The Chills – Brave Words: Round 11 – Tom’s Selection

Music is a particularly emotive art form. One only has to have a quick glance at (pretty much) any internet music forum to witness the degeneration of perfectly reasonable, considered discussions into personal attacks, name calling and one-upmanship. For a fragile soul these forums can be intimidating places to inhabit – I tend to read (‘lurk’ I  believe it is somewhat pejoratively referred to) relatively frequently, write very occasionally and despair at some point or other in almost every thread I follow! And the one thing that annoys me most of all is the categorical nature of many of the responses; the apparent lack of awareness that one’s appreciation of music is COMPLETELY subjective in nature (hmmm…a categorical statement that!), that there are no bad or good records, just ones you either like or don’t like. Maybe pussy-footing around with opinion makes for boring reading, but the most objective and balanced I’ve found so far (thanks to Nick) – I Love Music – does a pretty good job of keeping the chat amicable and relevant and, for my money, it’s all the better for it.

The reason for the above rant – The Chills 1987 album Brave Words. I almost wrote ‘masterpiece’ instead of ‘album’, but, to be honest, it’s not a masterpiece, at least not in the conventional sense. The music on Brave Words is not particularly innovative, the singing, at times, is pretty ropey, Mayo Thompson’s (of Red Krayola (in)fame) production is murky at best and the quality of the songs is uneven. To make matters even worse, my vinyl copy of Brave Words is just about as warped as a playable record can be, having on one occasion (many years ago) been left in the roasting July sun on my brother’s bedroom windowsill! So objectively, Brave Words is a pretty poor offering for DRC (I think Nick may well be agreeing with this statement in his response). Yet I love it so. More than any of my other offerings thus far…way more in fact – we’re talking top ten in my collection love here. And it’s a love that deepens with each new chapter of our relationship (ironically, The Chills have a song called Familiarity Breeds Contempt on Brave Word’s successor, the also excellent Submarine Bells).

I can clearly recall listening to Brave Words for the first time and being distinctly unimpressed. I can’t quite remember the sequence of events but I believe it was around the time I first discovered the wonders of Antipodean indie through the delights of The Go-Betweens’ Liberty Belle… and 16 Lover’s Lane albums. I was looking for more of the same, but found Brave Words to be ham-fisted, amateurish and, in places, unmelodic in comparison (this was before the lo-fi scene of the early 90s came along and made that sort of thing commonplace, if not revered). But, by the law of the opposite of diminishing returns, I found myself enjoying each subsequent listen that little bit more; almost as if ticking off each freshly conquered song, to the extent that eventually (and it took a fair while) I came to see all the various facets of the album as essential components of a magnificent whole. And once this point had been reached, other attributes began to reveal themselves – the warmth of the sound, the sense of place (we talked about this at the meeting) that the record evokes, the ebb and flow of the songs as they meander from jangle pop (Push, the unimpeachable Rain, the deeply confessional Wet Blanket) , to spiky Buzzcockian (?) power punk (Look for the Good in Others and They’ll See the Good in You), to swaggering indie groove funk (16 Heart-throbs), to eerie and graceful (The Night of Chill Blue). Like so many bands on the Flying Nun label, The Chills main protagonist, Martin Phillips, spent some time playing with The Clean and whilst their myriad offspring have gone on to produce a wealth of first class music, it is Phillips’ vision and talent that, for me, are the zenith of New Zealand indie’s embarrassment of riches.

Rob listened: I clearly recall the brief period on the late 80s when the UK music press went NZ crazy. I remember reading about The Chills, and ‘Submarine Bells’ in particular, and thinking that when I heard it it would blow my mind into tiny pieces which I would find imposible to fit back together. I heard ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’. It didn’t. It was interesting to hear Tom’s description of his dive towards the antipodean at that time, just about the time I was swerving towards the USA. Like much of the music we’ve discussed this year, The Chills and, presumably, their compadres, don’t sound like much on first listen, but give up their riches the more you get to know them. I can’t help but wonder if those riches were deliberately buried, or whether Martin Phillips and co just happened to build their little pop shack on a spot that concealed a seam of diamonds? By which I mean this sounds great to me.

Nick listened: I hate to be predictable, but I didn’t get much from this, to be honest; certainly not Tom’s strong sense of location (although I’ve never been to New Zealand, which may be why). I could hear why Martin Phillips would be unhappy with the production, but from one listen I couldn’t hear past the production, particularly, nor did I much want to try again. To be fair, the second half of the album did open up into something darker and more interesting, intriguing, which was a relief because the opening couple of songs left me baffled as to why Tom was enthusing about it so much. The good thing, though, is that previously I knew nothing about the New Zealand scene at all – not even that it existed – and now I do have a slightly peaked curiosity to investigate at some stage. Possibly the only thing holding me back is the language barrier, or lack of – there’s not quite the frisson of “otherness” here as there is for me with Germany or Brazil.

Graham Listened: Although I knew of the Chills and some of the NZ bands of the time I would have struggled to name a track of theirs. However, this took me right back to the days of 80’s jangle pop/rock in the UK and I really enjoyed it. Can’t say I picked up on any clear NZ references, aside from the general style of music that was evolving there and in the UK at the time. They’ll stay a secret, but I was inspired to go back and find some guilty pleasures from the period (now where are those Aztec Camera cassettes?), D’oh !


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