In the first of an occasional new series, GARY STEEL gives the hard word to some aspiring musical artistes.
There’s nothing better than the sound of a rock trio when it’s really cranking. At best, the way the drums, guitar and bass mesh together is truly kinetic, capturing the sparks that a band generates when first jamming together, but more intimately entwined and nuanced through months of practise.
The limitations are obvious, but when stripped-back to just the raw ingredients, they remind the listener of just why they love rock in the first place.
Every once in a while, there’s something of that peeking out through the humdrum commercial pop of the Valedictions’ debut, Pieces (no label). Sadly, the album is mostly so straightforward and unambitious that it’s hard to care.
There are echoes of punky power popsters like the Undertones on a song like ‘Pieces’ and perhaps other back-to-basics groups like the Flamin’ Groovies on ‘Come On’, with its vaguely post-punk riffy energy, but heck, they go and ruin any sense of fun by unleashing ‘Queens’, which might have been a demo for one of the early Feelers albums.
One thing that’s apparent from the outset is that every lick, every sonic tremble, every rhythm and every melody sounds recycled, and the overall effect is of a drab Auckland winter’s day, when they could so easily have mustered some real power pop energy or a sense of fun.
Probably the most entertaining song is ‘Angry Tree’, because the lyricist on this calculatedly moody piece does actually claim to be a tree with a temper.
As if the insanely futile absence of originality wasn’t a deal breaker, the sonics certainly are. Given the pedigree of names like Olly Harmer (The Lab) and Angus McNaughton – production and mastering respectively – I just don’t get how it got to sound so thin and weedy throughout. Compare the sound here with the incredible lustre of the new The Bads album, and you’ll see just how unnecessarily poor this recording sounds. Where the drums should have energy to burn they just simper, and every time they sing, the rhythm section just freeze-dries to a background blur. 5/10
Contemporary folk clearly is a big deal in New Zealand in the wake of Tiny Ruins (et al), but the debut album by Grawlixes, Set Free (Home Alone) should perhaps have been quarantined and reassessed before handing it the keys to freedom.
A primarily acoustic, Wellington-based duo who appear to have originated in the deep South, Grawlixes play off the male-female dynamic and this ex-couple use their past together as a kind of shared therapy (for them) and torture (for us). Every once in a while, Robin Cederman will sing a line that’s right on the cusp of being playful and funny, but he’s so knowing that the impact is lost – and vocally, he’s no Jeff Buckley. Heck, he’s not even Morrissey. [Semi-inspirational line: “But I could never admit/That I’m spinning like a pig on a spit.”]
It doesn’t help that they’ve pretty much fashioned the album as a live performance, barely bothering to dress the songs up for a home entertainment audience. So, there’s a lot of dull strumming and rudimentary accordion and fiddle and the rather awkward vocals of both Cederman and Penelope Esplin.
It’s possibly a little cruel to mention accents, but Esplin’s broad, John Key-on-a-mouth-full-of-bubblegum Noo Zuld enunciation makes this reviewer want to send her along to the Mary Poppins school of ‘correct English’.
Okay, so the bar has been set high for NZ folk, what with the likes of Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson and the like. So the answer is to aim high. Set Free just plonks away with what they used to call slacker abandon. 4/10
Jeshel Forrester is a transplanted American living in Rotorua. The thrillingly titled album Jeshel (no label) offers no less than 25 songs over two compact discs, some of which are old folk covers, others which are original poem-based constructions modelled on pre-electric Dylan, and performed mainly by just voice and fingerpicked guitar.
It’s always a joy to hear an acoustic guitar plucked well, but to get through this marathon session the listener would have to either be a serious folk buff or an aural masochist. There was a reason Dyland went electric, and Jeshel does little to inject the genre with any new life. His stories are no doubt very ethical and worthy and worth telling, but the unremitting sameness of the music makes it almost impossible to engage for long.
One good thing: his diction! Bravo! Apparently Forrester is a well-travelled lawyer whose songs are partly a cry for social justice. That’s a great thing, but unless he intended Jeshel to be merely a piece of memorabilia to hand out after concerts or protests, he may have been better advised to come up with a shorter, more musically vivid project. 4/10