Saturday, April 18, 2009

it's a mystery how we're so unaware

sometimes you take a long time to express affection for someone or something that you love.

i love the bats.

try doing a google search for this fixture of new zealand indie rock (before that they were 'alternative', before that 'new wave'--at least according to the daddy's highway press kit, or was it law of things, i forget?). try it, and all you'll get is 'release the bats'--and not even the birthday party song.
oh, you may stray across the myspace page or wiki listing for the bats, but it may well be obscured by the fog of lesser entities. you would do well to clear away the cobwebs and give an ear to one of the most enduring and consistent bands i've ever heard, a four-piece outfit who sound as fresh and vital on their 2009 release the guilty office as they did in 1984 when they began making records.

i first heard the bats about six or seven years ago (oof) on local 'college-radio' station kexp, and from the first notes i was hooked (on the guitar hooks! har). i have tried several times to figure out what song it was, but everytime i'm convinced i know what it was i get fogged out by another that's just as jangly-rifficly good. it was either boogey man off 1991's lp fear of god, or one of the brilliant tracks from the previous year's law of's ahrd to tell, as the sound from that 'first period' is like one huge fantastic album. from 1984 to 1995 releases came out every year or two, but since then the rate has slowed somewhat, with an entire decade seperating 1995's couchmaster from the shock re-emergence of at the national grid. it's been another four years until guilty office. these extended gaps stem from the fact that the bats, unlike many bands, are fairly heterogenous in their activities. songwriter and lead robert scott writes approximately two songs-a-day by some accounts (that may be an exaggeration) and performs solo, with nz legends the clean, and with a handful of local friends, most recently gina rocco, with whom he has released a solid full-length and a stunningly spare ep, called moonlight potato which to me, recalls his work with jane sinnott as the magick heads--a ridiculously difficult-to-track-down band (although douglas wolk still has an available release at dark beloved cloud). from what i understand, the bats do new stuff when robert comes up to christchurch, where kean and woodward, and grant all live, from the otago port of dunedin where he lives. up north the other three bats members keep active with the wonderfully jangly minisnap, for whom kaye writes most of the material.
i keep using the term 'jangly' and it's a bit of a crutch, i admit, but the reason is that the bats, along with the clean and the chills, were part of what defined the so-called 'dunedin sound' slapped onto flying nun bands in the eighties the way 'grunge' was slapped onto everything in the pacific northwest a decade later. i only mention these three bands because they're really the only ones in the fn stable who fit the name! the verlaines had a little jangle-jangle too, but the tall dwarfs didn't, and many of the subsequent bands on that label didn't either. anyway, i'll search for other adjectives!

after hearing the bats on the radio, i couldn't find out anything about them! it was very frustrating (especially since i was sub-savvy on the intraweb at the time), and it was probably more than six months before i happened to stumble across fear of god in a used cd bin. i actually let out an embarrassing whoop in the store. i got it home and popped it in the stereo, and just sat there in my chair for the duration, just listening. i can list the amount of records i have done that with on maybe seven fingers.
the used bin became my tried and true ally since most of the flying nun output has been o.o.p. for longer than i care to admit. i found the all of the first five albums (i don't count compiletely bats because it's a compilation, although i don't have it, and i want it desperately) and the stellar ep spill the beans (featuring mac mccaughan 'duelling wahs' with kaye!!!) in them bins, and when national grid came out i was so stoked to be able to actually buy a new bats record!
so often in my musical history, i've come across great bands too late to be a part of their extant lives, like young marble giants or beat happening, and it's been very special to me that not only have the bats (and the clean, for that matter) kept going when they easily could've called it a day before i'd even come across them, but i've even had the great privelege of corresponding with them. it's such a wonderfull feeling to have such a small connection with a band one loves...

