Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox – Shed 6 Wellington September 2, 2016

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When I was a kid, variety shows were all the rage on the telly. It seemed that TVNZ had unlimited green to waste on The Billy T Show, Howard Morrison specials and endless features with Prince Tui Teka and Ray Wolf. I hated them, mainly because most of the material tended to lean toward Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. I was more into punk at that point. Poor TV show band knock-offs were definitely uncool.

Of course those fading entertainers once had great careers in show bands like the Howard Morrison Quartet or the Volcanics, and if you care to look up their archives you’ll find some stunning performances – mainly covers of current top hits but all done in their own style, with just a hint of local flavour.

In exactly the same mould, but with a heapin’ helpin’ of New York chutzpah, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox project redoes the contemporary repertoire with vintage flair. Once again they return to our shores with an audience positively brimming over with glee and excitement to have them back. The last time this Youtube sensation played in the Capital was 12 months ago at the Bodega, essentially a harsh concrete box more suited to hard rock acts than an American-style orchestra playing 1920’s rag time, swing and Lounge versions of the top forty. But the word has spread wide across Wellington’s hip community and they have booked out the town’s premium seated festival space Shed 6. There was a fair amount of respect in the room with many punters decked out in Betty Page dresses, bouffants and 1940’s hairdos, fox furs, blazers and porkpie hats, and plenty of tweed and cheese cutters. Clearly, these people were here to party. And what a jam. PMJ are first and foremost a SHOW BAND, baby!

MC’d by the charismatic and super talented LaVance Colley the ensemble rattle through a radical mix. Any other time a covers band tried this they fall flat on their tushies. But not PMJ. When you hear Creep done as a Kurt Veil torch song or Casey Abrams delivering Sweet Child O’ Mine performed like a Joe Cocker impression performed by Andrew Strong you know this is different. Even Colley’s own interpretation of Celine Dion’s abomination My Heart Will Go On works when its rearranged as Motown soul song. Who knew?

Colley has the sweetest voice, reminding you instantly of Ceelo Green, of whom he pays homage to by wiping the floor with him on a very righteous interpretation of Forget You. He also nails Rhianna’s Halo, which definitely works better with the Barry White treatment.

The PMJ ‘family’ now boasts over 70 singers and players who jump in and out of the bill depending on commitments so you never know you are gonna get. This time interchanging between songs is done by Robyn Adele Anderson, Melinda Doolittle, and Christina Gatti who blow the cobwebs off a slew of numbers once claimed by Katie Perry (Roar), Queen (Another One Bites The Dust), Rhianna, Miley Cyrus (We Can’t Stop), Macklemore (Thrift Shop) – all ripping with more attitude and sass than Jessica Rabbit, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and China Phillips put together. Doolittle’s awesome vocals on the Radiohead number, in particular, stopped traffic for sure. But you can’t discount Anderson’s class or Gatti’s stylish burlesque reworking of Ms Spears’ Toxic and or her remake of Womanizer as a vintage Peggy Lee platter.

There are of course some brilliant moments of theatre like tap dance king Alex MacDonald breaking out a tattoo of Vanilla Ice’s famous number, or saxophonist Stephen Spencer killing Careless Whisper or his trombone sidekick wandering off into the Flintstones theme rethought as a Glenn Miller tune. Or drummer Chip Thomas playing ragtime versions of hip hop beats on demand and then there’s a magical Liberace performance from the band’s Scott Bradlee stand-in on piano. Completing the line-up musical director Adam Kuboto get in on the action when he shares his bass with Casey Abrams during a frantic version of Meghan Trainor’s All about The Bass. It’s yet another moment of pure entertainment. Shame that wasn’t a feature of those crappy TV knock offs I sat through in the 80’s.

