Sunday, June 12, 2011

Album Review: The Naked and Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010)


Not too many New Zealand bands managed to capture the spirit (or zeitgeist) of 2010 quite as readily or easily as the youthful Auckland-based five-piece The Naked and Famous, with the band’s debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You emulating the hit single ‘Young Blood’ by rocketing to the top of the local (NZ) charts.

Combining poppier elements of bands like MGMT and Empire of The Sun, The NaF are all about clever songs and catchy power-pop tunes, with distorted synths and a combination of boy-girl vocals. But it’s also fair to say that a portion of the band’s commercial appeal probably lies with its very polished too-cool-for-school hipster chic.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the bulk of those responsible for propelling The NaF to the top of the charts are – much like the band itself – barely out of school uniform. Or at the very least, under the age of 25, and certainly not yet cynical or world-weary enough to start wondering about long term prospects and use-by dates.

And while such pesky trivialities like sustainability and longevity might be worth thinking about when you start to consider just how derivative some of Passive Me, Aggressive You sounds after a couple of listens, for now the band is riding the crest of a very large wave, and I’m definitely not going to be the mean spirited adult who tells them “no you can’t do that” … because they already have, and will doubtlessly do so again whenever they please.

The Naked and Famous make it all seem so carefree and effortless on the glossy Passive Me, Aggressive You that it would be rather churlish not to acknowledge that the album is something close to the perfect embodiment of Alt-pop’s vibrant and increasingly global crossover appeal throughout the 2010 calendar year. This band nail it, and where it goes from here is a discussion best left for another day.

Highlights: ‘All Of This’, ‘Punching In A Dream’, ‘No Way’, ‘Young Blood’, and the closer, ‘Girls Like You’.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

List: Five ‘Kiwi’ Desert Island Discs

Essential New Zealand albums of my lifetime:

Luxury Length – Blam Blam Blam (1981)

The backdrop to this 1981 album was provided by the nationwide unrest and sheer turmoil of the ill-advised Springbok tour. The presence of Riot Police on our streets was a new development for our hitherto innocent and untainted land, and bands like The Blams and tour-mates The Newmatics captured those bleak days perfectly with their own unique brand of post-punk angst. The chart-crashing and ironic single ‘No Depression in NZ’ may have been the release that propelled Blam Blam Blam to the forefront of public consciousness, but their Luxury Length album confirmed their status as the leading social commentators of the day. Few potential targets were spared, as Don McGlashan and co raged against everything from the SIS to big business. And how relevant today, in the wake of David Bain’s release, are the lyrics contained within ‘Got To Be Guilty’ (written about the AA Thomas case) … “he’s gotta be guilty, there’s no point in changing the subject, we didn’t get where we are today, by being soft on an obvious reject” …

Futureproof - Pitch Black (1999)

The aptly-titled debut release (under the Pitch Black moniker at least) for the thereafter prolific duo Paddy Free and Mike Hodgson. Futureproof is a quite startling collection of dubby, moody, and occasionally dark electronic tracks, and not only did this release raise the bar for all local pretenders within the genre, it also convinced this observer that advances in technology had to a large extent levelled the playing field for Kiwi artists seeking to compete with the more established international acts dominating the local dance scene. A landmark work for New Zealand electronic music, and it’s hard to believe this album is already more than a decade old.

Tiny Blue Biosphere – Rhian Sheehan (2004)

Tiny Blue Biosphere is the classically-trained Rhian Sheehan’s second album, a follow-up to the similarly gorgeous Paradigm Shift, and like its predecessor it deals with other-worldly, occasionally other-galaxy, conundrums such as … What does it all mean? Sheehan’s horizons are broad, and he doesn’t confine his search for an answer to the mere finiteness of planet earth. Featuring clever use of samples, washes of warm synth, and gentle flowing waves of acoustic guitar, it might be said that Sheehan puts the “way over” into the “out there”. This is head music, but parts of it will also make you want to dance - or at the very least have you dancing on the inside. Tiny Blue Biosphere is the perfect synthetic space and time soundtrack to one of those lazy do nothing days after a hard night out clubbing. Adopt the crash position and simply enjoy.

Anthology – The Clean (2003)

Short of buying every single, EP, or album released by this seminal Flying Nun band, you’ll never be able to fully appreciate the complete evolution of the Dunedin Sound or the prolific label behind it unless you hear Anthology from start to finish. From their early Eighties Lo-Fi four-track origins to the gloss and polish of their new millennium output, The Clean were consistently brilliant every step of the way. Containing witty and wry observations on all facets of bed-sit living in the deepest darkest south and so much more, Anthology captures all of this truly unique band’s most precious moments in one sitting. Priceless.

True Colours – Split Enz (1980)

This album provided the soundtrack to my final year at high school, and it was one that did much to convince aspiring musicians across the land that New Zealand artists could compete commercially on the international stage. With the arrival of Neil Finn and the release of Frenzy a year earlier, Split Enz had abandoned their formative prog-rock excesses to introduce a far more palatable pop element to their zany theatrics. Yet it took the new wave sensibilities of True Colours and its three epic singles to elevate the band to the next level. Kiwi pop hadn’t sounded this good before, and Split Enz would never sound this good again. True Colours was the first sign that in Neil Finn, we had a potential pop genius on our hands.

More to follow …