The idea? Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month and 38 years of his own rancid opining and reportage, Gary Steel will present something from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. This week, Steel regurgitates an all-local review column from the Evening Post, originally published on the 11th of June 1987.
It’s inexplicable, and quite insane. For those who are doomed to fail, I salute you.
Multinational record companies are feeling their way round the problems. They will obligingly release a record they haven’t had to sink funds into, providing the product meets their populist criteria.
WEA and CBS have just released two differing examples of this trend. Ardijah’s self-titled debut album (WEA) was financed through the band’s victory at a breweries-sponsored competition. It sounds expensive, leaving no one in any doubt about Ardijah’s potential on the international market.
Ardijah’s soul/funk/disco blend reputedly cooks much harder onstage, but the album, despite a certain detached coolness, will wind up a requested dancefloor favourite. The average lounge-lizard won’t find much to titillate the intellect, but there is some sweet satisfaction to be found in Betty-Anne’s trilling vocalese, the sophisticated arrangements and the grooving rhythms.
Too often though, the songs are slight and they trot out worn-out soul lyric clichés too readily. Of course, many of their famous American counterparts do no better, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t write more imaginatively if they tried.
On ‘Like Me’, they flex their synthetic soul a little, hinting at a few future possibilities. I just hope mainman Ryan Monga doesn’t succumb to pressing ‘smoothist’ temptations.
When The Cat’s Away (CBS) is a live recording representing the recent tour by five of New Zealand’s most well-known female vocalists, Dianne Swann, Debbie Harwood, Kim Willoughby, Margaret Urlich and Annie Crummer.
Never intended as a recording proposition, the album goes some way to transferring the live pizazz, but the sound could do with some visuals. The professionalism is never in doubt, but this collection of cover versions stands or fails on the songs and the renditions thereof.
Prince’s ‘1999’ is a non-starter because the perfunctory performance of the backing band lacks the punch of the original’s highly-produced whammo treatment. Besides, it’s not a song crying out for vocal embellishment. The Beatles’ ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ is worse, being redolent of countless cabaret acts.
The temporary aggregation only come into their own when they get cheeky. ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘You Haven’t Done Nothing’, while far from definitive readings, work well in context.
It’s gratifying to hear versions of two Split Enz songs, ‘I Walk Away’ and ‘Shark Attack’, as New Zealand-penned songs are seldom interpreted by other artists. The Cats could have consolidated their appeal by including more local material.
I guess you just had to be there.
Another major Auckland release (through WEA, on Warrior) is the latest from Herbs, Sensitive To A Smile. Despite a polished production job (or possibly because of it) the album fails to harness Herbs’ real strengths.
The funky Light Of The Pacific from 1984 offered one possible direction, and the tuneful, organic Pacific Long Ago offered another as well as heralding the band’s growth into maturity.
But instead of moving forward, Herbs have attempted to refine their sound in the studio, and the result is freeze-dried.
Ex-Be Bop Deluxe bassman Charles Tumahai – now firmly established in the ranks – could be the problem. The Herbs sound is half-submerged in studio perfection, and the band have become adept at lyrical clichés. While ‘Sensitive To A Smile’ (the single) and ‘Sunshine At Night’ do nothing but platitudinize, ‘Rust In The Dust’ at least rails against 2,4,5-T with conviction, not to mention thunderous bass and drums.
Maybe Sensitive To A Smile just takes time to sink in, but on several listenings I failed to detect either the joyousness or the Pacific flow of their past music.
Down in Wellington, distant cousins Dread Beat And Blood release a three-song 12-inch No More War (Jayrem). This traditional roots reggae only just fails to capitalise on the band’s live strengths like the sweet vocal harmonising. No More War is better-recorded than their debut album, but they need to turn the dials up if they want to effectively disguise their threadbare themes.
Sticks And Shanty’s Jah Magic (Jayrem) by contrast, is amiable, good-feeling reggae without harsh edges; mellow and sunny. When the band does get into statements, as in ‘Courthouse’, they wisely forgo the usual propaganda for vehement criticism. Again, the record could do with a Sly and Robbie at the controls, but it works within its modest aims.
Wellington rock band Skankattack have been making a lot of noise in the city over the past year, culminating in the release of their own 12-inch four-song EP, and a compilation album of neglected Wellington bands on their own Skank Records.
Skankattack’s murky music echoes Joy Division and early Echo And The Bunnymen without imbuing their influences with any discernable degree of imagination. The vocals are annoyingly indistinct and meekly back in the mix, as on the majority of tracks on the label compilation, When The Wind Blows.
Virtually everything on the album is poorly recorded, but two obvious standouts are The Wild Poppies and The Primates; the former for the distinction of knowing how to build up a song and nice guitar effects, and the latter for a wacky structure reminiscent of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
Also worth checking out is The Glass, which despite orientation-confusion manages to turn into a piece that goes for feeling over style, fitting in a neat feedback twist at the end; and The Jonahs, whose world-weary tick tock rock contains a certain sprawling charm.
Low Profile is a band concept that neatly sidesteps the problems of performing, or even being. This occasional studio outfit’s latest EP is Simon Says (Jayrem), which consists of a “sensible radio playlist version,” a “slightly bent but equally enjoyable version”, and a new take on their most popular release, ‘Elephunkin’.
Like last year’s underrated, underbought Cutting Edge, Simon Says boasts a cosmopolitan sound which is created with both precision and feeling. It’s got the funk but you can listen to it; pulsing basslines and unforgettable jazz signatures.
Back in Auckland, Satellite Spies’ new ‘Private Detective’ single (Reaction Records) has Stray Cats guitar, high retention upper fret bass work, and a gruff Psychedelic Furs-like vocal. I can’t decide what it is that’s missing here, but it’s clearly something decisive.
Rutherford Brookes (Ode Records) is Annie Rutherford and Stephen Brookes performing a selection of four originals with country, folk and blues influences. Brookes’ tenor twang adequately conveys these pleasant cornball ditties.
The Headless Chickens (Flying Nun) attempt a kind of emotional catharsis on their self-titled mini-album through their sabotage of sound and words; a rare example of a group working towards toppling the applecart instead of adding to it.
Their application of canny and unsettling synthetic effects to more conventional song structures enhances it’s accessibility, though the sonic aggravation of their seven-track mini-album won’t appeal to those of nervous disposition.
From Ardijah to the Headless Chickens in 11 easy steps: proof positive that there’s something cooking on both sides of the creative pot.
- Note: If you made it this far you’re probably thinking, ‘Heck, that guy writes like a novice’ or ‘How boring was that?’ Well yes, I’m embarrassed by it, too. I can’t believe how arrogant and naive I was – an awful combination. So I’m republishing my early stuff in the interests of the public record only, okay?