The whole thing wraps up with another song I detest but somehow it just works – a Broadway take on Sorry, without the bombastic DJ noodlings and the Beib’s syrupy vocals. It works a treat, proving once again that with the right arrangement anything might just fly. Assuming the band has the stuff to pull it off, of course! My only regret: Puddles the Clown couldn’t make it so Lorde’s Royals is left off the set list. Probably best, considering. Tonight had a touch of class and oozed style and real talent. No wonder the all ages audience found their way in. They know a good night. And that’s a fact.

Note: one of my photos featured in the Melbourne Morning Papers:

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Pitch Black: The 13th Floor Interview

The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to Paddy Free of Pitch Black about their new album, Filtered Senses:

Celebrating 20 years in the music business, Pitch Black, have been labelled the ‘godfathers of Kiwi electronica’. This month, nine year’s after their last release they finally drop their fifth studio album, Filtered Senses and sees them adopting a completely different working method – one they’ve dubbed ‘remote-control’.  With one in London since 2012 and the other temporarily based in New York, the album was written by swapping files over the web, with an intensive two week mixing session together at a studio in Hackney to finish the job. Tim Gruar decided to Skype one half of the duo, Paddy Free, recently to find out more about all this. 

I’m on my second coffee of the morning when I dial in. So is Paddy, actually, as I catch him putting down his evening mug and re-positioning his smartphone closer to the WI-FI.  He still has his trademark shocking red hair, framed by a halo of late afternoon sun and the outline of a wicker bookcase at the back of his Airbnb apartment.  Apparently it’s very common in the Big Apple to rent these through University contacts.

Currently in Manhattan’s East Village, where the mid-summer heat can get up to 42 degrees, Paddy’s there to support his partner choreographer Louise Potiki Bryant, who recently won the Harriet Friedlander Residency award. Supported by the Arts Foundation, the Harriet Friedlander Residency sends an artist to New York for as long as $80,000 will last them. Harriet Friedlander was a dedicated supporter of the arts, he tells me. She also loved New York and believed that any young artist exposed to the city would learn and grow in unimaginable ways. This prestigious award has previously gone to film maker Florian Habicht, playwright and actor Arthur Meek and multimedia artist Seung Yul Oh.

Manhattan is a surreal place sometimes, he says. “Just today, we passed a film set with cops shooting, guys with FBI jackets. You know – your typical cop drama.  Then I turn on the TV and there’s shootings in schools and such.”  So on the streets there’s the fiction and on TV there’s the reality?  “Crazy, backwards.  And the Trump Show is just yet another level!  It’s such a long way from Piha, where I used to live for so long.”

True, that. So I can’t help asking about how the landscape shapes his creativity.  Even in its earliest days Pitch Black’s music came from the New Zealand environment, particularly the beaches and the bush around Christchurch, Nelson and Takaka.  “Yeah.  That scenery played a big part in our early albums and our approach to EDM.  Where I am now couldn’t be further from where we started.”

Mike Hodgson and Paddy Free first met at a party in 1996 and started swapping rough files backwards and forwards. After a bunch of singles, they released their debut album, Futureproof, in September 1999 to much critical acclaim.  Despite any marketing it still rose to the top of the New Zealand electronic charts. The single The Gatherer was an organic mix of dub and harsher electro clash.  Their very first gig at Takaka’s infamous Gathering music festival built their reputation of unique genre-bending brand of live electronica.

Their second album, Electronomicon, came out a year later.  It led to a 30-date tour of New Zealand and Australia and spawned remix projects, featuring mixes by International Observer, Epsilon Blue and Downtown Brown.  Their third album, Ape to Angel (2004), also did well helping them to gain traction on the American and European tour circuit.

Their Ape to Angel tour was their largest to date – 42 shows internationally plus a series of remix projects: Halfway: between Ape and Angel (Australasia) and Frequencies Fall (Europe/America).

