7 Sep 2020

The Sampler: The Lemon Twigs, H.C. McEntire, Alec Bathgate

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 7 September 2020

Nick Bollinger reviews the latest from precocious 70s-inspired brother duo The Lemon Twigs; queer country from North Carolina singer H.C. McEntire; and an insrumental set from sometime Tall Dwarf Alec Bathgate.

The Lemon Twigs

The Lemon Twigs Photo: 4AD

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Songs For The General Public by The Lemon Twigs

Their last album was a musical about a chimpanzee that went to school. Their new one is just a collection of songs. But for all that it’s no less outrageous.

You would be excused for thinking we had slipped into some parallel universe where it’s still the early 70s and Paul McCartney has just made what critics are calling his strongest work since the Beatles. In fact it’s the new album by Long Island duo The Lemon Twigs, and if you’ve been following this precocious brother band since their 2016 debut, made when they were still both in their teens, you’ll already be familiar with the unsettling sensation of time travel that comes with their music. The sons of a former session guitarist and a neuropsychologist, Brian and Michael D’Addario grew up with a basement full of musical instruments and their parents’ collection of classic pop albums, and the music they make seems like the inevitable result. It is deliberately and meticulously retro, from the eight-note piano that drives a song like ‘No One Holds You Closer (Than The One You Haven’t Met)’, to the synths, guitars, harmonies, melody and even the lyric - one of those ironic, ‘this is not a love song’ love songs that you could depend on 10cc or Supertramp to supply. 

Setting aside the question of how these young men have managed to avoid the influence of any music actually made during their lifetime, what else they have got in their bag of 70s tricks?

In ‘Moon’ you’ve got a full American breakfast of classic rock cliches: an entree of Dylan-esque harmonica with a side of Born To Run followed by a main course of Meatloaf. Bbut these boys work both sides of the Atlantic, and sometimes they straddle the two. ‘Hell On Wheels’ is like some midwestern American rocker’s idea of British glam.

Shameless musical mimics, I can just picture the D’Addario brothers debating who’s going to imitate which classic rock singer on any given track. Towards the end of ‘Leather Together’ it sounds like they have agreed that one will play Bowie, the other Jagger, as they try to outdo each other in rock’n’roll parody. 

Though the album jumps around, even within songs, as though designed for people with short attention spans, the detailing that has gone into it all suggests that the makers of this music in fact suffer from quite the opposite. They have clearly spent ages getting this right, nerdishly tweaking every harpsichord and vocal harmony. And in its most expansive moments, I’m reminded of the similarly obsessive Brian Wilson, in all the Beach Boys’ Smile-era glory.

The 70s is the Lemon Twigs' default setting, though the brothers do occasionally step outside that decade, or even into another era and genre altogether. As I’ve said, their last album Go To School was a musical, and in some ways that was the perfect medium for them; one where singing in character is a given, and ironic distance to be expected. And they slip back into a pre-rock musical style for the rhetorical ‘Why Do Lovers Own Each Other?’

But there’s no grand narrative linking these songs as there was on Go To School; if there’s a theme it is the variety of miseries people can inflict on each in the name of love. 

As for the album itself, they have called it Songs for The General Public, which is a bit like saying if you think these songs are self-indulgent you should have heard the other ones. And it is self-indulgent; you can hear them delighting in their own outrageous excesses. It is musically highly accomplished, with hooks that will haunt you like some 70s hit that won’t quit. But it’s also relentless and you might find yourself needing a lie-down either before or after listening.

H.C. McEntire

H.C. McEntire Photo: supplied

Lionheart by H.C. McEntire

There are records that almost assault you on first hearing; they demand your attention, and you’ve got to listen to them right away whether you want to or not. Such records hardly give you a choice. But there are others that bide their time. You have heard them once or twice without them really making much impression, and they might hover for months or even years on the periphery of your listening, before one day you realise how special they are. And I think this is one of those.

Lionheart is the solo debut of H.C. McEntire, former singer of North Carolina alt-country-rockers Mount Moriah. It’s been out for a couple of years but it’s only been in few quiet moments recently that I’ve come to appreciate just how good it is. 

