Saturday, September 29, 2018

Album Review: Armchair Insomniacs - Armchair Insomniacs (2018)

If your only exposure to Auckland band Armchair Insomniacs has been the popular tune 'Wide Awake In Wonderland', featuring local rapper Leva, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the band’s primary modus operandi was one of hard-hitting socially conscious hip-hop. 

That tune – and its supporting video – has been widely shared on various social media platforms in recent months. Yet, as good as it undoubtedly is, that specific track isn’t really all that representative of the band, or indeed the rest of the material found on its eclectic self-titled debut album. 

If anything, Armchair Insomniacs appeal more as an unlikely post-millennium throwback to the delights and glory days of the Seventies yacht rock era. A feeling immediately heightened by the immaculate production wizardry on offer right across the album’s nine-track, 40-minute duration. Something that results in a smooth space rock vibe, with the most obvious local reference point from that bygone era being a band like Golden Harvest, say. 

All achieved with the fixtures and fittings of modern day technology, which naturally helps to give the music a next level sheen well beyond anything that was even possible back then. 

It’s a little bit like getting the best of both worlds; the past duly excavated, before being dressed up and presented with a very contemporary spin. 

Throw in a little bit of prog, a few guitar solos, bountiful hooks, and song titles like 'Sun', 'Free Love', and 'Stoned' – the latter being a real highlight – and it becomes almost impossible to argue that Armchair Insomniacs are anything other than staunch students of pop music history with serious talent to burn, man.

(An expanded/edited version of this review can also be found here at NZ Musician)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Gig Review: The Beths, Meow, Wellington, 14 September 2018

The thing about The Beths is that there’s very little fuss about anything they do. 11pm sharp, following sets by Bad Friend and Hans Pucket, they gathered on stage and launched straight into the title track from the band’s debut album, Future Me Hates Me. It’s short, sharp indie pop at its best, and for the next hour or so, punters at a sold-out Meow were treated to a non-stop procession of tight bouncy tunes from that album, and a few earlier gems from 2016’s Warm Blood EP.

There might not have been much fuss, with lead vocalist Elizabeth Stokes barely interacting with the crowd throughout, save for a few words, but there was an irresistible energy right across the venue, and the first couple of rows back were positively heaving. I felt thankful to be stationed near the rear of the bar and still able to take it all in without subjecting my old bones to any unnecessary Friday night injuries.

All of my own favourites from the album got an outing … ‘You Wouldn’t Like Me’, ‘Great No One’, ‘Happy Unhappy’, and ‘Little Death’, were all terrific without being note perfect replicas, which is just how I like it. They all led to a one song encore, ‘Whatever’, which is fast becoming something of a signature tune for a band enjoying a meteoric rise in 2018.

I don’t think for a moment the band itself would consider this particular gig one of its best, there were some timing issues and a couple of dropped notes, and I wondered aloud whether the vocal mix was all it could have been at one point. But none of that mattered in the slightest, this band doesn’t necessarily have to be right at the top of its game to be one of the very best in the country at the moment.

I’m pretty sure the next time The Beths visit the capital, it’ll be to play a bigger venue asking a lot more than a mere $15 on the door.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Album Review: The Beths - Future Me Hates Me (2018)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up a copy of The Beths’ debut album, Future Me Hates Me. I reviewed the band’s opening gambit, the Warm Blood EP, for NZ Musician a few years ago, and I’d heard a couple of advance releases, ‘Great No One’ and ‘Happy Unhappy’. 

Yet cynical-old-me remained a touch suspicious that the glowing reviews appearing in Rolling Stone and on Pitchfork were merely a case of hyperbolic bandwagon-jumping. Mainly in relation to the generic and frequently-used “jangly guitar bands from New Zealand” angle. Not to mention indie pop’s seemingly relentless need to always come up with a new “next big thing”.

In a local context, at least, that was the weighty label worn very impressively last year by the similarly-geared Fazerdaze. This year, it looks as though The Beths have been tasked with filling that often extremely onerous vacancy. As the latest buzz-band according to those who supposedly know a thing or two about this stuff. It rather depends on how much credence you give Rolling Stone and/or Pitchfork, of course, but not all bands are well equipped enough to cope with such a burden. Many a talented bunch have just as quickly fallen off the radar after failing to meet unrealistic media-driven expectations.

So, having said all of that, I suspect The Beths have got the words “stay well-grounded” emblazoned boldly across the front page of the band’s constitution, and the only truly important question right now is – does Future Me Hates Me actually live up to any of that early hype?   

Short answer: Yes, I think it might just make the cut.

Long answer: the album is packed full of clever pop music, with great songcraft, and an abundance of hooks. Lyrically, there’s a nice balance, a good blend of the light and the dark; some weighty stuff mixed in with morsels of humour and a level of self-awareness not often found in a band with this youthful age demographic. As much as I usually cringe at throwing such blanket generalisations out there.

