13 Jun 2020

The Sampler: D.C. Cross, The Phoenix Foundation and Kiwi Animals compilation

From The Sampler, 1:15 pm on 13 June 2020

Nick Bollinger reviews a genre-challenging collection of lost treasures from 1980s Aotearoa; fretboard explorations from Sydney guitarist D.C. Cross; and the tenth-anniversary reissue of a classic album by The Phoenix Foundation.

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The Kiwi Animal

The Kiwi Animal Photo: Charles Jameson/In Touch

Kiwi Animals: Future/Primitive Aotearoa 82-91

These days it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether a recording began its life in a bedsit or a million dollar studio. Some of the biggest blockbusters are produced on laptops. Back in the 80s, though, the gulf between musicians with a big studio budget and, basically everyone else, was a very audible one. 

But it gave rise to some great feats of ingenuity. In this country, Exhibit A is usually given as the proliferation of guitar bands, mostly from Dunedin, who circumvented the production values of the day and got their DIY music out to the world via the Flying Nun label. But there was another bunch of independent music makers who had no interest in that kind of music. And that point is made by a singular, surprising and strangely entertaining new release.

The Kiwi Animal was a duo or sometimes trio, whose lo-tech music and confronting presentation gave them a unique and surprisingly visible place for a while around the local music traps. ‘Man and Woman Have Balance’ first appeared on their 1985 album Mercy, but it’s revisited on this, compilation named partly in honour of this very individual group. Kiwi Animals is comprised of eleven tracks by eleven different acts, linked together by - well, what exactly? Perhaps hearing a few of them will help you figure that out.

From roughly the same period, there’s Stiff Herbert: performing name of German immigrant, Stefan Wolf, and his faintly tinny yet invitingly danceable ‘I Could Hit The Ceiling’ was one of many he recorded with just his guitar, drum machine and some sort of cheap electronic keyboard in his flat in Christchurch. 

And then there’s performance poet Kim Blackburn. Accompanied only by a tom-tom drum, a rather comical cowbell and the sounds of nature basking, her poem/song/chant ‘Lizards In Love’ is primitive, ritualistic and, like the other tracks, oddly compelling. 

And that oddness, that outsider quality, is one of things that holds this work of musical archeology together. Subtitled Future/Primitive Aotearoa 82-91, Kiwi Animals was compiled by Ben Stephens and is the result of his long fascination with New Zealand music of the 80s - specifically the stuff that happened in the cracks between the slick studio stuff and those much-publicised Flying Nun guitar bands. That’s a broad field, and while there are certain recurring characteristics, like those early drum machines and cheap electronic keyboards, there are no strict rules. We’ve already heard bedsit dance and neo-primitive poetics. 

And then there’s ‘Soul Brothers’. Arguably the most outré track here, even as you can hear it grasping towards the mainstream, it is the work of Rupert, a banjo-playing busker who cut the song on a four-track with his four-stringed instrument and a bass organ, and saw it released on a cassette-only label before it began its rapid descent into an obscurity from which it has no been rescued. I’m not sure which rock Stephens found it under, or what Rupert might feel about it sitting among this collection of post-punk and electronica, but perhaps for the first time in its life, it has found a home. And that’s really the alchemy Stephens has achieved here. This collection doesn’t represent some pre-ordained genre, though there are recurring sonic themes. There are also a lot of references to animals - not just kiwi, but lizards, chickens, gazelles. More than that, though, what seems to be holding it all together is the way these tracks, meeting for the first time, acquaint themselves with each other. It’s like a party with a lot of awkward but interesting guests. Rupert, meet Norma O’Malley, ex Look Blue Go Purple, whose ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ is a hypnotic experiment in syllabification.

While a lot of care has gone into the programming of the set, the most obscure stuff is, interestingly, at the beginning, and as it runs on you’ll start to hear some voices that might be more familiar. There’s Chris Knox, recording on this occasion as ‘Roger’ Knox for a cassette-only Flying Nun anniversary release. And there are also early tracks here by groups that would go on to have high national profiles. Listening to ‘Respect’, an early track by Blam Blam Blam, I find myself imagining parallel universes. In one of them, Don McGlashan never writes anything more popular than that piece of fractured post-punk, based on a reprimand he once received from his school principal after making a joke about Rob Muldoon. I imagine the same for Headless Chickens, whose track here, ‘Throwback’ hovers in some adjacent yet separate zone from the one in which they would have hits like ‘George’ and ‘Cruise Control’. And I find myself wondering, if some of the other kiwi animals on this inspired collection had, at the right moment, taken just a slight step in a different direction might they have turned their outsider art into nationally-loved anthems? 

D.C. Cross

D.C. Cross Photo: supplied

Terabithian, by D.C. Cross

There’s an infinite number of ways you can tune a guitar, but most people default to the tuning that’s commonly called ‘standard’. If you can escape the tyranny of standard tuning, though, you’ll find whole new harmonic worlds opening up. 