The steel guitar and a McEntire’s plangent voice are classic signifiers of country music, and it would be easy to hear this record simply as a generic if superior specimen of the form. But there’s stuff going on here that, if not entirely unprecedented, certainly makes McEntire an unorthodox voice in a genre that more often cleaves to tradition.

“I have found heaven in a woman’s touch, come to me now, I’ll make you blush,” McEntire sings in ‘A Lamb, A Dove’, making it pretty plain that this is a queer country song; certainly not the first, but still an anomaly in a genre that, perhaps more than any other branch of pop music, has deep conservative associations. The interesting thing is that, in other ways, McEntire’s song is a very traditional one. Not only is the lovely melody redolent of old mountain tunes, but the imagery - with its lambs, doves, blood and mercy - is the stuff of classic country too; in other words straight out of the Bible. But even more than that, what gives McEntire’s songs such authenticity is their sense of place. 

Towns that smell like tobacco, hickory-striped overalls, red silos… McEntire’s songs are full of such specific signposts to her rural North Carolina background, and they meld with the music, which is similarly evocative of region and tradition, to create vivivd and moving musical pictures.

Like the blues, country music has become a kind of universal language and you’ll find fluent and reasonably convincing practitioners all over the world. And yet when it comes from as close to the source as this, you’ll hear something that you just won’t find anywhere else. It’s the place that produced Charlie Poole and Earl Scruggs; it’s where Emmylou Harris grew up. And H.C. McEntire doesn’t have to study their stuff to share some of what they had; she already breathes it. 

And yet there’s a tension in this music, a pull between that tradition and the coming out that has left McEntire, to this day, estranged from a lot of her Southern Baptist family. And with ongoing wranglings in the state over same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, just to sing overtly queer love songs like these can be seen as political.

Lionheart is pastoral, personal, poetic and progressive.

Alec Bathgate

Alec Bathgate Photo: supplied

Phantom Dots by Alec Bathgate

There aren’t many Kiwi musicians who could claim to have been in three of this country’s seminal bands, but here’s one who has. The Enemy, Toy Love, Tall Dwarfs: guitarist Alec Bathgate was in all of them. For a rock’n’roll legend, though, he’s pretty low-key; in Tall Dwarfs, his duo with Chris Knox, you could say he was the Quiet Dwarf. And that general low-key-ness was confirmed by the lack of fanfare when his first solo album in fifteen years snuck out in late August via Bandcamp. The album, though, is a good reminder of what a great guitar player he has always been.

With its sinewy, psychedelic guitar line and the relentless on-beat pulse of a bass, ‘Crushed Velvet’ almost feels like a lost Toy Love song, just waiting for one of Chris Knox’s magnificent malevolent vocals. As it is, it’s an instrumental and a very good one, with Bathgate’s guitar taking much of the role a singer usually would. And that goes for most of the sixteen tracks on this all-instrumental set.

With the twin influences of Beatles and punk rock, neither of which really sanctioned the extended guitar solo, it’s crossed my mind that the guitar solos on this album have to be the longest I’ve ever heard from him. There are also a few tunes where he puts the guitar down and turns his attention to the keyboard, but again economy and conciseness are the order of the day. 

At other times, Bathgate wanders even further from those punk-pop roots. There’s surf, psychedelia, and even a little soul ballad.

As far as I’m concerned a lot of these tracks could actually go on a bit longer than they do, though that might mean developing them further; bridges, key changes, that sort of thing. And in the end, it’s pretty clear that’s not the concept. Their brevity - and a few of them aren’t much over the one-minute mark - is part of their charm. They are like little sketches or short animated cartoons.

Bathgate was part of the first wave of punk - it wasn’t even post-punk yet - that came out of the New Zealand south, and though what followed could be very diverse, he shares an aesthetic with some of his southern compatriots. Listening to Phantom Dots I was reminded more than once of The Clean - especially when they are in their instrumental mode. So it wasn’t too surprising to discover that one of there few additional players on the album was Hamish Kilgour.

Phantom Dots is a sneaky album, sitting on Bandcamp almost pretending it doesn’t exist. And it’s not ambitious or grand but it’s lively, inventive and fun. Frank Zappa once described one of his albums as ‘a movie for your ears’. This is more like a series of quick animated shorts.