But perhaps the key element to the wider appeal of Future Me Hates Me is the sense that producer – and guitarist – Jonathan Pearce knew exactly how much dirt to leave in the mix when it came to adding spit and polish. There’s a raw edge to many of the tunes on the album. It’s post-punk indie 101. Girl-fronted guitar pop that’s a little bit frayed around the periphery. Universal, yet slightly bent, and even a touch subversive. 

The band keeps things focused and mostly tight throughout, underpinning the girl-next-door vocal nuances of the generally excellent Elizabeth Stokes, and there’s no question that The Beths have taken giant strides forward since the release of Warm Blood back in 2016. As good as that EP was, this feels like a much more mature piece of work. The sort of thing that usually happens when a band hones its craft in a live setting as often as this lot has over the past few years.

The album includes the popular live favourite ‘Whatever’ (originally found on Warm Blood), while other highlights include the title track itself, ‘Great No One’, and ‘Little Death’ … and more generally, you can expect to see Future Me Hates Me featuring regularly on those ubiquitous best-of-the-year album lists come November and December. In New Zealand, and elsewhere. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be on mine. 

Clear some space on the bandwagon, I’m climbing aboard.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: In Love With These Times, My Life With Flying Nun Records, by Roger Shepherd

Published a few years back, In Love With These Times is Roger Shepherd’s memoir-come-history of the Flying Nun record label. It’s taken me an age to get around to reading and reviewing it. Never let it be said that everythingsgonegreen is anything other than current and relevant …

There’s a sense that Roger Shepherd is something of an accidental hero in the Flying Nun story. The notion that he founded the label - on the whiff of an oily rag - primarily to release the highly original music being made by local bands he was enjoying live, and regularly networking with as a record shop employee, makes for a wonderful backstory. It becomes quite clear he did so on little more than a whim, without much thought, forward planning, or finance. At the outset at least.

All of these things would come back to haunt Shepherd, and his label, at various junctures over the course of the next three decades. Yet, in many respects, it was Shepherd’s determination to trust his instinct, to embrace the DIY ethic, aligned with a fierce sense of independence, that came to define the label. It was precisely the same modus operandi employed by the many bands that eventually benefitted from his risk-taking. 

The Clean, The Chills, The Gordons, and the rest, would all have existed regardless, sure, but it seems doubtful anyone associated with the conservative major labels of early 1980s New Zealand would have had the vision to release their music. Shepherd grasped their (collective) appeal immediately and made sure the rest of the country - and eventually, more curious or enlightened individuals globally - would get to hear the music. 

Shepherd pays credit to the crucial roles played by the likes of Chris Knox and Doug Hood, among many others, along the way. He writes extensively about the label’s evolution, the rise, particularly through the fledgling years of the 1980s, the relocation to Auckland, the fall, the (forced) financial and artistic compromises, the post-millennium rebirth, plus his own travels, and his personal battles with addiction and mental health.

Shepherd writes passionately and candidly about all of that stuff. He’s a decent writer, an engaging and witty mine of information throughout. 

And while the guts of the Flying Nun story may have been told (elsewhere) before, it’s never been told with the same level of insight and colour as provided here by Shepherd. Just as you’d expect from the man with the most intimate insider knowledge of the label. And it’s this level of detail, the highs and lows associated with that, alongside the personal anecdotes and the frequent self-deprecating stories around his own journey as a man - as opposed to a reluctant businessman - that make In Love With These Times the definitive account. 


Here's Shepherd’s own account of writing the book, as published by Audioculture:

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Classic Album Review: Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords (2008)

There was talk in the local media recently that Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, aka Flight Of The Conchords, were working together again. Planning something special. It may even have been in the context of putting together a brand new television special, I can’t recall the exact details. But it’s been a full decade since the release of the duo’s self-titled debut album, so it seems timely to acknowledge the ten-year anniversary of that release, and the scarcely anticipated success that followed ... 

The Wellington comedy/musical outfit certainly lived the dream. From humble, relatively isolated, small-town New Zealand roots, to the big wide world of HBO sitcom celebrity, best-selling albums, lengthy international tours, Grammy Awards, Oscars, and Emmy nominations, it was a wild ride for a few years there. 

Just because they’re funny. Or rather, just for being able to strike the otherwise frequently elusive balance between good music and good comedy. Without ever crossing over too far into that murky shameless world otherwise known as the Novelty Act. 

It’s more of the knowing smile/quiet chuckle, warm fuzzy type of humour, as opposed to the belly laugh variety, but then that’s an integral part of its charm. Quiet, observational humour about everyday situations, occasionally dark, often sardonic and mocking, seriously satirical, and usually highly self-deprecating – what’s not to like? 

And who says they’re trying to be funny anyway? On this evidence these blokes are surely serious musicians … purely in a not so serious kind of way, obviously. 

Did I mention, gee whizz, they also collectively nabbed a coveted Wellingtonian of the year title? Ahem. 

Best tracks: ‘Inner City Pressure’ (Neil Tennant eat yer heart out), ‘Leggy Blonde’ (featuring sidekick and “band manager” extraordinaire Rhys Darby), ‘The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room)’, ‘Business Time’ (“that’s why they’re called business sox”), and the best of the bunch, ‘Bowie’ (self-explanatory … inter-planetary, even) …