I grew up in the 1980's on David Sylvian (and brother), and friends Holger Czukay and Robert Fripp taking random, but mostly tuneful samples, and building complex textures that were initially challenging, but very rewarding in the long term. None of that was commercially viable outside what was quite a wide global niche at the time. But having never thought that particular blend of randomness would make its way into the mainstream, in 2014 I then come across Bad Blocks. Effortlessly blending a pop sensibility with cinematic vision, and what I experience as an exciting mash-up of rhythmic and tonal discontinuities, my first listen revealed a masterclass. The maturity of the "Circulate" EP is breathtaking. Confident, restrained, moving. And just challenging enough. I am so excited about the potential for this two person venture, Hamish Lang and Daniel Neeve. As their record label, Brooklyn-based Stars and Letters says, their music is "at once familiar and yet quietly corrupted". The two of them met in Wellington and were initially working under the "South City Sushi Cop" moniker, but "Bad Blocks" works so much better (and for me, is one of the best band names I have come across in awhile). Hamish and Daniel currently reside in Melbourne, but I would not be surprised if events take them much further afield. The first video from the EP is suitably proficient, directed by another talented Kiwi, Josh Prendeville (website link below). You can buy the "Circulate" EP at the Stars and Letters link below. This is my favourite purchase of 2014. Find out more at the Stars and Letters link below.
Bad Blocks - Circulate from Bad Blocks on Vimeo.
It has taken me awhile to warm to this track (audio released July 2014, video released November 2014)...and not sure why, as it now seems an obvious inclusion in this blog. The snappy syncopation of the rhythm track, a huge chorus, and Joel Little's wonderful production should all be recognised for being essential components of one of the best New Zealand pop tracks of the last twelve months. The song is off Broods' album "Evergreen" released earlier in August 2014. I am not sure what sort of traction the band is getting stateside, but if they keep releasing tracks as strong as this, it is only a matter of time. I note the album has so far peaked at #1 in New Zealand, and #5 in Australia. That sort of success surely demands some further global label investment over the next couple of years, at the very least. The video was directed by Jordan Arts of Fish&Clips, with production by Felicia Asplet. Fish&Clips have pumped out some beauties previously (see link below), and although the video works conceptually, and there is some stunning imagery, for me it's execution doesn't quite fire. But who am I to judge? You can buy the "Evergreen" album at the link below. I have bought it.
Broods - L.A.F
In a society dedicated to reducing the gap between want and delivery, it was inevitable that there would be a backlash against the last thirty years' tsunami of instant gratification. There have been many strands to this backlash covering music, fashion, design and writing to name just a few. What is now the "hipster" aesthetic is a coagulation of these strands. The aesthetic in itself has created a banality of its own, with, for example, "retro", and "irony" now often existing for their own sake, without context. It has in some cases become almost comic. But there was a reason for all of this. As we lose the ability to be "present", we crave being in touch with those qualities of life that have been waylaid. And in artists like Lontalius (Eddie Johnston) we witness our barren consumer-technological fabric being used as a platform from which to record simple, genuine thoughts and feelings. Eddie has described his music as "sitting in your bedroom feeling sad about nothing in particular". Granted it could be taken as that superficially, but there is more to it. This sounds like our youth trying to survive with soul intact in a frantic, messy, noisy electronic world. "Walk Me Home" as it is heard here is not purchasable, and is actually a collaboration with Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth from his new EP, "Alone For The First Time". Ryan's interpretation is completely different, but still very good. This version, with raw vocals, surging Casiotone textures and beautiful counterpoint, is just stunning. And the video from Arty Films is brilliantly sympathetic. With wonderful editing (the neon arrows syncing with the Casiotone at 0:30!) and colouring, the video is also notable for the number of quality shots squeezed out of a suburban convenience store. Arty Films is Arty Papageorgiou, a Wellington-based writer/director who clearly has an eye for beauty where others don't initially see it. I have provided a link to his Tumblr site below. Lontalius has a new album coming in 2015, from which the first single is "Light Shines Through Dust" (linked below), in my opinion a candidate for New Zealand song of 2014. The sign of a good songwriter is a song's genre-immunity. Eddie's songs have that. There is also something of the "Thom Yorke" here. It is still early days, but Eddie Johnston is promising to be one of the greats.
