Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Fresh Cuts for NZ Musician June/July 2015

The latest issue of NZ Musician hit the streets this week, and the June/July issue is the first for a while where I haven’t contributed a feature. But I did manage to review the Carb on Carb debut album for the magazine, and had a couple of other reviews published online ...

This Pale Fire – Dusk EP

There’s almost something endearingly old-school about the music of This Pale Fire. For all of the production wizardry and new-school sheen found on this debut EP release there’s a real sense that the halcyon singer/songwriter days of yore sit right at the heart of these Corban Koschak-penned compositions. Or at the very least it’s a crossover of sorts; a stripped back old-school acoustic vibe blending effortlessly with varying degrees of post-millennium, post-pubescent angst. Released digitally in late 2014, the EP also stands as the final work to come out of Auckland’s now defunct Studio 203, where it was immaculately produced by Nikhil Mokkapati. As studio farewells go, it’s a great way to sign off. As opening gambits and introductions go, it’s something quite special. Dusk comprises six tracks – seven if you include Cymbol 303’s remix of the sublime 'Unfamiliar' – each one a beautifully realised indie pop gem. For the most part, the words, voice and acoustic guitar of Koschak are the key elements, but it’s when the band – Kyle Wetton (electric guitars and bass), Nick Douch (drums), and Josh Steyn-Ross (keys) – comes to life, that we discover Koschak’s finely-honed pop instincts at their most effective. The haunting break up post-mortem 'Stormy Weather' is perhaps the prime example of that, but the track that really exposes Koschak as a pop composer of rare talent is 'Unfamiliar', which builds from its acoustic base with the layering of cello and keys on top of a heart-wrenching set of lyrics, before it peaks and fades out with an air of thoroughly exhausted resignation. This is delicate, brittle, heartfelt stuff, and a quite startling debut.
Whatever else there is to love about Carb on Carb’s self-titled debut album, there’s something refreshing and uncomplicated about cramming 10 energetic indie pop tunes into a set lasting little more than 27 minutes. Like some kind of reverse-White Stripes chameleon, with a distinctly Kiwi twist in the tail, the Auckland-based duo of Nicole Gaffney (guitar/vocals) and James Stuteley (drums/vocals) have been making music as Carb on Carb since 2011. After a couple of earlier EP releases and the hugely challenging experience of touring across Asia, this first full album was recorded and produced by James Goldsmith at Munki Studios and The Blue Room in Wellington, before being mastered in Chicago by Carl Saff. It’s maybe no coincidence then that the album is brimming with strong ’90s US college radio reference points. The music comes across as being a little chaotic and ramshackle in parts, and the album’s main themes veer towards the personal – with perennials like relationships, growing up, girl power, and life in Auckland, all appearing in metaphorical bold type across the lyric sheet. More generally, Carb on Carb somehow manage to merge an inherent sense of DIY fun with a slightly darker edge, and the duo’s wider indie aesthetic is never better realised than with Gaffney’s cover art, which complements everything they manage to achieve sonically. A short, sharp, thoroughly invigorating set of songs packaged up with big lashings of down-to-earth charm.
Quite aside from it being some sort of conditioned reflex response thing that a few of my intellectual superiors (fruitlessly) went to great lengths to try to explain to me, The Dinner Bell Theory is also the name of Colin Selby’s Auckland-based musical project. And, according to the CD inlay of his latest release, Selby’s support cast includes "heaps of cool people". Not the least of those is vocalist and main partner in crime Laka Selby, whose dulcet tones set things off nicely across the six self-produced tracks. A few of these tunes have had prior exposure on platforms like The Audience and Reverbnation, but that sense of familiarity does little to dilute the impact of hearing them all as a complete set. The formula according to Selby is simple yet effective; clever and mostly light-hearted lyrics are framed by country-infused power pop tunes, with a certain carefree swagger throughout. From the opening chords of the rousing starter 'There’ll Come A Time', right on through to the surf-rock referencing closer 'Zombie Song (Corporate Anthem)', the Home-Kill EP fair bristles with tight catchy hooks and self-assured energy. And even if this release achieves nothing else, it presents a compelling argument for The Dinner Bell Theory as a must-see live proposition.

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