Monday, August 29, 2016

The 1970s Revisited ...

There’s been a whole lotta love for the Seventies going on over at Pitchfork in recent weeks. That website is nothing if not methodical and comprehensive in its approach to these sorts of things. In pop culture terms, on a personal level, I’ve never really embraced the Seventies in quite the same way I have say, the Eighties, or subsequent decades. I’m not sure why that is … they say your school years are supposed to be the best and most memorable, but I seem to have blanked out large chunks for one reason or another. In a lot of respects, 1980 was always very much a ground zero point for yours truly – that year being the one my awareness of music and the arts was dramatically heightened by an extended period living in the UK (at age 16), and it was also the year I left high school. I think those things were catalysts for me realising that a much bigger world than the one I'd known, really did actually exist. And while I'd always been very aware of what was going on around me prior to that – the immediate post-Beatles world, glam, disco, punk, the arrival of colour television (things were slow moving in my house), diligently and systematically tape-recording the weekly top 10 "hits" off the radio, buying comics/magazines, the death of Elvis (!) etc – I suppose I’ve always been dismissive of the decade as a whole, finding it rather cringe-worthy when compared to the way more “cool” and “happening” Eighties. Many would argue the opposite applies, and Pitchfork’s coverage presents a rather compelling case in favour of that argument. I’ve found the recent coverage fascinating, so I thought I’d share some of Pitchfork’s work here:

Pitchfork’s 200 best songs of the 1970s

Pitchfork’s 25 best music videos of the 1970s

Punk, disco, and silly love songs – Remembering 1976

Music technology of the 1970s – a timeline

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Album Review: Oyawa - Won't Even Try To Scale It (2016)

This is one of three reviews submitted to NZ Musician for the most recent issue. The other two made it into the print edition, this one got some online coverage ...

Recorded and produced at Blackdoor Studios in Auckland across the second half of 2015, ‘Won't Even Try To Scale It’ is the latest EP from the Waiheke Island-based three-piece Oyawa. Checking in at just under half an hour, the EP amounts to six tracks of varying degrees of heaviness, headlined by the popular student radio favourite ‘Heads On Fire’. These tunes are not so much outright heavy, as they are merely weighty, and the band’s careful use of the art of repetition tends to create a sort of dark brooding intensity throughout. There’s an underlying anxiety, a sense of impending doom perhaps, without the music ever really breaking out into anything resembling unashamed card-carrying hard rock. Part of the reason for that is the occasionally menacing vocal stylings of lead singer Nikki Ngatai (who also plays guitar), as she squeezes every last smidgen of meaning out of a set of lyrics that frequently stare into a rather shadowy abyss. The rhythm pairing of Brett Garrity (bass) and Miles Gillett (drums) complement this voice-as-main-weapon approach perfectly, giving Ngatai’s upfront personality enough room to flourish in its own right. A second guitarist, Willem van der Plas, joins the band for a couple of tracks without radically altering a formula that clearly works, and on this evidence, we certainly won’t have seen or heard the last of Oyawa.

Here’s the slightly edited version as published on the NZ Musician website:

And here’s a link to the Oyawa Bandcamp page, where you can purchase the EP:

And here’s ‘Heads On Fire’ …

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Peachy Milky Dreamy Things ...

Peach Milk is an Auckland-based artist/producer who makes dreamy ambient electronica. Earlier this month she released a rather groovy house-vibey five-track EP called Finally, making it available as a name-your-price or free download on her Bandcamp page. Grab it …

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: The Wellytown Get Down, Wellington Museum, 18 August 2016

I love a bit of nostalgia down here in the padded cell that doubles as the basement at the everythingsgonegreen mansion. Especially when it comes to celebrating all things local and grassroots. So when an event/gig with a focus on Wellington club culture in the Eighties comes along … well, let's just say things don't get much more near and dear to my heart, or indeed, more local or grassroots than that.

The event was called the Wellytown Get Down, and it took place last Thursday night at the unlikely but salubrious surrounds of the Wellington Museum on Queen's Wharf. It was essentially a chat-seminar-presentation put together by youthful next-gen hip hop aficionado/curator Sen Ski, featuring four genuine pioneers of the Wellington scene: past New Zealand DMC champs Rhys B and DJ Raw, plus ex Radio Active DJ Mark Cubey, and ex Soul Mine owner/event promoter, Tony Murdoch. What these four men (collectively) don’t know about the Wellington club/party scene in the Eighties, really isn’t worth knowing.

The idea was that each man would present, play, and discuss five records that they considered important to the era, with audience participation encouraged – that audience numbering roughly 80-100 by the time the event was in full flow. Sen Ski had clearly done his homework, and the backdrop to the stage – which housed a two-turntable rig/mixer – featured the projection of a series of images and video clips of the time, mostly specific to Wellington and those involved, but also some visuals offering wider scene-setting context (early break-dancing clips etc).

