Prompted by its 20th anniversary and an upcoming tour to mark the occasion, GARY STEEL reassesses Shayne Carter’s greatest album.
For fans of New Zealand alt-rock group Straitjacket Fits, the return of Shayne Carter to the musical firmament in 2001 held no small expectation. It had been seven long years since the group imploded, seemingly on the brink of international success, and admirers of the group’s singer, guitarist and main songwriter were anxious to soak in Carter’s natural evolution.
Everyone knew that “the Fits” were a thing of the past, because Shayne had played a few gigs under the Dimmer banner. But despite a single and a few performances that saw him wig out on long-form guitar noise epics, there was little hint of what might coagulate into an album.
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When Carter somewhat unexpectedly signed to Sony and went to ground working mostly on his lonesome on the first Dimmer album, few were prepared – least of all those old Straitjacket fans – for the vastly different ground he ended up covering on I Believe You Are A Star.
Eventually released in 2001, it existed in a parallel dimension to that of his previous group. Where Straitjacket Fits was a dynamic and noisy rock group firmly in conventional verse/chorus territory with – especially when Andrew Brough was still in the group – a tendency towards sunny, harmonious elements to musically contradict Carter’s more molten, slightly threatening and sometimes enjoyably dissonant eruptions, Dimmer was… well, what was it?
There was a palpable sense of disappointment amongst the Straitjackets fans I knew at the time. This new Carter wasn’t what they’d signed up for. There were guitars, if you listened hard, but they didn’t scream and flay. Instead, the music kind of grooved on its discrete bed of bass and drums, some of them looped or machine-generated. There weren’t any climaxes. There weren’t really any conventional songs. And Carter almost whispered or sang in a soft falsetto. Nothing really happened. Or so it seemed.
And where was the rock god with the chiselled good looks who seemed born to wield that guitar through his group’s propulsive anthems? The front cover of I Believe You Are A Star had Shayne reduced down to a few millimetres, a tiny jockey on a horse at a racetrack at night with the fizzing lamps casting an eery glow on proceedings. Fitting perhaps, because where there was always a hint of darkness around the edges of Straitjacket Fits, Shayne’s comeback was introverted and even a bit creepy.
Around the turn of the century, there was a lot of friction between the guitar-centric indie rock crowd and those who had defected to what was referred to scornfully as “dance music”. There were those like this writer who felt that rock music had run out of steam and was simply repeating its cliches. Electronic music seemed to offer a wealth of new ideas and fusions of different musical genres. Jamaican styles, hip-hop, acid-house, techno and jungle were co-opted by producers who saw its sonic potential outside of dance-based exposition. Much of this music was underground in a good way, because its mainstream invisibility left it to evolve at its own pace and for the right reasons. These developments were further explored by leftfield and sometimes outwardly experimental musicians in places like Germany, where they could apply their special magic to the cavernous properties of dub or creatively utilise the glitches on malfunctioning computer equipment.
This is the universe that Shayne fell into during the making of I Believe You Are A Star. It’s relatively easy to spot the miscellany of odd and idiosyncratic influences on the album, but it needs saying that Carter’s personality and overall sense of purpose asserts itself so strongly and uniformly that those influences serve the record. And although the electronic diaspora was important to Shayne at this moment, listening to the album now it’s the so-called “Kraut rock” influence along with that of Sly & the Family Stone that is most obvious.
What still sounds radical after 20 years is the determined minimalism of its 11 tracks. There’s actually a lot going on, in the cracks and other places you wouldn’t normally notice. But the reason you do notice is because of the profound sense of absence of a song’s usual, stereotypical signifiers. What the absence of what’s expected does to your head is create a different set of expectations.
There’s copious use of the kind of clammy wah-wah grooves Sylvester Stewart used so effectively on There’s A Riot Goin’ On, while ‘Seed’ features endlessly repetitive motoric rhythms grinding on for a full four minutes and four seconds. In the opening track, ‘Drop You Off’, the arhythmic clatter of the drums dominates but – as with several other songs on Star – it’s the lonesome tone of the repetitive descending semi-acoustic guitar figure towards the end that you end up hanging out for.
I remember how, when first exposed to classical minimalism, I found it dauntingly repetitive until I started to notice tiny differences in the way one particular line might be played or sung. There came a time when time itself opened up and that minimalism started sounding rather like there was a riot goin’ on. That’s what happens on just about every song on Star. It’s not just that there are micro-details to uncover in the sonic and rhythmic spectrums, but that the absences created by minimalism make every small gesture that much more impactful. And so, a small guitar figure that eventually crawls out to do its business three-quarters of the way through a track is something you end up anticipating to such a degree that you’re almost yearning for its appearance.
To be honest, I’ve never really thought about or tried to understand the lyrics. I’m convinced that they’re perfect, because Carter beautifully evokes a scenario with just a few words, but one where there’s a whole lot of room for interpretation. Having said that, two of my favourite tracks are instrumentals. ‘Drift’ is the sixth song and it works perfectly as a kind of intermission, but its melancholy keyboard tone (reminiscent of Robert Wyatt), and the contrast in its perky groove, imbue it with an indefinable allure. The final piece, ‘Sad Guy’, has a lethargic mood with its big bass and drums and spooked guitar.
There’s one track for the rock fans, but ‘Powercord’ almost sounds like a pisstake, partly because the loudest element is a blaring trumpet but also because its urgent riffing seems like it’s just getting underway when it fades out at 3:17. Having said that, it’s a wig-out I seem to remember hearing epic renditions of at gigs.
I Believe You Are A Star sounds less radical now than it did in 2001, but it still stands as Shayne Carter’s crowning achievement. There are good songs on the subsequent Dimmer albums, but this was the one with a drip-feed of “major” label cash that allowed him to sit in a box and make something really fresh and unique, and take his time doing so. After this, Dimmer got a whole lot more conventional and experimented with soul and funk and even, later on, a little of the guitar-based fury of “the Fits” before giving the name up and reverting to his own name for subsequent work.
It’s a minor tragedy that Carter never got to release Star in multiple markets internationally, because it may have set him up for life. As it was, Sony New Zealand just didn’t seem geared up to take it offshore, the record never recouped the investment, and Dimmer’s major label dalliance lasted only for the one amazing record.
It’ll be interesting to hear the album performed as a whole in September for the first time since the Comedy Club launch back in 2001, which worked partly because the venue was as intimate as the recording.
- Click here for more information on the 20th Anniversary Tour celebration of I Believe You Are A Star.