Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Temporary: Selections from Dunedin's Pop Underground 2011-2014": Music Review

If you have enjoyed The Clean, The Chills, The Bats, Verlaines, or The Dead C, you're aware of what bands from the New Zealand city of Dunedin can produce. But what about the bands who comprise the indie underground, three decades since the Flying Nun and Xpressway labels first popularized NZ pop, with its blend insular atmospheres, gentle melody, and psychedelically tinged experiments? Fishrider Records releases this compilation, introducing thirteen contenders from 2011-2014, and perhaps a few names debut which may be as respected as those which began this paragraph. We may not need three decades to tell.

The first track opens strongly with the typically "submerged" sonic quality often found in New Zealand productions. They can take on a watery, diffused air. Mavis Gary recalls this, in layered male-female choruses, moody guitar riffs, and a sophisticated take on pop smarts akin to San Francisco's Imperial Teen, in a catchy "Dim the Droog".

The title "Death & The Maiden" recalls that song from the very early period of Dunedin's Verlaines, so when Flowers for the Blind repeats it, one knows not what to expect. It turns out here to be a robotic rather than romantic delivery, with a woman's detached voice over a stern, synthesized rhythm. The chorus of "did you gouge out your eyes?" may not be the come-on a listener expects. 

A sprightlier tune from The Prophet Hens conjures up the lighter moments of The Clean or The Bats.
"All Over The World" keeps true to the underground spirit of pleasant keyboards, steady drums, and an untutored but determined vocal. This might have fit on a C-86 cassette in the mid-1980s, as a  Rough Trade single from an ensemble based in a market town in the Midlands: it's raw, yet confident.

Dunedin bands can be strongly guitar-driven. Males introduce "Heavy Going" in this style, but play this off against a more androgynous voice, throwing off whatever expectations the band's name implies. Again, this sounds like a past generation of indie rock, but it's refreshing and propulsive.

Naturally, harder edges on any such compilation also need honing. Mr Biscuits gets the flat affect vocal, an off-kilter Buzzcocks-like guitar progression, and a lurch into hardcore blasts balanced well in "My Plums are Ripe". Opposite Sex could have opened for the Raincoats or X-Ray Spex, as its knowingly arch commentary on consumerism, feminism, and machismo in "Supermarket" proves.

Side one closes with Strange Harvest's "Amnesia". Its echoed, disembodied whooshes match its title. They also remind listeners, as does The Dead C, that Dunedin is known for darker, edgier sound.

A melancholic combination of smiles and sadness, enhanced by strings, opens the next side. The Shifting Sands with "All The Stars" adroitly measures the right portions of wistfulness and hope. Its soft vocals, well-produced rhythm section, and its memorable, classic chords demonstrate talent.

Wistful is a quality often associated with Dunedin and New Zealand indie-pop. Astro Children, with the strained vocal clashing against tamped-down instruments (as if, again, submerged) in "Gaze", manage to make out of D.I.Y. materials a respectable song, even if the voice grates more than soothes. That harsher tendency, common to many N.Z. bands no matter how pop they otherwise may lean, scatters grit into the sonic blend, keeping its music from being bland.

This scrubbed-clean attitude, as the first moments of Kane Strang reveal in "Winded", give way to an upended Beach Boys arrangement. This sounds as if a beach buggy tipped over into the dunes. This is meant somehow as a compliment. While not the track I'd rush to repeat first on this compilation, it stands out as innovative, for there is a dogged effort here to rethink a revered predecessor's legacy.

The mood winds down again, away from harmonies and high notes, with Bad Sav. "Buy Something New" favors whispered vocals and a shuffling, compressed rock sound, shoved into too small a box. The voice, repeating the mental dislocation of the consumer, as the title urges, forces the hearer into a corner. The track, repeating indie-rock tropes and an amassed, post-punk, gloomy sound, may appeal to fans of a gothic-tinted sensibility. It's more derivative than the other tracks, but it's respectable.

The Scattered Brains of the Lovely Union live up to their name. A warbling guitar, a smear of faint brass, a lazy but snarly voice, and a weary sensibility make "Party to your Om" a woozy call from the margins of lethargy. It's a challenge to "Tomorrow Never Knows" but, as with the Beach Boys before, now the Beatles, as if the score was tipped up and played backwards. A shambolic tribute to past masters, I suppose.

Trick Mammoth concludes "Home Video" is not a bonus video, as far as I can tell on the downloaded file issued for my review. It's the most demo-sounding of the tracks, a singer and his guitar opening, and then only backing voices. What you might hear in a coffeehouse, it's fine, but not enough of a powerhouse track with which to wrap up what has been often a riskier, and more amplified, line-up.

These songs combine previous album or single releases, demos, unreleased, and new recordings. The variety refreshes, and makes one long for the days when such compilations introduced new talent unafraid to take risks. Much of this compilation recalls a promo sampler from twenty-five or thirty years ago, when "college rock" was a niche and variety encouraged on a more daring or more cocky label's eclectic roster. Graced by a colorful zine recounting each band's story, this arguably even improves on the liner notes of old. It is recommended for fans of whatever we call what used to be called "college rock", and transcends that niche even as it celebrates it once again. (10-1-14 to Amazon US; 9-30-14 to PopMatters)

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