Their last studio album was Rude Mechanicals, was released in 2007: coming out Downunder on the duo’s own label, Remote Recordings; on Wakyo in Japan; and on Dubmission Records elsewhere.  Possibly their most accessible album to date, it ranges from downtempo dubs and ambient soundscapes to trancefloor grooves and drum’n’bass, and was lauded by Q Magazine as “the sound of the future”!  But aside from a remix collection, Rhythm, Sound and Movement (2009), they’ve been relatively silent until now.

As individuals, both have very different approaches to music. Paddy is a manic groove-merchant – doing it for the crowd. “Mike’s more the dark dub-meister.  He does it to the crowd!  It’s a good example of how we work, we go from A- B, either Mike’s on the controls and I’m on the couch, listening or it’s me on the controls.”

When I ask, Paddy says he goes to the occasion club in NY but he’s not a huge fan. To him it’s too much like being a work.  He likes to separate music from leisure.  “I just keep analyzing dance music when I hear it and thinking about what I can use and how.  So I have to separate myself from it during my down time.”

This month Pitch Black released a new studio album, Filtered Senses, 9 years on and hot on the heels of the single Invisible Chatter. Tracer fire after radio silence?  “Naw!  It’s not like we’ve been totally separated.”  The pair might’ve been living in different cities but they’ve kept the lines of communication open.  They’ve also working on material for a range of solo artists and producers.  Paddy recently collaborated with Moana & the Tribe and Nga Tae on a collection (called in dub), whilst Mike has been producing and remixing under his solo moniker: Misled Convoy.

Paddy says that despite the globetrotting they were able to work up samples to move backwards and forward across the wires. “We had about 18 months of mediocrity before it came together.  We’d throw ideas at the wall to see what really sticks.  Most would just evaporate.  Whatever minerals are calcified became the sea crystals where the magic happens.”

 Invisible Chatter is the first indication that this album is a little bit different from earlier releases. Elements of the duo’s style still remains, though. The tune feels familiar, mixing digeridoos, bop techno and dark mid 90’s bass lines with dub overtones.  Paddy reckons the music is more “graphite than black sands” this time, reflecting their relocations to big cities.  Earlier music had more of a feeling of freedom and beach and sea.  “It came about by virtue of low population because I was living in Piha, which is more remote and windswept than the built up metropolis.  This album is less organic I guess.  Every song is self-contained like a room in an apartment.”  All appropriate, given that with the exception of a two-week stint at Mike’s home studio in Hackney, all the music came together by swapping and refining tracks over email and Dropbox.

The tracks vary from the ambient wash of A Great Silence is Spreading to the stomping Pixel Dust, and virtually everything else between.  Having made music for both Cinema (including Whale Rider) and the dancefloor it’s no surprise that there’s a real sense of drama – Paddy calls it psychedelic stereo. To flesh out the album, they brought in Londoner Alison Evelyn, who Mike met at his regular a vinyl nights. Her contemplative and observational words merged beautifully into the Pitch Black sound.  “I like to sample lots of speech fragments, like we do on Pixel Perfect.  So she works perfectly in this way.”

Paddy admits that making an album in this fragmented, isolated collaboration has been something of a challenge at times. “Like separate brushstrokes on a painting, one email command at a time.”  The Apple Mac is still his weapon of choice, although he misses the tactile nature of a keyboard and is looking forward to getting out on the road when the time comes. “I still miss the real physical connection to beats.  I have lots of tambourines, shakers, drums and stuff.  I guess I’m a beat maker, but at heart also a bit of a frustrated percussionist.”

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Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate (Epitaph)

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Descendents Cover

There’s a couple of well read publications that feature on the shelves of my local supermarket sporting CDs of recent released material and endless rehashes of classic rock era bands.  My daughter calls those mags ‘Dad Rock”.  “How many articles about The Smiths, The Doors and Pink Floyd do I really need?” she asks and compares my own obsessions with her mum’s dedication to watching schmaltz dramas like Grey’s Anatomy.

