Susan Brettingen, a Wisconsinite, is working on a master’s degree in education while student teaching English, journalism, and film courses at a high school in Milwaukee. She has been an avid fan of New Zealand music since the ‘80s, starting with Split Enz and continuing on with the Chills and The Clean. She’s a fairly decent saxophonist and a bagpiper (forever) in training. Here are five albums she’s loving right now…
1 – Martin Phillipps, Songs From Solo Below EP: Martin Phillipps could sing an auto repair manual and I’d be entertained, but thankfully he’s offering this instead: four tasty flavours of Chills pop live. Signature song Pink Frost gets a hushed, on-tiptoes treatment that still manages to be compelling despite its subtlety. Phillipps sings Juicy Creaming Soda with a voice full of experience but a spirit still stubbornly resolute enough to go forth and do battle. My favourite here is Residential Green Cell, a tale told in the voice of a Syd Barrett admirer who stands by helplessly while watching his hero go down. The lyrics build up the tension: “malignant, inherent weakness, a mind in a minefield, something must yield.” I Love My Leather Jacket takes the listener on a Harley ride down a road full of hairpin turns, the guitar bending notes and clanging like a big old piece of machinery, scary and exhilarating, and a nifty twist on the original version of the song. I hope to see Martin and the Chills live again someday, but for now, this should tide me over.
2 – Terror of the Deep, Death of the Gideon EP: Goodness knows, I love New Zealand music. I’ve been frothing at the mouth about Flying Nun bands for ages. But I’m always up for new stuff by those younger generations too, and if I were ever anywhere near Wellington, I’d love to check out a Terror of the Deep show. Until then, I’m enjoying the band’s new EP, which covers a lot of ground in just five tracks. Highlights include Fallen Down Tree, propelled by strumming guitars; Times of Uncertainty, which has a bit of Sixties garage-band sound going for it; and Do Not Ask for Love, with its lovely melancholy jangle. It sounds polished enough to be professional, but loose enough to capture the sense of fun the band is having.
3 – The Music Tapes, Mary’s Voice: Church bells, banjos, singing saws, and calliopes are just a few of the noises in this whimsical collage of an album. Ringmasters Julian Koster and Robbie Cucchiaro orchestrate a blend of sounds that by turns resembles minstrel tunes, carnival music, and other old-timey Americana numbers. Opening track The Dark is Singing Songs sounds like a long-lost Stephen Foster track. The Big Beautiful Shops brings to mind a Brian Wilson-Van Dyke Parks collaboration. It’s all sort of strange and surreal, but oddly beautiful, if not darn near impossible to sing along with!
4 – Gravenhurst, The Ghost in Daylight: Folky. Shoegazey. Psychedelic. All of these descriptions fit Nick Talbot, the singer-songwriter who is essentially Gravenhurst. The lovely, yearning vocals in “The Prize,” the second song off this album, have been the soundtrack for my daily morning drive to school. The melodies sort of sneak up on you. The dynamics tend to be on the soft side, forcing you to listen closely, but there’s always something going on, even in the quiet spots. And just when you think Talbot has settled into a softly strummed groove, there’s “Islands,” a track with a deliciously icy Krautrock feel, to shake things up a bit.
5 – Tame Impala, Lonerism: Surely any follow-up to the manic guitar goodness that was Innerspeaker was going to be a letdown. Even after I heard Elephant, the Deep Purple-ish first track from the new album, I was skeptical. There was no way the whole album would be as good. Happily, I was wrong. With its layers of guitars and keyboards and heaps of effects, Lonerism should by all rights be a bombastic mess. But instead it’s a joyous psychedelic pop romp. Kevin Parker loves a good melodic hook as much as a killer guitar riff. Obviously there’s a bit of John Lennon in his voice; I also hear a bit of Jeff Lynne in songs like Endors Toi and Why Won’t They Talk to Me? This is my favourite album of 2012.