back to the record at hand, the bats' first on nz label arch hill (who released the clean's live album mashed as well, i should note):
much has been written already about how the guilty office 'breaks new ground' with the sound, but stays true to the 'driving guitars' and lyrical 'darkness' affiliated with past releases. well, that's true, i suppose, but not definitive. the 'bats sound' being referred to is a simple set-up of the solid backdrop of malcolm grant's drums and paul kean's perfect-punctuation bass-work (on his hand-made 'barracuda' bass--so cool if you can find piccies of it). this tight rhythm works the low end and the bridge to kaye woodward's soaring riffs and jangly (sorry--that word again) trebly lines and hooks is made by robert scott's solid and subtle rhythm guitar (mostly, sometimes they switch roles). all the instrumentation is set of by the frankly lovely harmonies of bob and kaye's voices. bob has a low croon-to-high warble and kaye sets him off well with her sweet melodic backing vocals.
all of those characteristics have been present since 1983, and they continue to be the definition of what a bats album sounds like. which apparently draws some accusations of 'samey-ness,' which i find ridiculous. i think if a band sounds identifiable from record to record, then that's a good thing. if they sound the same i can see a doorway for objection, but when a band like the bats--or for that matter like the mountain goats, who sound like the same chords are used ad infinitum (not a criticism, btw)--places a high priority on the songwriting, as they do, then such claims become more baseless.
for the record, a lot of the 'new sound' talk comes from the strings (with harp!) arrangements done for the album by allan starrett, though these commentators are either forgetful or unaware that the band has past associations with dunedin's alastair galbraith. speaking of the starrett contributions, it was a neat experience for me to follow the progression of one of the songs on the record, crimson enemy. i first heard the song on a 'live to air' recording of the bats on kfjc (a san francisco college radio station) in 2006, a recording i got directly from robert, actually. it's a song the band 'just learnt up today' according to the recording, and i had to sit there for nearly two years waiting for it to resurface! slightly faster and higher-pitched than originally, the song popped back up on the bats' myspace page late last year, but didn't yet have the added strings. than the record came and the song had overdubs and other juicy studio details. it was really cool for me, trying to learn how to master my own songs, to see how theirs progressed.
anyway (how could this be one of my posts without an 'anyway'...), i should stop this epic post now.
if you can find bats records buy them. if you find actual vinyl bats records, buy them and email me and snail mail them to me and i'll paypal you!
seriously though, the bats defy the rolling-stones-dinosaur-please-please-stop model of how a band matures and ages, still making great, and sadly underappreciated, music. they have this new record (only a few months old!) and a 7"(i think?) in the works. they're touring europe this summer. one can only hope they'll make it to seattle eventually...

get onboard, ay?

Friday, April 17, 2009

you've never seen when i wear a turban

in the same line as getting to know a new band (new to me, natch) via the world wide double-yoo, i am obsessing about herman düne who, despite their recent seattle gig, i have not seen outside of my 12-inch laptop. have you heard of these fellows? i had not until quite recently. my friend carlos (a massive shrimper fan) turned me on to them when he asked me if i wanted to check out their show down in ballard towne. i say, well, who are dey? any good? he sez, well they're okay, i heard them on the shrimper, and i want to check them out. i say i'd like to go, and file it away in my head. i also go to their myspace and listen to a tune and think, oh french-swedish jonathan richman kinda thing, i can dig it. and so i friended them and planned on going to this show.
so a few weeks later, the night of the show's come up and i've got some nasty diarrhea (if this offends your delicate sensibilities, and/or you think it's too much information, you probably won't like it here... i still like you, i'm just sayin' though...) and anyway, going to a tavern in --it bears repeating-- ballard, was lowest on my priority totem pole. s i didn't go, and the next day my (former!) co-worker adam says to me, so dude, why weren't you there last night. shit shit. now i'm totally kicking myself because i have been listening to this shit over and over again. i don't know what it is, but sometimes i just can't kick a record. when i first got sweden i listened to deinara crush over and over and over for weeks before moving on to nine black poppies.

anyway. i've mentioned the concerts a emporter, the 'take-away shows' at blogotheque before, and they were key again in this instance. (if you don't know these, they are al fresco semi-improvisational and über-stripped down videos of musicians performing in unusual circumstances--check them out, you won't regret it.)
i've been on this whole kick for a few years of appreciating bands/performers highly based on their versatility, or more specifically, their ability to adapt to minimalist modes of performance. calvin johnson, mount eerie, and the mountain goats are the types who dress up a little for studio, but i've also flipped that esteem to compare favorably with guys like john vanderslice, the clean and (non-guy) st vincent, who drop all the studio trim to bust it out solo (or trio-lo). i don't know if i'm awake enough to articulate what i mean. i like maximum sound out of minimum means. that's what i mean.
anyway, these herman düne dudes, currently a two-piece, sound fantastic. their studio recordings have a lot of nice ixed percussion, layered guitars (like, rhythm and lead!), bass and lovely-voiced angelic back-up singers. but on the blogotheque vids it's just the two (david-ivar (yaya) and neman herman dune) guys singing and playing through the parisien streets. david-ivar plays this little parlour guitar and sings and neman follows along with a varity of little percussions like wood blocks and rattles. and that's all they need, and it blows my mind.

so is song of samuel. i cannot stop listening to this five-and-a-half minute story-song of a blossoming love between a young rich girl ad a violinist from the ghetto. goddamn it's gorgeous...