At the heart, she’s referring to the default position we all head to as we get older, to finding our own cultural comfort food.  And it’s a common thing.  Recently Simon Reynolds wrote Retromania, to explain the phenomenon of endless bands reforming, ‘getting back together’, touring their ‘classic lineups’ despite their initial limited appeal.  It explains the endless Fleetwood Mac tours and why Atomic Kitten have reformed.

Someone out their needs that fix one more time.  So it’s no surprise that Californian punk band The Descendents should want to get in on the act, too.  And no doubt I won’t be the first to realise this.  Fighting the ‘Man’, sticking it to society, morality, the church, what ever.  Same old tired messages but they’re always in vogue. It’s there plain and simple in the lyrics of  We Got to Defeat: “Yeah, the world got to kick my ass a gain the new is the same as it always ways again”. The whole song’s only 57 seconds long but it’s effective. Just unoriginal.  A simple piece of aural click bait with a simple message – Fight the power. Play, repeat.  Play, repeat.  Yawn.  Big deal. So what.

Over the years the band’s managed to get by trading on their passive aggressive humour through many albums, coasting around the airwaves, narrowly missing the sale bin relegations. To call them punks is probably a bit rich, not that they’ve ever really welcomed the title either.

The band once ironically tried to pass the baton on that label with their own ironically labeled song I’m Not a Punk.   “Show me the way to conformity Try to be different but it’s always the same.”  But whilst they’ve managed to outlast many of their peers they can’t help acknowledging that this whole thing is really a youngster’s game.  After all, nobody wants to watch a bunch of overweight 50’s blokes singing about isolation and rejection.  Oh, hang on?  Wasn’t that the Buzzcocks show?

Rumours of new Descendents material track way back to a 2010 reunion show but at the time singer Milo Aukerman claimed that these gigs were mere one-off’s, a holiday break from his day job as a biologist.  But eventually he put academia on the back bunsen-burner when the quartet returned to the stage and studio last year.

Hypercaffium Spazzinate is the is the band’s first LP in over 12 years  and like all their material it relies on the same humour, honesty, and personal experience that has always powered their music. Back in the late ‘70s tense four guys from Manhattan Beach were cool, playing cheeky hardcore about caffine highs, girl crushes, and a mandatory hate of parents’, authority.  They were kind of cousins to the more commercially successful Offspring and the way more intense and aggressive bands like Black Flag, TSOL, Soundgarden and Fear.  I always hated Milo Aukerman’s whining vocal style, You’ve got to admire his wit and survival acumen.

Musically, every thing on this album is quick and decisive.  All 16 tracks bound along at pace, with staccato beats and fast, furious guitars but avoid any over-aggression or extensive political chatter.  And I found this particularly disappointing, given how ripe for critique Donald Trump and the whole presidential election climate is right now.  For a band that is so capable of clever ironic lyrics and cutting remarks nothing on this album offers anything of relevance or benefit.  It’s all well played lame duck” Dad Rock”.

Mostly the band keeps to the topics of their earliest days the spastic hardcore of their Milo Goes to College concept and after over thirty years of caffeine-induced shouting and belittling the punk elite Aukerman is still peddling their wares.   So this album picks up where they left off with a continued on food, friends, family, and everything else besides with, perhaps the added perspectives of maturity Informed by inevitable experiences of ageing, fatherhood, death, and responsibility.  But again.  So what?

No Fat Burger Is like part two for 1981’s I Like Foodmusic’s answer to Food Television’s Man Vs Food show.  The 80’s number was primarily focussed on “juicy burgers, greasy fries, turkey legs,” but the new song is like the aftermath of that blue plat special challenge: “Can’t have no m0re juicy burgers/Can’t have no more greasy fries/Doctor took my lipid profile/He told me I’m barely alive.” Morbid stuff, indeed.

I mentioned Retromania earlier and I think I found the theme song. Limiter is saturated in nostalgic  references accenting an ongoing yet tired laments about society’s mounting tendencies to treat conditions like ADHD with drugs and pills (or “limiters,”) instead of proper care: “Whatever happened to drug-free youth?/ What’s to become of our sons, what can we do?” Images from mid-90’s heavy metal videos featuring over crazed teens in straight jackets come to mind.

