When I first began negotiating this thing that’s the first Sneaky Feelings album in half a lifetime I just couldn’t get my head around it. My problem? Well, the second song sounded like it was by a completely different group. It was a hazy, lazy, dub-drenched groove that went on and on in a quite delicious way, with its sinuous rhythms and sunny disposition: not at all the kind of thing the formerly Dunedin Flying Nun group would ever have attempted.
And it turns out they didn’t. I’d been sent a digital file of the album, and somewhere between Matthew Bannister’s Dropbox file and my iTunes folder, Lord Echo’s ‘Whoa! There’s No Limit’ had insinuated itself into the gap between the first and second track, without announcing itself. It was a cloaked imposter. Thank goodness for Shazam!
That’s why after all this time I’m still suspicious of digital files. How on earth are you supposed to know that what you’re getting is the real thing, and that it’s not somehow mangled in its perilous virtual journey?
But anyway, having established my flat earth credentials, I can now report that I have indeed finally managed quite a few listens of Progress Junction, and that happily, its considerable charms have firmly lodged in my pleasure centres, despite the group having hardly a funky bone between them, or even a touch of dub-reggae.
For those of you who are new to the Sneaky Feelings, here’s a brief précis: One of the bands on the legendary ‘Dunedin Double’, the group were in some ways quite at odds with the Flying Nun/Dunedin Sound aesthetic of the early 1980s. Centred around two excellent songwriters in David Pine and Matthew Bannister, Sneaky Feelings’ influences came more from the American West Coast folk-rock explosion of the mid-‘60s – and in particular the sunny harmonies and jangling guitars of The Byrds – than from the typical too-cool-for-school Flying Nun Velvet Underground drone zone.
Still, there was something pungently ‘Dunedin/mouldering student flat’ about the intense relationship odysseys of their debut album, Send You (1983). Unlike those other early Flying Nun bands, however, Sneaky Feelings aspired towards ‘proper’ recording studios and a level of professionalism that was anathema to the likes of the Tall Dwarfs and The Clean. The difficulties this melodic and gently commercial group experienced were apparently diarised at length in Matthew Bannister’s controversial memoir, Positively George St; a book that has somehow eluded me to this very day, damn it.
If you weren’t in the mood, Sneaky Feelings could sound just a bit wet, a bit Mum’s hand-knitted cardigan, a bit too comfy, and they certainly lost me with songs like ‘Husband House’ and albums like Sentimental Education (1986) and Hard Love Stories (1988), but let’s be frank here: they were full of finely crafted songs, often with lyrics that had more of a sting in the tail than you at first realised. In other words, I probably just wasn’t in the right emotional space at the time to appreciate them fully.
“Welcome, welcome, from this the farthest flung dominion of the British Empire, we offer you our kinsmen at home a brief sound panorama of New Zealand life.” That’s how it all starts, with one of several slices of sampled historic Kiwiana. It makes sense though, because now that Sneaky Feelings are no longer young men obsessed with the one thing young men tend to be obsessed with, they’re free to write songs about anything that piques their curiosity. In other words, a world has opened up.
If they’d just left it one more year, then Progress Junction could have been their first album in 30 years, but here it is, and as with its predecessors there’s no shouting from the rooftops. There’s something inimitably humble about this collection of 12 songs, but how many bands can boast multiple song-writing talents in one group, or an album without a weak link, or a soggy patch? Well, Sneaky Feelings, of course.
While Pine and Bannister take the lion’s share of song credits, it’s worth noting that both Martin Durrant and John Kelcher contribute several fine songs, and that everyone this time round is also playing an assortment of instruments, all of which contribute to a texture that’s perhaps a little more pop-baroque than before. Everyone’s 29 years older, and the obsessions of young adults are obviously replaced by wry observations, and in Bannister’s case, some lyric writing that borders on pure satire, but to me, the biggest difference is that each track has musical elements that take the group somewhere they’ve never been before. For instance, on Bannister’s ‘Castle Of Dreams’ they manage to fit in a brief but effective bit of dynamic rock riffing that in the past would have been left to a few bars of limp strumming. Where their late ‘80s albums weren’t slouches when it came to arrangements, here they’ve upped the ante. Take ‘Other People’s Lives’, for example. It’s a song with quite a strident rock feel, and surprises even further by bringing in a hired hand on saxophone. What next? Ondes martenot solos?
In other words, Progress Junction is an album that, while instantly accessible, is packed full of detail and smart thinking both musically and lyrically. It’s a shit-load better than that last Lorde album.
PS, For some reason, rather than The Byrds, it feels to me like the biggest influence here is underrated group Caravan (ironic in that they’re from Canterbury in England, and two of Sneaky Feelings are currently residing in Canterbury in NZ). It’s probable that Sneaky Feelings have never even heard Caravan, but it’s like they’re joined at the hip: the same kind of sneaky (ha!) chord sequences, harmonies, understated sense of humour, laconic delivery and dynamic. All they’re lacking is the progressive rock-era wig-outs and the jazzy edge, but here’s the thing: Sneaky Feelings do get just a bit jazzy at times on Progress Junction. Shock! Horror!
PPS, Pity about the cover, which won’t sell any copies on its own. Pity there are so few images of the current band available, too. Historic pics are great but, you know… sure they knew someone with a camera and a few post-production effects…