Tony Stamp assesses the second album from witty Canadian rockers Kiwi Jr., a new EP by Christchurch husband and wife duo Terrible Sons, and a roster of local artists taking on a classic Split Enz album.
Cooler Returns by Kiwi Jr
Listening to Cooler Returns, the new album by Canadian band Kiwi Jr, got me thinking about something that's sometimes seen as taboo in music: humour. It doesn’t define this band by any means. But listen closely, past the generous array of hooks on offer, and you’ll find plenty of lyrics that shun any sense of self-importance, preferring wry observations of other people’s lives.
The song 'Maid Marian’s Toast', opens with “Ye own the beehive, thus ye own all the honey” which makes me chuckle every time. I’m even sure why; something to do with using old English in a line that seems to be about property rights. The next line goes “Burn the restaurant down for the insurance money”, and you get more of an idea of how singer Jeremy Gaudet’s mind works.
When I interviewed the band recently, Jeremy alluded to himself and other members studying creative writing, and it shows. He said there were many unfinished screenplays between them, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. Somewhere in between I assume.
That balance between irony and sincerity informs a lot of the album. When I spoke to them I knew I was in for a pretty cheeky interview, because that side of their personality comes through so clearly on record.
The song 'Undecided Voters' subverts Spartacus ("Him there, that's Spartacus"), and throws in mentions of the Duane Reade franchise, King Crab, and Glasgow on fire, before the chorus manages to be pretty damning with the two words of the title, employed as a call and response.
Kiwi Jr have been compared to nineties slacker guitar bands, particularly Pavement, so many times in fact I feel slightly guilty bringing it up. It’s true that there’s common ground between Jeremy and Stephen Malkmus’ wordplay, as well as a tendency to fall into their speaking register when singing. That has precedents in vocalists like Bob Dylan and Jonathan Richman. It definitely seems to be a confluence of elements that led to the comparison, rather than imitation.
The newest band I’ve seen them mention as an influence is The Strokes, which definitely tracks. But they mostly cite Dylan, and said they wanted to emulate the Rolling Stones piano sound on this album.
You might also hear the DNA of Flying Nun bands like The Clean in many of these tracks, and that’s helped along by Kiwi Jr’s pervasive laid back vibe. Cooler Returns was partly recorded during the lockdown in Canada, with masks and social distancing in effect. The band couldn’t even listen to their takes once they were recorded, because they couldn’t go into the control room. But none of that stopped every part from being imbued with a shaggy, feelgood energy. And I think that’s the band’s biggest strength.
On the title track 'Cooler Returns', Jeremy loudly proclaims “I am not American, but I feel the beat sometimes”, and the enthusiasm, over surf rock guitars and a propulsive beat, is infectious.
“I said a long goodbye to a big dollar bill” he sings elsewhere on that song, another line that amuses me.
'Nashville Wedding' is comparatively low key, with a big acoustic strum, handclaps, and the lyric "Take it easy on the white wine", the band amping up the dynamics and elevating its big chorus hook.
‘Omaha’ references another American landmark, and like many of these tracks has some studio chatter left in, ramping up in the chorus with help from a harmonica-doubled guitar line, and lyrics that might be advice to an undercover cop ("Don't blow your plain clothes cover").
All thirteen songs on Cooler Returns have hooks that any band would be proud of, and are dense with lyrics that are more inventive than most. But it’s that infectious energy that will win Kiwi Jr. new fans. The tongue in cheek approach belies the fact that a lot of work has gone into the craft here. They sound to me like a band that’s rightfully excited by what they’ve created.
Mass by Terrible Sons
It’s an understatement to say the musical landscape has changed recently. In fact it’s constantly changing, buffeted in various directions by expanding technology and shrinking profit margins.
But it still strikes me as a remarkable feat that a Christchurch duo who haven’t played a single live show, have managed to clock up almost 20 million streams.
Terrible Sons is the musical project of married couple Lauren and Matt Barus. They’ve been putting out material since 2018, although no albums yet - Mass is their third EP. Lauren used to perform as LA Mitchell, and Matt was in the band The Dukes. As Terrible Sons, they make music that’s quite tender; sometimes fragile. It’s steeped in folk traditions, and sometimes it’s quite breathtaking.
Mass was produced by Tom Healey, who did the same for albums by Tiny Ruins and Miss June, as well as mixing a huge number of local acts, and he seems to have encouraged the band to edge out of their comfort zone occasionally. There are plenty of sonic treats on offer; every song has a degree of subtle experimentation.