Lontalius - Walk Me Home (Convenience Store Performance)
I have been listening to SJD for over a decade now, and unlike many of the artists followed over the years, it has been easy to keep coming back to Sean Donnelly's music. I challenged myself to get inside why that might be the case, and came to the conclusion it was the balance of elements that keeps it working. No one element dominates. There is melody, texture, dynamics, textural dynamics, and lyrics that are, well basically not shit (which can sometimes be a problem with musicians' musicians). The lyrics are sometimes spectacular. ("Superman, You're Crying" is a favourite.) And there has been a continual reinvention of his sound. Evolutionary rather than revolutionary, although there have been some big leaps. For me the SJD experience has almost always has been a more introverted, more technical, more rewarding Neil Diamond-like experience. I am sure the parallels have been made at least once, and it really comes down to one thing, his voice is similar. I am not going to push that too far, as Sean's music is so much more than Mr Diamond's, but that is how it is experienced. "I Wanna Be Foolish" is off the new album "Saint John Divine" due out in March on vinyl, CD and digital through Roundtrip Mars with distribution through Universal NZ. The next radio single, "Helensville" is more than a pleasure, it is a sublime track. The album was recorded with a team that included James Duncan, Chris O'Connor, Sandy Mill, Mike Hall and Neil Finn. There are apparently other notables also...but I have no names at time of writing. Look out for the second single and video for "Little Pieces" due out in February. As for the very clever video for "I Wanna Be Foolish", this was directed by Greg Page of FishNClips. Has there ever been a bad SJD video?! I have provided some links below where you can find out more about SJD, or maybe buy into some of that back catalogue. Here's to the speedy appearance of the new album!
SJD - I Wanna Be Foolish
In a way this is a trailer for a 2012 short film from Damon Keen called "Last Flight". At the request of the band he distilled a 15 minute short film down to 4 minutes for a video for a song it now seems made for. A spectacular piece of film, it was shot on White Island in the Bay of Plenty, and Tongariro National Park. If you would like to watch the full movie, I have included a link below. It was good enough to be picked up several film festivals. So what about this song? The pop sensibility just drips off it. There is some serious song-writing experience in the Delete Delete team, bringing together Lani Purkis, Kurt Shanks, Chris van der Geer who have all been members of successful NZ bands previously (Elemeno P and Stellar to name a couple). If I were to pick a period and a place that Delete Delete's inspiration seems to have emerged from it, is early 1980s USA synth-pop/rock, what they called "new wave", but which was stylistically so different to the punk-inspired non-electronic "sound" that emerged from the UK in the late 1970s. Successful USA "new wave" often turned up as strong hooks delivered as an electronic/guitar blend with strong female vocals. I hear Berlin, Pat Benatar, Kim Wilde and so many other artists of that era in Delete Delete's music. I also hear radio magic. Go to the Soundcloud link below to see what I mean. The band have their debut album due out in the first half of 2015. If you would like to see the Delete Delete live, they are on tour through NZ in January. The shows are in Christchurch (DuxLive Jan 8), Dunedin (Chicks Jan 9), Wanaka (Lake Hawea Hotel Jan 10) and Auckland (Golden Dawn Jan 16). Tickets are available from Eventfinder.co.nz for the first two shows, and on the door for the Wanaka and Auckland gigs. Plenty of links below to explore!
Last Flight movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F9IJPptXyM
Delete Delete - Broken Heart Kid
I was struck by the maturity and the diversity of Louie Knuxx's "PGT/GRR" album when I first heard it, and continue to play it regularly, despite the onslaught of music I get on a day to day basis. Although there are a range of producers, it is easily bound together by the lyrical acuity of Todd Williams, and (as I have stated previously) the almost feline menace he presents at varying levels through all of the tracks. There are some standouts from the album, my favourites being "You See" which features Jane Deezy, and "Sex and Drugs". But "Sand" is also a favourite, probably because of the effortless interplay of several of NZ's best MCs. At Peace's Tom Scott and Lui Tuiasau make superb contributions to the track, Tom's principally from a lyrical perspective, whilst Lui's is more of stylistic contribution. The subject matter may get a few readers' hackles up, as it is superficially a pro-drugs song. But there is more to it, and it is really about the individual's right to choose their own lifestyle, and contrasts the implicit choice of the risk/reward trade-off of drugs with the hypocrisy of the insensitivity that characterises some public institutions' interactions with troubled youth today.
Todd Williams on the track... "so there wasnt much to the track to begin with. Just a demo with my verse and hook. Sick beat by Jay as usual. Tom's approach to the content was what I expected, the way he approaches a feature I can only compare with Andre3000. He always stands out by exploring a micro concept within the broader concept. Great lines as well, my favourite is "you call it a sentence but it felt like a page" I related a lot to that line. Lui followed my lead content wise I think. Stylistically he killed the song, he used his voice like an intrument and his vocal techniques and recording techniques on this blew me away. Was great to send the demo away barely a song and have these guys turn it into something special."
Jay Knight confirms again in this track that he is one of the best beats producers NZ has at the moment. The video from "Subject Matter", also superb, was directed by Tim D. and Jamie McReady. The lighting/filtering is particularly interesting. You can buy the PGT/GRR album at the link below. The title's acronym translation? "Progressive gangster thug, gentleman romance rap". Sums up Louie Knuxx pretty well I think. Go buy it.
