Fat Freddy’s Drop
Based On A True Story
Polynesian dub act Fat Freddy’s Drop hit the mainstream in New Zealand in the early 21st century; their music becoming a favourite for live audiences who saw their spaced out jams as high culture. Based On A True Story is intricately textured, soulfully sung and beautifully produced, but the songs simply aren’t that exciting and too consistently slowly paced. If they’re interestingly structured, often breaking away from the restraints of verse and chorus, they still don’t have well developed melodies and the lyrics are the secondary focus at best (“I love it when you’re skanking with me”).
Based On A True Story has two great tracks; the softened down ‘Del Fuego’, breaks out of the monotonous groove for a warm ballad, while the groove is irresistible on the eight minutes of ‘Ray Ray’.
It’s a shame that a record that’s so accomplished in terms of performance and arrangements is left underdone by such routine songs, a talented band pursuing one signature sound too far and not stepping outside of their comfort zone.
Fly My Pretties
Live At Bats
Fly My Pretties have gained a major following in New Zealand for their live shows, which blend visual and musical elements. They’re the brainchild of Barnaby Weir from The Black Seeds, who recruits other popular New Zealand musicians for a quasi-super-group. While musicians I enjoy, like L.A. Mitchell and members of the Phoenix Foundation, have passed through the group’s rotating ranks, I’m bemused by their popularity which started with this debut album, recorded live.
Weir gets away with mediocre songs in The Black Seeds because of their arranging skills, but there’s nowhere to hide here. Fly My Pretties blend acoustic guitars and a rhythm section playing dub, with bland songs that sound like they took five minutes to write. “I’m not a christian man… But I believe in angels. Ever since I met you girl. I believe in angels” is a particularly poor verse from ‘Lucky’, and the lack of musical interest puts the formulaic lyrics in plain sight, as do mindless vamps like ‘All The Goodness’. The one well developed song, ‘Singing In My Soul’, is rendered intolerable by the guest singer’s lisp. Even bringing out more musicians for the lengthy ‘Lets Roll’ doesn’t help, as the crunching guitar feels anti-climatic on an unmemorable composition.
Despite its formulaic songs Live At Bats launched Fly My Pretties’ career, and they’ve milked their audiences with five subsequent albums.
Aldous Harding was born in Auckland, New Zealand, as Hannah Harding, the daughter of a blues singer father and a folk singer mother. Designer is Harding’s third album and, like her second album Party, it’s on the celebrated 4AD label and produced by John Parish. Parish has also worked with PJ Harvey, most visibly on 1996’s collaborative album Dance Hall at Louise Point.
Harding’s accompanied by classy, restrained arrangements – acoustic guitar picking, piano, and gentle rhythm sections. Her music’s simple; Harding operates in a different genre, and is decidedly more niche, than her compatriot Lorde, but both artists are reliant on their imagery-laden lyrics and their distinctive vocal delivery for their appeal.
Harding’s imagery is particularly cryptic, with references to the “weight of the planets” and “zoo eyes”. I can live not understanding what these songs are about, other fans are less patient. Harding has said that “If people arrive at a place about it, I’m not going to tell them that’s not the right place, especially when I’m not gonna take them anywhere else.”1
Harding’s mannered vocals are both commanding and idiosyncratic – the same applies to her physical presence in her live performances and music videos – along with the imagery, they’re the key to the enjoyment of Designer.
The beautifully restrained arrangements allow Harding’s strengths as a cryptic lyricist and unique vocalist to shine. Ideally there’d be more happening musically – in particular the very similar vocal hooks of ‘Fixture Picture’ and ‘Zoo Eyes’ represent unnecessary repetition on a concise record.
Harding is a mesmerising whirling dervish at the centre of the calm of Designer, enough to make an enjoyable record.
The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy
*Disclosure – this is my friend’s album, so I might be a little biased…
Almost fifteen years after cutting his teeth with Hawera jam band Gypsys, Kerry Logan released his solo debut The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy. Inspired by the synchronisation between Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side Of The Moon and the movie The Wizard Of Oz, The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy was constructed to fit with cult children’s movie The Neverending Story, with the lyrics also inspired partially by the movie.
As befits a solo album, Logan handles most of the instruments himself, joined by his brother Bobby on drums. Because it’s self-produced, and recorded in a makeshift studio, the sound quality and mixing is sometimes lacking, and sometimes Logan’s vocals aren’t strong enough to handle some of the more demanding songs, but his guitar playing is world class.
The first side is weaker than the second, even if the bluesy guitar break before the second verse of ‘The Sadness’ is the most electrifying moment of the record. The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy finishes extremely strongly with the melodic and acoustic guitar driven groove of ‘The Princess’ and the aggressive ‘The End Comes’, while the closing instrumental ‘The Journey’ is downright triumphant.
