that’s startling, but too often the trouble is Trible’s own lyrics, which reside squarely in the land of the cosmic cliché.

Yetton was once a member of the Jean Paul Sartre Experience, who started their life as one of Flying Nun’s more edgy, interesting bands, but quickly degenerated into a rather sickly pop confection. Yetton is now much older and a family man, and his first solo album reflects that in its subject matter, while the music itself risks catatonia. Unfortunately, Yetton’s lyrics have continued along their twee road, with nausea-inducing lines like “I do like stars without their makeup.” Miss.

December 2005

STYLE AND PATTERN (Ubiquity/Flavour)
Like Mark de Clive-Lowe’s recent, inexcusably neglected Tide’s Arising, with his second album Detroit native John Arnold has delivered a tour de force of contemporary fusion mixing up insistent dance beats with funk and jazz, and serving up sides of African Latin (and even Jamaican dancehall) influences. Like de Clive-Lowe, Arnold is a 21st Century renaissance man who doesn’t recognise musical boundaries, but more important, knows what works with what. Even though the beats are primarily programmed, the project sounds jammed out, and there’s an organic, energetic quality that gives a lie to its synthetic origins. Turns out that Arnold’s a guitarist who has developed his own system for performing his hybridised dance music on the fly, which might just explain, for all the rigidity of its beats, why this music breathes, flows and makes you want to shake that flabby butt. Very possibly the funkiest ass-shaking album of the year.

Gramsci’s latest has been out for months, and almost escaped my attention, as it seems to have the majority of the nation. But it’s the right time for ‘best of year’ roundups, and this deserves to make it to the most hallowed lists. NZ singer/ songwriter Paul McLaney is one of those rare, ridiculously talented artists whose catalogue is already large and spans a remarkable range of stylistic approaches. Like Stray Voltage is his most powerful work yet (and the third outing for Gramsci) mixing a brain-meltingly hard-edged yet dynamically moody rock sound with his own effortlessly acrobatic vocals: at times like Bono with a little bit of Jeff Buckley round the edges. At a time when garage rock is showing its boring limitations, these guys ignore that for a much more grandiose conception which captures the kind of drama associated with U2 or the Doors at their mighty best, but remains tightly controlled and hard-edged, never lapsing into the overweening caricatures that high drama often encourages. Highly recommended.

JUDGEMENT DAYS (Polydor/Universal)
How long since a major artist released an album full of protest and indignation, a record with a genuine social conscience, and made it work? Too often, otherwise worthy concerns come across as music-ruining polemic. Lost, it seems, is the spirit of artists like Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On?) and the natural righteousness of reggae masters like Winston Rodney (Burning Spear). While r’n’b divas like Jill Scott have brought a new intelligence and spirit to a previously barren genre, it’s taken British singer Ms Dynamite to up the ante. Having won a raft of awards around her debut in 2002, including the prestigious Mercury Prize, she disappeared from the public gaze to have a child. Her second album finds the former ‘Queen of UK garage’ (a dance music sub-genre) developing her musical base into one that’s well-rounded and built to last. While the music seldom fails to find funk in its bones, Ms Dynamite seldom shies away from telling it just like she sees it, whether she’s talking about the internal politic of relationships, or the wider issues of race and war. While it struggles to find the perfect balance as an album project, Judgement Days is strong stuff indeed.

FUN HOUSE (Elektra/Warners)
Widely dismissed as amateur, juvenile trash at the time (1969 and 1970, respectively) the two Stooges albums are rightly revered 35 years on. Successive generations of DIY garage band rock’n’rollers (carrying new genre affectations like Punk and Grunge) have all worshipped at the Stooges’ alter. Iggy Pop’s later career shambles has been the subject of intense retrospective inspection over the past couple of years, and at last these seminal first works have been restored and revamped to demand the attention they failed to generate the first time round. While the self-titled first album introduced the snarling Iggy Stooge (real name James Osterburg) to the world stage via a set of spectacularly rough half-formed snotty blasts, it’s the second album, Fun House, which the White Stripes’ Jack White describes as “The definitive rock album of America”. That might be stretching things a little, but its monolithic riffage and Iggy’s desperate, deathly Jim Morrison on heroin croon-cum-tomcat yowlings make it a still powerful and timeless work. Both albums come with extensive sleevenotes, and an extra disc of demos, different studio takes and unreleased material which will prove instructive to any future Stooges/Pop scholars.

PRAIRIE WIND (Reprise/Warners)
Neil Young’s output has been so patchy over the past 20 years, and has recently sunk to such a nadir of lyric writing that I wondered if senility beckoned. Being a Young fan these days has become a mug’s game, and it’s far easier just to write the old chap off. Except that every now and then he still comes up with an album that’s half good. Like this one. There are some pretty embarrassing moments on Prairie Wind, where his conservatism gets the better of him and he chucks out a few lyrical ideas that should have remained out of public sight (check out the last track, When God Made Me). But like 1992’s Harvest Moon, itself an echo of Harvest 20 years earlier), Prairie Wind is a Young album that allows his better musical instincts to prevail. And like those two classics, this one has arrangements that sound both familiar and rich in their orchestrations. Recorded in HDCD so you can hear every tiny nuance and creak of those old bones, and imbued with a definite sense of awareness of mortality after his recent dice with death, Prairie Wind is definitely worth a compassionate listen.


Russian composer/pianist Rachmaninov is hardly at the avant garde end of the classical spectrum, and his second piano concerto is oft-performed and recorded to the point of tedium. Andsne’s almost perfect interpretation of this and the Piano Concerto 1 (written when the composer was just 17) adds new lustre to works that can sound anachronistic in the wrong hands. For all their untenable old-world romanticism, these pieces retain an incandescence that vanquishes cynicism.

Okay, so everybody these days wants to sound like they were 19 in 1979, and the ‘alternative’ bins are full of teenagers playing pretend post-punk. Art Brut are yet another flavour of the moment, and it’s true they do have some funny and endearing lyrical couplets. But this group - who ape every move and vocal mannerism of Mark Smith and his band The Fall – have got some serious rethinking to do. Musically, Art Brut are 100 percent derivative.

THE EDGE (Capitol/EMI)
One of popular music’s less well-known but elusively enigmatic figures, David Axelrod wrote the book on music fusions during the years captured on this compilation – 1966-’70 – with his productions and arrangements. On tracks by Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley, and a bunch rescued from his own quirky and often downright bizarre solo ventures, Axelrod dares to mix jazz with funk and whatever other genre suits his needs… all with a unique panache that has seen his work pillaged by generations of hip-hoppers.

Hawes – who is US-bred but NZ-based – is a competent guitarist and the owner of a bell-like voice somewhat reminiscent of folk-era Joni Mitchell. Her debut CD is bravely eclectic and stubbornly quirky, but makes for a lumpy listen, and her endlessly ruminative lyrics end up coming on like hippy doggerel.

A profoundly preposterous album of cartoonish anti-Christmas songs from the Wellington-based project. DIY sound contortions (sped-up voices, cheap electronics) back lyrical dissections of various aspects of the Kiwi Christmas tradition. The perfect present for someone you really hate.

Never knew there was a psychedelic music scene in New Zealand in the ‘60s? Calling it a ‘scene’ may be a stretch of the imagination, but there were enough opportunistic attempts to jump on this hallucinogenically-inspired sub-genre to warrant this expertly curated 29-track compilation, with everything from genuine classics (Human Instinct’s title track, Hi-Revving Tongue’s Tropic Of Capricorn) to some truly (but entertainingly) shocking slabs of psych-exploitation (the evocatively named 40 Watt Banana’s Nirvana). Essential.