D.C. Cross is a Sydney-based guitarist who, over the past couple of decades, has recorded in various different settings. When I last heard him he was in a band called Gerling, a thoroughly eclectic outfit who combined live drums and dance beats, electronica and electric guitars, had a brief stint on Flying Nun and if I remember rightly, recorded something with Kylie Minogue. Since then he’s worked on film soundtracks and been half of a folk-noir duo. But somewhere along the line he started experimenting with different ways of tuning his guitar, and that’s formed the basis of his new solo album.

There’s a precedent for this kind of thing, which Cross is obviously well aware of. In the 60s people like John Fahey and Leo Kottke explored similar combinations of open chords and fast fingerpicking styles, which more recent exponents like William Tyler and Ryley Walker have taken to ever more rarefied levels. But Cross has certainly been putting in the hours. His picking is deft and driving, and the patterns he make are pretty, and can be mesmerising.

ome of these tunes draw on Americana; they might have had their beginnings in old John Hurt or Carter Family tunes. At other times he leans more towards Asian modes and you might hear hints of a raga.

The risk with this kind of thing is that it can sound like an exercise, and there are moments where I do feel like I’m observing a demonstration of technique. But his technique is good, and the more Cross stretches out, the more it seems to become a journey of discovery for both listener and musician. And tracks like ‘Black Horse Friend’ one explore places perhaps neither has been before.

Though the whole album is essentially solo guitar, there are moments where Cross harks back to his Gerling days, using electronics to colour the sonic landscapes. That might be no more than dropping a recording of rain behind his solo guitar; at other times he applies electronic treatments such as reverbs and delays to the guitar itself. These become more prominent as the album goes on. Listen to ‘International Folk Cell Tower Ping’; it hardly sounds like a guitar at all, with more delays on it than the southern motorway.

This is the second album D.C. Cross has made in this vein. He’s called it Terabithian, after Bridge To Terabithia I guess, the teenage novel about grief and escape. That suggests some possible uses for the music, but you don’t need big drama in your life to enjoy it.

The Phoenix Foundation

The Phoenix Foundation Photo: supplied

Buffalo: the 10th Anniversary Edition by The Phoenix Foundation

It is a fact that this country doesn’t do enough to celebrate its artists, but luckily the artists will sometimes take matters into their own hands and celebrate themselves. 

It’s ten years since the Phoenix Foundation released Buffalo, their magnificent fourth album, and to celebrate they have reissued it in a new blue vinyl edition, augmented with a swag of unheard songs left over from the original sessions. 

Other than being a little shocked that an entire decade has slipped by since I first heard this record, it’s great to have an excuse to listen to it all over again. And it really does sound magnificent.

I’ve have debates over which is the best of the Phoenix Foundation’s albums and I’ve heard good arguments for Pegasus and Happy Ending, and even their most recent, Give Up Your Dreams. But in the end I always lean towards this one. It covers the full range of what they can do, from the motorik grandeur of the title track to the lyrical grace of ‘Flock of Hearts’. And then there is the majestic, dreamlike finale, ‘Golden Ship’.

Buffalo also has some of their driest, funniest observational songs, and Luke Buda and Sam Scott show that they are a couple of the smartest and most self-aware lyricists in the country. 

When all of the squats
Have been turned into gallery spaces
And the punks out on the corner
What's that look on their faces?

It says, "What do we do
Now that all of the yuppies replaced us?"
Don't worry my brother there's just one world
But many, many, many places... (‘Bitte Bitte’)

Added to this tenth anniversary reissue, are the contents of the Do Son EP, only ever released digitally at the time, plus a swag of out-takes; songs that were completed yet for whatever reason left off the album. My guess is that too many of them defaulted to the same middle tempo. But while the album didn’t really need them, the Phoenix Foundation’s cast-offs are better than most bands’ A-listers. Try ‘Easter’ or the brooding 9-minuter ‘Danzig Bro’, with its slow-building and faintly ominous riff.

en years old now, Buffalo presents a slightly different Phoenix Foundation from the one that continues to this day. Since Buffalo they have acquired both a new drummer and bass player, and both have arguably brought more subtlety and flexibility, which has deepened the playing of the whole band. And yet in a funny way they haven’t became a better band because they were always as good as a band can be. There’s a chemistry between the three founders, Luke Buda, Conrad Wedde and Samuel Flynn Scott, of that rare kind that distinguishes all great bands; a meeting of hearts and minds that makes it more than just a bunch of musicians playing somebody’s songs. And it’s hard to think of any other New Zealand group that, having found they had that chemistry, have managed to sustain it for this long; six albums and counting. Split Enz perhaps? 

Buffalo is now ten years old and next year will be the twentieth anniversary of China Cove, their first EP. But while there’s the potential for an endless stream of anniversary celebrations, I gather The Phoenix Foundation have got a brand new album coming, and that’s something to celebrate even more. In the meantime, though, I’ll happily listen to this all over again.