I had intended to post the final 2020 Choice Kiwi Cut on New Years Eve. But, you know, NYE and the best laid plans etc. The next few days are a write-off, naturally, and before you know it, it’s the fourth of January already. Probably just me. Anyway, that tenth and final choice is a low key pearler from the Wellington-based duo Buffalo Bunny (Victoria Singh and Jamie Scott Palmer), who served us the prescient and slightly subversive ‘2 Meters’ slap bang in the middle of our nationwide (soon to be global) lockdown. It just seems to encapsulate the unease of moment perfectly … “be kind to one another” …
Monday, January 4, 2021
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
It’s time for the annual wrap of the best new albums added to your blogger’s collection this year. There’s been a few, but I’ll choose ten for this post, and then take a look at the best of the rest, compilations/reissues, and EPs in a series of separate posts as we enter the new year. This is not so much a “best of” 2020, because I’ve no doubt I’ve missed many of the actual best albums, but more of a personal “most-listened-to” list. As ever, the only prerequisite for inclusion is that I picked up a copy of the album during the year (in any format), which does, admittedly, rule out a good number of decent albums I merely preview-streamed via Spotify and failed to follow through with.
10. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers
2020 saw Auckland indie-pop nerds The Beths consolidate their reputation as one of the best young bands in the country. A fact confirmed when they picked up three gongs at the annual Aotearoa Music Awards. Sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers wasn’t dramatically different from the band’s debut, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. My full review is here.
9. The Phoenix Foundation - Friend Ship
Five years on from the release of Give Up Your Dreams, which for me was something close to a career high watermark for The Phoenix Foundation (and an album rated number two on this blog’s year-end list for 2015), Wellington’s most eclectic pop collective returned with Friend Ship. And while it didn’t quite scale the lofty heights of GUYD, or earlier work like Horsepower, Pegasus, or Buffalo, it was another great set from a bunch of guys who continue to poke away at boundaries without compromising their core sound. On Friend Ship we got everything from elaborate orchestral stuff - see collaborations with the NZSO - to odd psychedelic moments, proggy flavours, and more snippets of humour than you can shake a funny cigarette at. But mostly we got crafty intelligent pop music dressed in a variety of threads, and the collaborations with Hollie Fullbrook (‘Decision Dollars’, ‘Tranquility’) and Nadia Reid (‘Hounds of Hell’) were outstanding. I also really loved the pomp and swagger of ‘Guru’, the scene-setting album opener. Oddly though, given that it was one of the more high profile album takeaways, and clearly loved elsewhere, I was less taken by the faux-disco of ‘Landline’, which for me veered beyond pastiche and into the realm of just plain cheesy. But then, I’ve always struggled with irony, and it wouldn’t be a proper Phoenix Foundation album if there wasn’t at least one track that left me scratching my head. Not reviewed on the blog.
8. Murmur Tooth - A Fault in This Machine
I was heavily invested in this one during our autumn lockdown period. In my original review (here), I called it the most uneasy listening “easy listening” album you’re likely to hear all year, and nothing happened to change that view. I loved it.
7. Alicia Keys - Alicia
I’m a fan of pure unadulterated pop music, and although Alicia Keys is not usually an artist I’d necessarily gravitate towards, Alicia was an album for the ages. Socially conscious, empowering, and life affirming. My review is here.
6. Nadia Reid - Out of My ProvinceHow could any local not love an album that opens with the line “you took me to Levin”? ... for the uninitiated, Levin is a small soulless market town, about an hour’s drive north of Wellington in New Zealand’s lower North Island, and a million miles removed from any of the romance implied on Nadia Reid’s album opener ‘All of my Love’. And coincidently, a town not a million miles away from where your blogger resides. Anyway, it’s that sense of “us” that first attracted me to Reid’s work as long ago as her Preservation album (of 2017) after overlooking far too much of her early stuff. Out of my Province was probably the biggest “grower” of this year’s bunch. After the first couple of listens I concluded it was all a bit too beige and “generic folky”, but I stuck with it, and as time passed I became far better acquainted with all of its many hidden charms. In fact, although it is only number six on this list, Out of My Province was probably the album I listened to more than any other across the full year. It just wasn’t my ultimate favourite. It helped that it was so workplace (office) compliant and I was able to spend a lot of time with it. Best cuts: ‘Best Thing’, and the silver scroll-nominated ‘Get the Devil Out of Me’. Not reviewed on the blog, which is perhaps just as well, because I feel very differently about it today than I did when I first picked it up.
5. Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison
Another genuine grower, after curiosity got the better of me. I mean, a Matt Berninger (The National) solo work in collaboration with the great Booker T. Jones, what could possibly go wrong? Not much, evidently. My review is here.