Overall, The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy was Logan’s strongest work work to date – while the conceptual framework gives it a more constant feel, especially in the second half, it also is a stronger set of songs than anything on any individual Shift or Cynosure studio album.
Live at the Matterhorn
Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, L.A. Mitchell works in an idiom where jazz, soul, and pop intersect. Live at the Matterhorn is her second release – it reprises songs from her first album, Debut, as well as some covers and unreleased tracks. I picked Live at the Matterhorn out of the dollar bin after reading a positive review, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since – with Mitchell’s Fender Rhodes and rich, smoky voice, Live at the Matterhorn has a classic soul feel.
On Live at the Matterhorn Mitchell is joined by a jazzy ensemble – and her backing band do a classy job, especially the rich harmony vocal arrangements from her backing singers. ‘Love Will Rain Down’ could have come straight from Carole King’s Tapestry, before it launches into a soul bridge, while the cover of Hall and Oates’ ‘Rich Girl’ adds some muscle to the original. Mitchell rides solid grooves from her rhythm section on songs like ‘Be Free’ and ‘We Could Be’, and showcases thoughtful, introspective lyrics on ‘Blessed Be’.
While Mitchell hasn’t produced much solo work since – she has kept busy with family and other musical projects – Live at the Matterhorn is a very good showcase for her considerable talents.
Postage – The Best of Supergroove
The compilation Postage distils the legacy of New Zealand’s Supergroove into one disc. Supergroove barely made an impact outside of their home country, but in 1994 they were inescapably huge in New Zealand. Their blend of hip hop, funk, and metal was arguably a little behind the curve by the time their first album, Traction, was released in 1994; bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Rage Against the Machine had enjoyed success with the template earlier in the decade.
But Supergroove bought enough originality and personality to stand out. Notable features of the band included strong musicianship; bassist Joe Lonie is particularly accomplished. The group’s most successful line-up blended two vocalists with distinctive styles; the smooth Che Fu, went on the enjoy solo success in hip hop and R&B, while Karl Steven is nervy and hyperactive. Supergroove unabashedly made party music, but without sacrificing intelligence; there’s enough substance it’s not surprising that group leader Steven went onto complete a Ph. D in Philosophy
The compilation covers their career from the early singles, their debut album Traction, their EP Traction, and 1996’s sophomore effort Backspacer, but the basis of their legacy is the run of early singles leading up to, and stemming from, Traction. Songs like the metallic riffs of ‘Scorpio Girls’ and ‘You Freak Me’, ‘Sitting Inside My Head’, which uses the odd couple vocals of Che Fu and Karl Steven effectively, and the infectious ‘Can’t Get Enough’. The Tractor EP continued the excellence with ‘The Next Time’, but the group changed direction before their second album, dismissing Che Fu and morphing into a guitar based alternative band.
1996’s Backspacer was a major disappointment, and the band broke up shortly afterwards. But Postage is a valuable summary of an act that could have easily blown up internationally.
New Zealand is presently enjoying a very strong crop of female asinger-songwriters. Along with Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins, we also have the weirdness of Aldous Harding and the imagery-laden writing of Nadia Reid. Pop superstar Lorde isn’t a singer-songwriter but shares the introspection of her contemporaries.
Hollie Fullbrook was born in England, but emigrated to New Zealand as a 10 year old. Songwriting began as therapy for Fullbrook, a way of coping with her sudden disconnection from friends at the other side of the world. Since 2010, Fullbrook has recorded as Tiny Ruins, firstly an alias and then a band. Olympic Girls is Tiny Ruins’ third full length album, and their first as a four-piece.
Tiny Ruins’ gentle folk-rock suits Fullbrook’s pure voice. She cites 1960s influences like Pentangle, Love, and early Jethro Tull. While the dominant instrumentation is the interweaving guitar picking, textures like Mellotron, Hammond organ, and vibraphone also recall the 1960s.
Olympic Girls introduces new musical elements for Fullbrook. Second guitarist Tom Healy adds another layer to their sound, while lead single ‘How Much’ features a surprisingly chunky bass tone and solo. But the focus is squarely on Fullbrook’s ethereal vocals and delicate melodies. Olympic Girls can feel frustratingly subtle and restrained at times, but it’s a gorgeous record that’s worth spending time unpacking.
Fullbrook has talked about how all of her lyrics are personal. It might seem far-fetched that this verse from standout track ‘Holograms’ relates to her own experiences:
I saw the grim reaper
And I gave him the slip
Saved by a Darth Vader novelty helmet
But how will I find you again
When all I’m seeing are stars?
It turns out that it’s a true story; Fullbrook has spoken in interviews about a 2011 incident in Zanzibar. She crashed a motorbike in a rainforest, while wearing a Darth Vader novelty helmet, breaking three bones.
Olympic Girls is beautiful and beguiling. With its gentle dynamics, a lot of its appeal comes from Fullbrook’s story telling and pretty vocals, but it’s nice to be enveloped in its warm embrace.
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