Elsewhere there’s more of the same – self-hatred (Fighting Myself), toxic masculinity (Testosterone) and the inevitable intolerant Bible Bashers (Shameless Halo).  Sorry folks, move along.  Nothing to see here.

Ok, so the band do pain like they enjoy it.  But again, again.  So what?  Wrapping up hard edges in irony and sugar pop on acid is all very nice but just so tired. Stephen Egerton makes sure  his guitar riffs stay are jagged but melodic, buoyed by Karl Alvarez’s staccato bass beats and Bill Stevenson’s machine gun drumming which switches between cruising 4/4 beats and double time artillery bursts in order to drive home the band’s carefully calculated fury.  But there’s nothing new in all of this.

The album’s closing tune, Beyond the Music is supposed to be a manifesto to timeless friendship of the band rather than a career prospect: “Frustrato-rock or chainsaw pop/or whatever it is we play/This is our family/And it will always be this way.” It can only be read as some sort of preemptive eulogy or a statement for why they refuse to change or experiment with anything new or creative.  So what?  “We ain’t changing, that’s what.”  Shame really.  If you are planning on making a comeback, whether to get more more money, break out of the rut you’ve fallen into lately or just to see if anybody still remembers you, then bring some new material and some new ideas.  Otherwise release a Greatest Hits album and tour that endlessly and live of the royalties like every other has been outfit.  Punk’s Not Dead.  Nah.

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The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset

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The first time I heard the title track, Hit Reset, I had to check the box.  I thought I’d stumbled across an unpublished collection by Japan’s Shonen Knife, perhaps recording with Brazil’s CSS under the direction of Julian Hatfield or Kim Deal. I wasn’t too far of the mark.  The Julie Ruin is actually the four-piece vehicle of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of 90’s punksters Bikini Kill and electro-punk group Le Tigre.  Hanna was something of a Riot Grrrl role model and poster person for the cause.  Then due to media pressures, tour fatigue and late stage Lyme disease, an infectious bacterial disease caused by Borrella bacteria spread by tick bites, she pretty much dropped out of sight.


You may have seen Hanna in the 2013 film The Punk Singer, a detailed documentary that acknowledged her contribution to music.  It also featured her solo effort Julie Ruin, which Hanna made principally in her apartment in Olympia, Washington with future Le Tigre bandmates Sadie Benning and Johanna Fateman.  It touches upon feminism, crocheting, aerobics and resisting police abuse – all the usual Riot Grrrl topics.  When she returned to music proper it was with a band by that name, releasing Run Fast as their debut.  And her voice and presence was still as shocking and unsettling as it was when she first started out.  Hit Reset isn’t any kind of rethink.  It’s more like a continuation of the plan, this time with more fury and fun than the tenser first outing.


The album opener is all awkward tension and attitude, mixing up relationships with life’s potency to self-implode without warning.  It grinds away at societal norms and recommends how to crash them at any opportunity.  Typical punk fodder with a smoother backbone.  It’s a snotty nosed brat of a song, declaring exactly where the axe will be falling on this one, baby!


I Decide has some nice hidden references to a myriad of 80’s digital synth bands like Visage tucked under a very cool digi-drone and an even cooled pile of grunge guitars.  Then you get the opposite on Be Nice, which hovers very closely to early Sonic Youth.  It’s just like their legacy EVOL, perfect songs, artfully destroyed with jagged feedback, smudged amps and distorted lyrics.  Rather Not is a pure saccharine high school crush demo, probably best left off and a bit of a letdown after the preceding stuff.  As is the very Japanese-pop stylings of Let Me Go.  Cheesy, twanging strumming and 2 chord changes held together with sticky tape and tambourines.  It sounds as amateur and professionally lo-fi as possible.  Actually, if CSS’s LoveFoxx ever makes a solo album it could sound like this.