Louie Knuxx - Sand (featuring Tom Scott & Lui Tui) prod by Jay Knight
Sounding remarkably like an almost fully formed artist at the tender age of 18, it is no surprise that Thomston (real name Thomas Stoneman) was picked up by Saiko Management, the management group responsible for Lorde's meteoric rise. A little bird in the USA told me that it was actually Saiko's choice of Republic Records' magical PR team that was the catalyst behind Lorde's ability to cut through the promotional quagmire in the USA. I am interested to see whether Thomston also ends up on that label. If he does, that for me is a shoe-in to an explosive introduction to the American market, which this sounds perfect for. And of course if that works, all other regions will tend to fall in behind. Thomston (from my limited exposure to his music so far) appears to be someone who loves music for itself, and also its connection to the listener. He is clearly technically proficient, with a voice that sounds like it has been trained, but not too much. And that thing that I always go on about...dynamics. He knows how to move the drama around. Directed by Jamie Lawrence, the video for "Anaesthetic" is a sleek offering with some stark suffocation/drowning imagery, conveyed through a cold palette and some magnificent lighting. I have included a link below to a very good Coup Demain Magazine interview with the man. There is also a link where you can buy the "Argonaut" EP. I have already bought it. You won't be disappointed.
Thanks to Noisey for the video link.
"Anaesthetic" - Thomston (Official Video)
There has been some well-deserved career acceleration for Chelsea Jade (who previously performed under the "Watercolours" moniker). She has recently been in New York City performing two CMJ showcases, following this up with participation in the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo (winning selection against 6000 other entries). With two excellent EPs released over the last year ("Portals" and "Beacons"), she is now signed to Universal Music NZ. Chelsea has a strong record in terms of the integration of her music with visuals, and the video for "Visions" is no different. Demonstrating some athleticism (!), Chelsea channels the video for the 1994 Lisa Loeb hit "Stay", but with far more success, working together again with very talented director Alex Gandar. A central theme to the video is "desperately wanting to be anywhere that you aren’t, but nowhere else seems really appealing either "(quote from Under The Radar linked below). It is a striking piece. I have included a Rip It Up link below if you would like to know more about Chelsea. You can buy both her EPs at the links below also. I own all her releases.
CHELSEA JADE - Visions
From She's So Rad's long-time-coming sophomore album "Tango" (due early 2015 through From The Crate Records), this new single is a little wonder. With great dynamics (often missing from shoegaze), an elegantly lazy hook and a guitar solo/break that somehow reminds me of Boston's "More Than a Feeling" guitar track, the song gets a further visual lift from Dylan Pharazyn's sensual, provocative and funny "hotspringsploitation" video. Dylan also does much of the band's artwork. Jol Mulholland was involved with recording the single at Mt Eden studio The Lab, while the track was produced by band principal Jeremy Toy, and mixed by Tony Hoffer (M83, Supergrass, Silversun Pickups). The back-story to the long lead time on the new album is Jeremy's hospitalization as a result of a cowardly assault. Jeremy remains with some quite serious neural side effects, but somehow he is bravely continuing to deliver soaring pop tunes in his long-time collaboration with partner, Anji Sami, principal writer of this song. It sounds like "radio" to me if it gets the right promotion/distribution. Here's hoping it gets the oxygen. You can buy the single at the link below. I will be.
Single link: http://shessorad.bandcamp.com/#_=_
Band website: http://shessorad.com/
Cool It - She's So Rad
I suspect Jonathan Bree has a higher profile internationally than he does in NZ, but he is by no means a household name anywhere. However Jonathan has been responsible, either directly, or indirectly, for some of the most original, clever and listenable music to come out of New Zealand. He is probably most well-known for his role as a member of the Brunettes (w/ Heather Mansfield) but in my (humble) opinion his most important contribution was through the founding of Lil' Chief Records in the early 2000s. This label has continuously launched some of NZ's best indie bands. And his music is a highlight of that stable. "Weird Hardcore" is the first single off his new album "A Little Night Music". The last album "The Primrose Path" was stunning, and an easy buy for me. There is something of the disembodied "familiar" about Jonathan's music, and this latest single is no different. According to a Lil' Chief blogpost " while writing and recording A Little Night Music – Jonathan inherited a bunch of second hand classical records and began listening to a bunch of ballet scores by Tchaikovsky, orchestral suites by Grieg and Haydn symphonies. With no classical background but always an obvious appreciation for orchestral pop (Serge etc) A Little Night Music is Jonathan’s attempt to write more free-form ‘classical’ inspired compositions but still always with a McCartney-esque bassline.” Simon Ward has come up with one of his best videos ever and the package is complete. You can download the single for free at the link below (although please pay if you can). I have also provided a Facebook link, and a link to Lil' Chief Records. Can't wait for the new album.
Jonathan Bree - Weird Hardcore