4. The Orb - Abolition of the Royal Familia
An all new intoxicating blend of disco, deep house, ambient electronica, and skanky dub. New Orb, just like old Orb, and if there was a track that summed up the post-apocalyptic nature of 2020 better than album closer ‘Slave Till U Die No Matter What U Buy’, which appropriates Jello Biafra’s ‘Message From Our Sponsor’ spoken-word narrative, then I didn’t hear it. My review is here.
3. The War on Drugs - Live DrugsGiven that I’m going to do a blog year-in-review write-up specifically on compilations and reissues, I was tempted to save this one for that piece. A live album is a compilation by default, right? Um, I guess, but Live Drugs was just too good to ignore and there were a few occasions late in the year when I had this on repeat, so it has to qualify on my most-listened-to list instead. Way more than the sum of its parts, the album is essentially a collection of live extracts from a bunch of different gigs played in support of the band’s two most recent - and most commercially successful - albums, Lost in the Dream (2014) and A Deeper Understanding (2017). Yet it plays like it could all have been recorded at the same gig. The flow, the feels, and sense that this was, or is, a band right at the top of its game. It’s a virtual live “greatest hits”, with eight of the ten tracks coming from those two albums, including seven singles, while there’s one very early TWOD offering, ‘Buenos Aires Beach’, and a fairly choice Warren Zevon cover ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what appeals most about The War on Drugs; all those classic rock touchstones - big keys, harmonica breaks, and lengthy guitar solos - and all that big Springsteen-esque Americana would usually be enough to have me reaching for the industrial-strength Nurofen, yet somehow it works. There’s some truly epic moments on Live Drugs, and highlights include wonderful versions of ‘Pain’, ‘Red Eyes’, ‘Thinking of a Place’, and ‘Under The Pressure’. No blog review.
2. Antipole - Perspectives II
If I’m going to break unwritten but notional blog rules by including live albums, then I simply have to throw in this remix album, which revisits tunes from Antipole’s 2019 album, Radial Glare. It’s a sister release for the Anglo-Norwegian dark-wavers to Perspectives (which topped this list in 2018), and it was another regular go-to album for me during the autumn lockdown period. My review is here.
1. Fontaines D.C. - A Hero’s DeathI was very slow on the uptake when it came to Fontaines D.C., somehow missing all of the initial hype surrounding the band’s debut album Dogrel (2019), before being seduced into complete and utter submission by the sheer post-punk majesty of this year’s follow-up, A Hero’s Death. I had to chuckle when I read the band’s claim in the NME, upon completion of the album in late 2019, that it “was inspired by the Beach Boys”. Yeah, only if the Beach Boys had been raised on the rain-swept streets of Dublin, consumed Guinness for breakfast, dressed entirely in black, and listened to nothing but the Velvet Underground. This is post-punk 101, 2020-style. A state-of-the-art example of raw, gritty rock n roll, propelled by big basslines, weighty guitars, and a vocalist with a thick booming Irish accent to die for. Which is more than enough, but what really gives A Hero’s Death its next level heft is its clever and artful collection of lyrics. Songs packed full of urgency, insight, irony, and humour. There’s no filler here, and tracks like ‘Televised Mind’, ‘I Don’t Belong’, ‘A Lucid Dream’, and the title track itself, would all be fully legit contenders for any notional eveythingsgonegreen tune of the year.
If there was such a thing. For now, I’ll stick to album reckons. And I’ve got no valid excuse for not giving A Hero’s Death the full review treatment on the blog. Of the ten albums covered here, four are local releases, yet I could just as easily have included a couple more (not least Darren Watson’s Getting Sober release) and I thought it was a pretty good year for homegrown stuff. More on that in my next post.
The flip side to that of course is that it was a terrible year for the local live music scene. With Covid-19, closed borders, lockdowns, and social distancing in effect for large chunks of 2020, quality live gigs were hard to come by. I can’t even really present a decent case for a gig of the year, given I attended so few. I guess it has to be The Beths at Wellington’s San Fran in October, pretty much by default. And I suppose if there was one positive to emerge from a lack of overseas touring acts, it was that local artists got more opportunities to shine as headliners when our nightlife did finally spring back into life mid-year.