Then, midway, the album takes a turn into cleaner, hook laden pop territory.  Let Me Go is packed full of tricks like waa-waa fuzz pedals, 60’s psychedelic keyboards and indie drumming motifs (think early La’s and Charlatans).  And songs like Planet You, which also has vocals by keyboardist Kenny Mellman, has definite punch sealing this as a youthful, energetic and gleeful affair even when the songs tackle difficult topics.  They’re never too heavy or depressing, more like a sarcasm like on Mr So and So, where she’s making fun of male pseudo-fans in the fast, spoken verses of bile and rhetoric jest and dark humour.  It seems maturity suits this punk madam.  Middle age doesn’t have to all be about a nice house in the suburbs and picket fences.  You can still have a good laugh while you kick against the pricks!

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Trip To The Moon: The 13th Floor Interview


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A Traveller’s Tale, Trip To The Moon’s sixth studio album, is the essence of over 3 year’s solid work claims Trevor Reekie.  Reekie along with multi-instrumentalist Tom Ludvigson has been recording their own unique version of trip-hop jazz and fusion since before the turn of the decade.  A few day’s before its release Tim Gruar talked to Reekie over the phone from Auckland about the album’s long gestation period.

“It’s always a long time coming, these albums.  Or put another way –  36 months of Sundays lost to this project – to conceptualize, compose, re-contextualize, arrange and record.”

“Like previous works”, he notes, “this new work mainly comes out of regular Sunday sessions when Tom and I get together to create riffs and samples.”   During that time the pair noodled away at Ludvigson’s Rockynook Studios creating beds and themes using synthesizers, pads and software like Abelton Live.  “We basically record everything we do, so we were just jamming away and we ended up with a huge body of work to cull through.  We eventually halved that for the album.

Tom creates all this music from an array of digital toys and stuff and I then create loops and overlays from those.”  From there the duo made the cuts, and ended up with a core selection of backing tracks all “in the key of ‘G’.  That was the driving theme.”

If the names sound just a little familiar, then you’ll know Swedish born Tom Ludvigson from his days in the popular Auckland jazz combo Bluespeak, or the Inner City Jazz Workshop; the Jack Morris Big Band, Big Sideways; the fabulously underrated Low Profile/Elephunk or even Rick Bryant’s 80’s sensations the Jive Bombers.  He also surfaces regularly at festival in Auckland and Wellington over the years and he created the music for the TV documentary on Robin Morrison called Blues For Robin.  Ludvigson gets around. A multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, band leader, performer, record producer, musical director for stage performances, session player and teacher.  He does it all.

Of course, listeners to Radio New Zealand will know Trevor Reekie’s name and voice from the Access All Areas and Hidden Treasures shows or perhaps his time in 80’s electro-pop group Car Crash Set and his record labels, Pagan and Antenna.  Check the back of your vinyl collection and you’ll see his name as producer on discs like the Mockers, Dance Macabre and Marginal Era.

The group’s title is a reference to A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 French silent film directed by Georges Méliès and was started up in the early 2000’s as a collaborative outlet for Reekie and Ludvigson, away from their day jobs.  Over the years the group has morphed somewhat, settling on the current lineup, which has been a longtime constant now.  That includes guitarist Nigel Gavin (Nairobi Trio, Gitbox Rebellion, Jews Brothers) and Jim Langabeer (a saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist who’s toured and recorded with Sammy Davis Jnr, The Bee Gees, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Alan Broadbent and Mavis Rivers) and Greg Johnson, who Reekie has produced in the past – all long time collaborators and friends.

Reekie’s background is mainly rock orientated but he also has a large appreciation of jazz and world music.  “I wanted to collect up all the jazz that Tom is so well versed in and digitally merge it into our overall sound, like a sort of journey.  Which is what it became.  One of the most obvious examples of this is on the opening track Santa Monica Stroll, which, with Greg Johnson’s signature trumpet layered over the tune almost feels like something Miles Davis would have produced around the time of his Tutu album.  “He’d be very flattered by that.”