Murdoch was first to (re)present; his essentials being a mixture of hip hop and early house – see Digital Underground, Jungle Brothers, Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul et al – and he was thoroughly entertaining throughout, his knowledge shining through as he dispensed with facts and tidbits relating to each tune, and more generally providing an insider’s view of the dance music scene as it related to music retail and event promotion. Murdoch also paid tribute to two absent DJ’s who were also crucial to the Wellington scene – the now US-based pioneer Tony Pene (“TP”), and the prolifically talented but now sadly incapacitated Jason Harding (“Clinton Smiley”). Murdoch is a natural showman (he’d deny it) and during the course of his “set” was able to offer definitive proof that men can multi-task when he took a phone call (from his “homeboy”, who he urged to join us) while simultaneously continuing to present and play music. Remarkable.

Next up, Mark Cubey was equally entertaining, his angle being that of the student radio DJ – see Radio Active’s Uncut Funk Show and the Wednesday Night Jam – but he was also a genuine mover and shaker within the scene, as an event promoter, a club DJ, and (I’m pretty sure) as a performer in his own right as part of the wider Love Factory Band collective in the early Nineties. Cubey made the point that when he first started at Radio Active in the immediate post-punk era, the early to mid-Eighties, 90 percent of the music the station played was “white”. It was something he set about changing with the help of Pene, who became a fixture on the show, and Dr Johns nightclub, which was an early sponsor. Cubey talked a little bit about the influence of sampling, referencing the widespread use of Chic’s ‘Good Times’, and made mention of the important labels – like Sugar Hill, and Tommy Boy in particular. His selections covered off the Jonzun Crew, the Beastie Boys, and the seminal hip hop precursor ‘Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’.

Funky 4: Cubey, Murdoch, Raw, Rhys B (credit: unknown/but thanks!)

I managed to have a quick chat with DJ Rhys B (Rhys Bell) prior to the event getting underway as I wanted to thank him personally for helping out with some photos for the AudioCulture piece I wrote a few years back, and he’s still the same earthy and modest guy he always was. I don’t think the current generation of DJ’s – beyond the likes of Sen Ski and perhaps one or two others who know the history – can really appreciate what a living legend he is within the context of Wellington and Aotearoa dance music circles. He is a pioneer DJ in so many ways, not just in terms of club and warehouse party culture, but as a performance DJ in a competitive environment, winning the first NZ DMC title before travelling to London in 1990 to represent Aotearoa at the World champs, where he finished a creditable 12th, and met the great hip hop icon Tupac, among other major industry identities. Rhys B talked primarily about what hip hop (specifically) means to him, about how it possibly saved him and a few others “from the gang scene”, about belt-drive turntables, and about the wider culture of the genre. His selections included music by the Fat Boys and Grandmaster Flash, and yes, it wasn’t until pushed by the audience that he revealed that Tupac connection.

Speaking of humble, DJ Raw (Ian Seumanu), was the final guest selector. Raw is another ex-NZ DMC champ and still very much involved in the scene, as head of the DJ programme at Whitireia Polytechnic and an active mentor for many others in “DJ Battle” circles. I don’t think any of the other presenters will mind me saying that this was very much a case of saving the best until last because Raw closed out the show with a compelling display of what is known as turntablism (or cutting and scratching to us mortals), putting on a show and getting the biggest cheer of the night. Prior to that Raw talked about growing up around older guys like Pene, and Rhys B, and attending clubs for the first time, about how he was influenced by the NME charts, the scene at the Soul Mine, and how getting access to rare early DMC footage on video had effectively changed his life. After being blown away by his closing party trick, I’m struggling to recall his earlier selections but I do know they included Shannon’s high energy ‘Let The Music Play’ and perhaps something from Full Force.

Regardless, whether you’re a nostalgia freak like me, a massive hip hop or dance music fan, or simply someone who loves music and/or local history, the Wellington Museum was a pretty damn fine place to be hanging out last Thursday night. Huge respect to Sen Ski for having the vision and wherewithal to piece it together, and thanks to the participants who took the time to tell their wholly unique stories. It might just have been the best couple of hours I’ve had all year.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Waiting For Your Love

James Milne is a pretty big deal in New Zealand music circles. Currently making music under the Lawrence Arabia moniker, Milne has been at the forefront of the local indie scene for more than a decade, mostly in his (present) solo guise, but also as part of The Brunettes and as frontman for the short lived but much loved Reduction Agents. That’s without considering a touring stint with US indie darlings Okkervil River, or the many other side projects he's been involved with.

He is a man of many talents, and while the retro-dream-pop flourishes of Lawrence Arabia have quite rightly received plenty of plaudits over the past handful of years, I've always felt the Reduction Agents’ work never quite got the full attention it deserved. It might seem like a big call, but I reckon the solitary album, The Dance Reduction Agents (2006), might just be one of the best New Zealand full-length efforts of its decade.

So it was heartening to see this week, appearing somewhat out-of-the-ether on Bandcamp, a Reduction Agents tribute album featuring a few of the great and good of the local music scene – see Liam Finn, The Ruby Suns, Tiny Ruins, Salad Boys, The Eversons, The Beths, Princess Chelsea, and Instant Fantasy, among others – all lining up to pay homage, and to reinterpret that work.