Anyway, I’ll have a few more reflections on an extraordinary year over the next few weeks when I take a look at the best of the rest (albums), the best compilations and reissues, and even a post on the remarkable number of great EPs I managed to pick up during the year. In the meantime, be gone 2020. Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out …
Tuesday, December 29, 2020
‘Money Is All That We Fight About’ is brand new, but given that I haven’t really written anything about the exceptional Avantdale Bowling Club debut album of a few years back, I figure this one deserves inclusion. Tom Scott can scarcely do anything wrong, and the music of Avantdale Bowling Club continues to set the high bar where all local hip hop is concerned. And Scott somehow makes it all look so effortless. I’m unable to source a YouTube clip for this, so here’s the Bandcamp link:
Sunday, December 20, 2020
There was no official new album release for Pitch Black in 2020, but as ever, there was a bunch of “new” stuff to keep fans satisfied. The duo celebrated the 20th anniversary of their Electronomicon album with a remastering and a long overdue vinyl release. That reissue was accompanied by an album of live cuts from the era, released digitally on Bandcamp as Electronomicon Live (and as a name-your-price). And of course there was the now obligatory remix project, with last year’s album Third Light getting the makeover treatment to morph into The Light Within. That release contained remixes by the likes of International Observer, Dubsalon, SUBSET, and Bodie, amongst others, but I’m going to select Adrian Sherwood’s dub mix of ‘A Doubtful Sound’ as my choice Kiwi cut:
Saturday, December 19, 2020
Monday, December 14, 2020
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
I'm going to take the "cover" route for this one … but what a cover. A decade ago French retro/electro/synthwave dude Kavinsky - also see Daft Punk, Lovefoxxx - released a single that featured on the movie Drive called ‘Nightcall’. All vocoder and gleaming synthpop goodness, it quickly took on a life of its own and became firmly established as a post-millennium classic of its genre, much-loved and all but untouchable … so you’d think it would be something of a risk for a psych-pop band from Aotearoa to take it on and put their own spin on it, right? Step forward The Leers, who did exactly that, including it as the closer on the recent The Only Way Out Is In release. The band breathe new life into the tune, dressing it up in entirely new threads, and I think Matt Bidois’ emotive vocal take is exceptional. Strictly pop.
Monday, December 7, 2020
I’m pretty big fan of The National, so picking up a copy of Matt Berninger’s first full-length solo sojourn was always going to be a bit of a no brainer for me. Berninger’s baritone vocals have long been one of the most attractive features of The National’s work, so naturally I was curious to see how he would fare without the rest of the band …
The first thing to note is that Serpentine Prison is a genuine “solo album”, as opposed to being something additional from The National under another guise. Only bass player Scott Devendorf (from the band) contributes to Berninger’s project, and even then, he plays bass on just two of the album’s ten tracks.
That’s not to say there’s not some heavyweight help on hand in the form of Booker T. Jones (yes, *that* Booker T.) who produces, arranges, and offers a deft hand on Hammond organ and electric piano. There’s also Bowie-collaborator - amongst many other things - Gail Ann Dorsey, who assists with vocals (and bass), renowned multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird who plays violin on five tracks, and a subtle brass masterclass at various points from Kyle Resnick (trumpet) and Ben Lanz (trombone). The wider contributions of Walter Martin of The Walkmen (various) and Harrison Whitford (guitars, including slide and steel) should not be overlooked either.
Little wonder then, that purely from a musical perspective, in terms of instrumentation and execution, Serpentine Prison is something close to perfect. Everything is beautifully crafted, nothing is out of place, with exactly the right amount of musical weight applied to these (mostly) gentle introspective songs. Which naturally, thankfully, brings out the best in them.
Because if I was to assess the worth of this album on the strength of Berninger’s song writing or lyricism alone, I’m not sure it would stack up quite so well. Like much of The National’s work over the past decade or so, the main themes of Berninger’s writing centre around heartbreak, relationships, and the complexities of the human condition. Which is all fine and well, but it does, over the course of ten tracks and 40-odd minutes, start to feel somewhat maudlin, and it does perhaps veer towards self-flagellation at various points. But of course, his vocals are as pristine as ever, and his voice does, after all, lend itself well to that sort of material.
Mostly though, without wanting to get too picky about it, it is a superb album. Albeit the sort of work you need to be in exactly the right frame of mind for. The sort of contemplative or reflective mood I often find myself wallowing in … so it does work for me.
Oh, and Booker T. Jones, no less!
Highlights: ‘Distant Axis’, ‘One More Second’, the Dorsey-featuring ‘Silver Springs’, ‘Take Me Out of Town’, ‘All For Nothing’ and the title track, which closes the album. A fairly big chunk of it, in fact.
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Recorded in Los Angeles in late 2019, the latest release is called The Only Way Out Is In (Spotify playlist embedded within the link below) and although it’s a relatively lengthy eight tracks, they were pretty insistent on calling it an EP rather an album. It takes the band’s sound firmly into the “pop” realm, a move away from the psych-rock flavour of the debut, but it’s polished, very well produced, and I can see a lot of this new material going down a storm during the series of live shows the band are about to undertake. Also, make sure you check out the new-threads cover of the Kavinsky electro classic ‘Nightcall’ which closes the EP, and is already a firm favourite of mine.
Monday, November 30, 2020
Wellington songwriter/vocalist Tessa Dillon combined with Olivia Campion and James Morgan as Mystery Waitress to release an album called Nest back in September. Introspective, melodic pop of varying shades, there is a lot to love about the band’s sound, and the strangely beguiling ‘Bedhead’ was my pick of a pretty decent bunch.