“Actually Greg lives in LA now, so we sent him the tune and this what we got back.  It does have that kind of nostalgic, warm vibe about it.”  Another noteworthy piece is the closer Soudade.  “It’s a Brazilian Portuguese word.  It means a sort of deep emotional state of nostalgia, a sort of profound longing for someone or something that’s long gone.   I think this song has that slow drift into time, or memory, like the inability to let go of a particular emotion.”  Reekie knew instinctively that this album would begin and end with these tracks and in between there would be different types of moments.  He knew exactly how it would sequence.  This would not be just a random collection of songs.

It was intentional to bring in a number of ethnic instruments to build on the world traveller theme.  For instance, Nigel Gavin adds glissentar (an eleven string, fretless, acoustic/electric guitar) and the delicate sounds of a fretless 7 string oud (a pear shaped lute).

Themes vary from Middle Eastern influences to stardust sprinkles, evoking some kind of travel, whether it is real or imagined.  Some came from other projects or were influenced by other work.  “Indira’s Pearl, for example,” says Reekie, “came from a rejected piece Tom had composed for a documentary some friends were making in India.  We could have built it up like some sort of (Bollywood) dance theme but I chose to keep it very minimalist.  There was a time we would have coloured it all in but not now.  Simple is good.”

You arrange your own itinerary when Trip to the Moon hits the road on a limited 3-night adventure this month.  Buy the CD at the door and get in for free.

Friday August 19th – Lot23 – 23 Minnie St, Eden Terrace

21 August – The Wine Cellar, Auckland

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Steve Abel & Reb Fountain – Meow August 18, 2016

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Like his Auckland gig at the Wine Cellar, Steve Abel’s appearance at Meow was short and very sweet.  He starts, as any good host should, by thanking the opener Reb Fountain for her own very sweet 10 cent mixture of deprecating banter and whiskey soaked, forlorn cowgirl tunes culminating in surprisingly upbeat singalong version of desperate times Hope and Hopeful

He noted that once upon a time it was Reb and Marlon Williams that had the support slots, in tiny fonts on his gig posters.  Pretty soon that had reversed and it was Marlon on the larger letters but the time had come for Reb to be the headliner, he reckoned.  Reb’s a bit of a national treasure these days and even with terminal bronchitis she’s the real deal.  Apparently there’s a new ep out soon but for all those who wanted to buy a CD at the merch stand check out her Facebook page.

Flanked by Reb Fountain, who returned as a backing singer and guitarist/pianist Jonathan Pearce, Steve Abel plays through a mix of his new album, Luck/Hope and a selection of older tunes from his previous releases Flax Happy and Little Death.  Through my little viewfinder I can help being reminded of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis but his manner is far more gentle.  His slightly gravelling, bourbon tonsils carry the conviction needed to pull of these simple songs of truth and love.

There’s a lovely story that Steve tells to the room: The last time I was here in Wellington, there was about 7 people.  One was appalled at the low turnout so they started organising house parties.  It’s his gig in Carterton we’re playing tomorrow.  So thanks!”

The new song mix well with the old material, especially the title track and Not Going Anywhere, which, on the album feature none other than Jolie Holland.  The album originally came together in 2009 but wasn’t completed until new, yet all the material seems timeless.   None could be more true than the single Best Thing.  Steve tells the audience that this song is at least 20 year’s old.  He’d sung it t a birthday, at weddings and to his mother on the day she passed away.  A very versatile song indeed.  Although it’s Reb instead of Joilie on the vocals it still gives you goose bumps.