The name-your-price download is called Waiting For Your Love, and you can grab it below:

Nice Enough

A few weeks back I sat down to chat with Rose Blake, Mike Isaacs, and Scott Maynard of Wellington-based alt-folkers Pales (for NZ Musician magazine):

Pales in NZ Musician: Nice Enough (click here)

Pales on Bandcamp (click here)

Even better, is this short clip on the band put together a few months back by The Wireless (with thanks and credit to Ezra Simons and Gussie Larkin):

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Classic Album Review: The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

For the first two decades following its 1967 release, a good number of commentators duly rated Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as not only a landmark work for The Beatles, but as something close to the “greatest album of all-time” … as though it’s actually even possible to evaluate such a thing – see various NME polls and magazine lists across several generations.

But time allows for reassessment, and some 50 years on from its release, we’re afforded a much wider screen perspective on just where Sgt Pepper might sit, and it’s probably fair to say the subsequent couple of decades have seen the album somewhat downgraded from its original untouchable status. 

There is no question that the album is a work of art – musically, conceptually, and within the overall context of its time. I don’t think it’s always fully appreciated how much The Beatles improved as a band after making the decision to stop touring and performing live in 1966. The Sgt Pepper album in many respects captures that new found sense of creativity and freedom, unburdened as the band undoubtedly was from the more immediate and intense pressure of performing before an adoring public on a regular basis.

Not having to worry about how the music would translate on stage or in a live environment threw up a raft of new sonic possibilities for the band. Musical ideas that an equally adventurous (producer) George Martin was also keen to explore further. In a way, the shackles had been released, and the music of The Beatles was evolving way beyond the short sharp three-minute bursts of pop perfection it had relied so heavily on in the past.

Yet, curiously, it’s rarely an album I can play in its entirety without resorting to skipping the odd track. Despite the presence of some real gems, it feels a little patchy, or almost as though there’s actually too much going on in places. A side effect, a downside, or a problematic consequence of that level of experimentation, perhaps. I remain a fan of the album, and I’m not denying it showcases a remarkable amount of sheer genius, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s not even the best Beatles album out there (see Revolver), let alone the greatest of all-time.

Many tracks have endured to become classic rock standards: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and the masterful ‘A Day In The Life’ (clip below), in particular. But generally the album is fleshed out with quirky novelty cuts – I’ll stop short of calling it “filler” because this is The Beatles after all – with the likes of ‘Lovely Rita’, ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, and ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ all unlikely to have made much sense beyond the context of this album.

I also think Sgt Pepper could have been improved by the inclusion of ‘Strawberry Fields’, the superb single of the same year, a song that embraced the flower power counter-culture ethos of 1967 quite unlike any other, one that wound up on the less celebrated Magical Mystery Tour release.

Nonetheless it remains an excellent album, a collectable, and a genuine timepiece … even if it’s not quite the unsurpassed piece of work it was once considered to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Album Review: Lucid Hiest - Absence In Motion (2016)

This was another review for the Fresh Cuts section of the latest issue of NZ Musician magazine:

(With this one I initially had OCD/spelling nazi issues with what I (wrongly) assumed was an incorrect spelling of the word Hiest (sic), and I also struggled with a few swearies on the album itself. Then I realised that Lucid Hiest couldn't care less about what the likes of me think, and it's exactly that attitude that makes the album the unique and special thing it is ...)

Self-proclaimed “East Coast rebel” Isiah Ngawaka knows a fair bit about life’s struggles. On Absence In Motion, wearing his Lucid Hiest moniker, Ngawaka gets to share a few of his stories, with a further promise that he’s really only just getting started. And when a young artist with this much talent starts out with roughly 50 tracks, whittling them down to an album-sized baker’s dozen becomes an exercise in continually raising the level on the quality control filter. The end result is a quite startling home-produced album which blends a distinctly local hip hop vibe with world-class drum’n bass flavours. Throw in sub-rattling slabs of heavyweight bass, a sack full of sticky dub, some smooth RnB vocal harmonies, plus the occasional post-apocalyptic sci fi sample, and Lucid Hiest covers off all of the bases within the gamut of this wider thing called ‘urban’. Themes include growing up in small-town Aotearoa, nights out, racism, and survival – within the music industry and with daily life itself. As fiercely independent as he undoubtedly is, Lucid Hiest gets some help along the way, mostly with vocals, but also from ace brass man Matt Mear, whose subtle instrumentation is one of the best features on an album rich in atmosphere. Something which is perhaps best emphasised on the outstanding ‘Pushing Through’. The explicit nature of some of the lyrics won’t appeal to all, but thankfully Ngawaka isn’t in this game to tread carefully on the delicate sensibilities of anyone not inhabiting his world. Lucid Hiest is all about creating four to five-minute bursts of gritty realism; these are his stories, honest and raw snapshots of his world, nobody else can tell him how to frame them. Bring on chapter two.