anyway, i don't have money now, and can't buy up their records, so until i get a new job (new life?), i'll have to make do with the blogotheque, with the myspace, and the excellent daytrotter session they did. right now they're on the top of my 'when i have money again i will buy...' list.

we're all gonna die

in the last several months i've been hustling to grab as much music as possible as soon as i hear something good, i've been hitting the interweb asap and bagging as much of said band/songwriter/whatever's back catalogue as possible. it's been quite effective as an acquisition strategy, but the downside has been that my 'absorption' rate has plummetted. with some exceptions, i've been giving most of the new stuff a listen or two then moving on to either a) old mountain goats b) new mountain goats or c) the next record. add to that the stuff i come across on myspace and daytrotter and blogoteque and you get one big pile of mess.
so now that i have no job, i've been obsessively listening to handfuls of records at a time, and am developing plenty of new music crushes. so the next few days should be a bit of a torrent...

in no particular order, i am starting the deluge with scout niblett.
i've heard about scout niblett for a while now, but had not heard 'them.' see? i didn't even know that they were a her. but then i finally got tired of not paying attention and started digging around. the first thing i happened to come across, by pure chance, was a youtube video from february, 2007, of scout (née emma) playing dinosaur egg at shepherd's bush empire (a london club).
i was gobsmacked.
there she stood on stage in a tatty pullover, long skirt and tousled hair, and a vintage fender jag (rather than the mustang she often favors) strapped around her shoulder. she played the first notes and they viciously carved their dischordant harmonies into my brain. as she began to sing, the high girlish whisper accelerated slowly into a febrile shriek rife with emotion and desperation.
i listened to dinosaur egg about ten times in a row that first sitting, just over and over.
then i got serious and started simply following the youtube links. the next video i watched was a performance, with her drummer, of song for scout in ten years. with just the three elements of her voice and guitar and his percussion i was convinced that studio engineers are highly overpaid individuals (sorry loren). the song started softly, but abruptly launched into a raucous hard rock attitude, then back, and so forth.

i haven't been so thunderstruck by anyone in a while (musically, *cough-cough*), and i was just in shock that this woman had been out there doing this for some little while. i immediately ordered whatever of her records i could find. have you ever ordered from the secretly canadian/jagjaguwar/dead oceans trifecta? it's very old-school (as these things go); no instant gratification, just some dudes in indiana going into their storehouse and mailing stuff. while it killed me to wait three weeks after hearing this shit, i still appreciated the hell of the fact that labels still function this way sometimes. insrt smiley face.

in the meantime, as i waited, i kept digging up stuff on the net, learning that scout niblett's songs are sometimes just her accompanying herself on drums, and that she's partial to a blonde wig or a roadworker's neon-orange reflective vest. i found the concert a emportér episode of her wandering up and through a parisien apartment building, in oberkampf, walking down a hall sweetly passed by an inquisitive and dapper frenchman, and finding herself in someone's flat where, when she finishes her song, the guy says "hello, would like some tea or some-zing?" and she giggles back "yeh, that'd be really nice." she's sweet and shy and goofy and ferocious and passionate and feral, sometimes at the same time, a bizarre combination of the insouciant type of woman you seldom find outside of england, and a patti smith-type chanteuse-maudit.
i also came across a lot of lazy descriptions of scout niblett in relation to either pj harvey, catpower, or both. i also came across a lot of reactionary denials that she was anything like either of them.
funny, that.
she reminds me a bit of what polly harvey sounded like back in the early nineties: both women are smallish with big grinding guitars and voices that whisper and scrape and wail equally effectively. that those voices are also english adds to a certain sense of sorority (and perhaps it is silly, but i have always found it sexy to hear a british woman's voice--a cliché i'm sure, but true).
i don't quite agree with the catpower assertion, though both are intense and powerful singers. i tend to think that the comparison stems more from chan marshall's supposed bipolar status and some sort of insinuation that scout niblett is as unstable. i think that feeling tends to come from people who, were they asked, would describe themselves as 'normal' for the most part. heh.

blah-blah. i could go on and on musing on the little things, i suppose. it seems a little innecessary to try to use words to describe scout, when one should listen to her. i'll leave this with words from niblett herself. i went over to her myspace page to listen to the tracks from her new single that she had just posted, and saw that she had updated the page thus: in the 'influences' box, she had written:

i just went up to a woman i didn't know to ask her about her dog. this is how the conversation went: me: 'arrr, what kind of dog is that?' she: 'chiwawa ....his name is weston' me: 'is he a puppy?' ( a logical question it seemed to me as he seemed extremely tiny for even a chiwawa) she then ignored my question and added before she walked off... 'you could turn your life around you know, you know that? at any time, could have a weston too!'

brutal. <3