GARY STEEL underestimated The Bads. He’s here now to pay penance with his review of their really, really good new album.
I hated The Bads instantly. My disdain was nothing to do with their music, but the cone-rattling sub-bass that poured from their first album. It was lower than the hearing threshold, but it turned my woofers to jelly. Had I played the record loud, they would surely have exploded.
Who would have thought that The Bads (not exactly a great name for a band to begin with) would be worth future attention? Nothing the duo of Dianne Swann and Brett Adams had done together or apart had ever inspired devotion. Adams had played guitar for The Mockers in the ‘80s, while Swann had sung in a group called Everything That Flies – hardly one of the great Kiwi pop outfits – before contributing to the star line-up of When The Cat’s Away. In the early ‘90s, the two had forged an alliance in UK-based band The Julie Dolphin, whose dream power pop had at least offered a viable alternative to Britpop.
I couldn’t ignore The Bads forever, and their third album, Travel Light (2013) was a superior blend of melodic pop/rock with a strong thread of alt-country running through it. As usual when something local and good comes along, the press gushed, awarding it a round of five-star reviews. I gave it three-and-a-half in Metro, because two-and-a-half is average, three-and-a-half is very good, and in my book, five-star reviews are for the truly elite few; those albums that are so great they will resonate through the ages. Three-and-a-half stars (out of five) should be seen as a hearty recommendation.
Now it’s my turn to gush. Having spent the last few days soaking up their brand- spanking new Losing Heroes, I’m feeling a little sheepish. Perhaps their earlier work is deserving of a reassessment, because this really is class.
Much less country oriented than their earlier releases, on Losing Heroes The Bads dare on occasions to let fly with the kind of dynamic power pop illustrated by The Julie Dolphin’s big hit, ‘Birthday’. Of course, Swann and Adams are older, wiser and a bit more jaded, but that’s a good thing when artists are also at their creative peak. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this album is easily the best thing they’ve ever done.
The first thing that needs to be said about Losing Heroes is that it sounds wonderful. This may not be of consequence to those who listen on pear-sized wireless speakers, but they’ve taken the trouble to travel down country and hang out at Sitting Room Studios in Lyttelton, where the guru-like Ben Edwards nursed a sound out of the group that is lustrous and warm and analogue-like and just bursting with full spectrum sound. In essence, the sonic qualities are pure magic, and they give these most excellent songs wings.
It would be wrong to describe what The Bads do as something new; but what they do is write and perform songs happily mixing up elements of the styles that inspire them, and render them afresh.
Opening track ‘Get It Right’, for instance, bursts to life with a fantastic guitar riff, but that’s not all, as it soon twists itself into a classic slice of early ‘70s-style power pop/rock that then turns on the multi-coloured transporting textures of psychedelia. Somehow, they managed to fit in a memorable sing-along chorus, and make all that fit together.
Now, excuse me if I’m banging on here, but one of my pet peeves of the moment is how most contemporary pop writers seem to have no idea how to join a verse with a chorus and make it sound like both belong to the same song. Swann and Adams clearly have a forensic understanding of the pop form, and probably 75 per cent of the tracks on this 11-song disc are not only prime examples of expert pop songwriting, but also songwriting that fits broadly into the context of classic Kiwi songwriting, ala Finn brothers. In other words, they know the craft, but not in a dull, formulaic way. In fact, to my ears, a lot of this stuff sounds high on inspiration.
Another great song is ‘Shelter Love’, which manages to pack in some sly wordplay and shift to a chorus that’s winsome in the best sense of the word: classic pop/rock like you just don’t hear anymore. Similarly, ‘Planets’ is an awed ballad on which Adams takes the lead (with Swann harmonising) and it’s gorgeous.
By the third song, ‘Spinning Wheels Turning Tides’, they haven’t put a foot wrong. It’s a melancholy country-pop piece with yet another classic chorus, a plea that resounds (“in this world of chaos/keep your loved ones close”) and finishes with a cool ‘70s-style guitar solo. I mean, who else would do that?
‘Crash & Burn’ also features a fired up guitar solo and some riff-wrenching madness to demonstrate the emotional gravity of the subject; presumably an autobiographical piece about coming back down to earth in the home country after an exciting trip to Nashville.
Another of my favourites is ‘Him & Her’, which starts out with a psychedelic drone and features a sound akin to Neil Young’s Stray Gators, complete with that tried and trusted rusty guitar sound. ‘Heartbreak Beach’ is pretty memorable too, and features Swann’s lemon-honey voice at its most alluring.
It’s not perfect. A couple of the songs come from the Dylan school of crusty folk-rock sing-speak stories (‘Same House’) and the title track reminds me of U2 putting on country overalls (and that can’t be a good thing). ‘Calling Home’, on the other hand, will work brilliantly live with its country-swing accent, because everyone needs to dance sometime, but it somehow doesn’t fit so well with the greater body of work with which it resides.
Still, the batting average is very good indeed, and Losing Heroes will certainly be jostling around in my list of top 10 made-in-Noo-Zooland albums of the year.
There’s not getting around it, The Bads are the goods.
Losing Heroes Album Tour Dates
Friday July 7th – Tuning Fork, Auckland*
Thursday July 13th – Nivara Lounge, Hamilton
Friday July 14th – A Sitting Room Session, The Old Mill, Napier**
Saturday July 15th – St Peter’s Hall, Paekakariki, Kapiti Coast
Sunday July 16th – Third Eye, Wellington: Arthur St, Te Aro (Matinee)
Thursday July 20th – Blue Smoke, Christchurch
Saturday August 26th – Old Stone Butter Factory, Whangarei