The audience, a few more than just 7, appreciated it to pulling them back for a couple of well-earned encores finishing with the stunning and lilting Hospice for Destitute Lovers, perhaps his most poignant song and still the best example of his ability to write wonderful deeply contemplative lyrics.  “This is not an ode to Mozard drunkards, beggars or buggers, wolf-man martyrs or Jesus/ Here’s to lovers, lovers, destitute…”

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Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

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Irish multi-instrumentalist singer Lisa Hannigan initially found her feet playing with Damien Rice.  That was back a bit when she was but knee high to a grass hopper.  Now older and wiser (she’s 35), with two confident solo albums (the double-platinum, Mercury-nominated debut Sea Sew and Irish #1 Passenger) under her belt her sound is mature and confident way beyond her years.

With producer Aaron Dessner (The National) at the knobs her third effort is exceptional, and explicitly beguiling.  It’s a bewitching slice of gothic folk poetry that has a distinctive European film noir atmosphere to it and I love it.

Having no clue who she was before the moment the simply constructed Fall seeped out of my headphones, I was utterly distracted.  Hannigan’s voice is not especially unique but her slightly smoky Gaelic lilt is incredibly seductive as it transverse deliciously simple chords and strings.  It hints those we’ve encountered previously, such as Karin Bergquist (Over The Rhine), kd lang or the Unthank Sisters.

The first single is Prayer For The Dying inspired by the death of a friend’s parent passing of a friend’s parent after an extended is beautifully haunting, almost as if Kristin Hersh, in her Your Ghost-era had gifted the song.  It’s like an old Patsy Cline lament mixed with Throwing Muses and some Over The Rhine front room swagger.  The reverberating, shimmering chorus (“Your heart, my heart”) sends tingles down the spine.

In contrast, Snow is more upbeat but still simple, mainly guitars and piano.  Between the lyrics, the mood and beat you can imagine a winter’s train ride through a large, vast open plain, with only memories to comfort (“Song like treasure” … “heading from city to sea, we watch the cities go by”).  Its hook-laden, stealthily creeping up on you.

Given all this, Hannigan sounds like she’s at the top of her game.  But after playing in support of Passenger for nearly two years, she hit the wall, enduring writer’s block.  Plus a new relationship meant that she was dividing her time between Dublin and London.  Adrift and lost, she threw herself into distraction instead.  She voiced a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated animation Song Of The Sea, undertook some soundtrack work for the Fargo TV show and contributed to the Oscar-winning score for the film Gravity.  And, to add further procrastinations started up the popular Soundings podcasts which put Hannigan in the interviewer/host’s seat interviewing guests such as Harry Shearer, Sharon Horgan and David Arnold.

It was only an email from Dessner, scouting for work, that got her back into the studio.  Hannigan was missing the collaboration spirit of her earlier Dublin days.  Initially, they exchanged ideas by email and iPhone but the full album only came together when both finally met up in Denmark.

Later, the full recording took place in a church in Hudson, New York, during a furious seven-day stint.  The echoes you hear on songs like We The Drowned and the homely a capella of Anahorish are from the resonance of the wooden rafters and stone walls.   In some ways it has the same magical dust as Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, minus the menacing undertow.

The resulting album, inevitably, is about homesickness, isolation, death and consolation but move profoundly, it’s above the love we receive during these times.

Throughout you can’t escape the metaphors of a career and a soul lost-at-sea.  Only the slight tango of Tender refuses to show any vulnerabilities in the cold water of a strong current.

But despite all these morbid references this is not a morose album.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Songs like closer Barton, with its Sunday morning organ rally gives you a sense that Hannigan has struck her claim on a distant island, standing strong like Anna in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, out on the causeway, defying the buffering waves (“I’ll be on my own a while smiling like a crocodile”, you can see for miles….”).

So by the end it’s clear that Hannigan is strong enough to swim any straits.  She’s not only treading water again but can easily reach the shore and moreover, she’s beginning to enjoy the dip.  This is, I think her strongest work.  It’s confident, it shows vulnerability and it show cases a wonderful natural voice, whilst referencing all the alt-country music I love.  A great effort.

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