'The World Is Walking Over Us' contains a personal highlight - just when you think you’ve heard the chorus, they sneak in a second one. It’s a real knee-stomper, an optimistic singalong in a song with a pretty dark name. A lot of the time optimism seems to be what Terrible Sons are going for. There are somber moments throughout the EP, and plenty of lyrics that could be about the difficulty of parenthood, but just as many that are celebratory through and through.
Lauren and Matt live in an ‘intentional community’. They subscribe to the Christian faith, and it follows that the ‘Mass’ of the title is a reference to the act of worship.
And while some of this music lands comfortably within what you might expect from worship music, there are numerous moments where Terrible Sons gently push at the constrictions of their piano and acoustic guitar-driven folk and tiptoe into other genres.
'You Are The Gold' has all the trappings of a modern pop song, veering into falsetto neo soul, then heading somewhere more countryfied. 'Streets of New Love' sails through a chorus that’s appropriately smooth and heavily reverbed, before ending on a thoroughly wonky drum part. It’s admirable that they weren’t tempted to 'fix' it, instead the flaws to grab your ears before the song heads somewhere a bit more bluesy, and from out of nowhere a luxurious synth bass pops up.
Terrible Sons clearly have a way with melody, and Mass has plenty of pleasant surprises, musically and production-wise. If I have a criticism it’s that they sometimes fall into what you might expect from a husband and wife duo, singing about how in love they are - it can start to feel a bit cloying. The 'L' word is thrown around a bit too often, but maybe that’s just me.
It’s made up for by tracks like the closer 'No Sleep', where they blend their voices to stunning effect over what sounds like a pump organ. The music swells, and it feels appropriately devotional for an EP named after an act of worship.
True Colours, New Colours: The Songs of Split Enz by Various Artists
When Split Enz released True Colours in 1980, it marked a dividing line in their career. It showed a more serious side of the band, and featured Neil Finn coming into his own as a songwriter, which scored them their first number ones in NZ and Australia, and helped them break into the international market.
Finn is now a member of Fleetwood Mac, of course, and performed the single 'I Got You' with that band on their most recent tour. The songs have stood the test of time, and that’s clearly illustrated on the new album True Colours, New Colours, which features a roster of Australasian musicians each having a crack at a song from the album.
As you might expect, results are varied, in terms of approach, and success. Shihad don’t change the tempo of 'I Got You', or any of the melodies, but they add plenty of punch, and a slightly ominous feel to the verse, before Jon Toogood belts out the chorus and somehow it seems effortless and exuberant.
The Beths ramp up the tempo of 'What’s The Matter With You' and add some fuzz to the guitars, and it’s impressive how Liz Stokes manages to make the song her own. Lyrics and melody are unchanged, but her delivery adds so much warmth and humour. It winds up sounding just like a Beths song.
Chelsea Jade takes a lateral approach to 'Shark Attack', doing away with the song’s nervous energy entirely, halving the tempo and molding it around her own sense of chill. It’s the most radical reinterpretation here. Tim Finn raced past the line ‘Just beyond the waves’, but Chelsea lingers on it, before the title of the song hits like a ghostly echo, and “She chewed me up and she spat me out”, so manic on the original, here feels rueful, if slightly tongue in cheek.
‘Poor Boy’ also gets a makeover in terms of mood. Similarly to Chelsea, Stan Walker halves the speed, and adds a lot of reggae flavour, with guitar stabs and dubbed out bass. He vamps around the melodies a bit, as you’d expect, and adds what’s becoming a bit of a trademark for Stan - a countermelody on some horns. I like that a singer of his power is willing to cede some of the limelight like that. It also transforms the chorus into something a bit more hopeful than Tim Finn’s version.
True Colours featured two mostly instrumental tracks, that are wisely handled here by electronic acts with an eye on the dance floor. Auckland duo Dual take on Eddie Raynor’s 'Double Happy' pretty faithfully, mostly updating the circuitry and adding some funk wah to the bassline. And Pacific Heights removes the nihilism and squawk from 'The Choral Sea' and delivers a lush, bouncy take, sailing off to somewhere far more blissful than Split Enz did.
My main takeaway when comparing those two tracks in particular to their originals is that Split Enz were up with the play technology-wise. Gorgio Moroder had pioneered what would become known as techno in 1976, but New Order’s similarly squelchy and sequenced Blue Monday wouldn’t arrive until ‘83.
All these songs hold up, but some of the covers can feel a little dour, like Bernard Manning of Powderfinger’s version of 'I Hope I Never', which adds some Beatles-type stomp but feels doomed from the outset when faced with the grandiosity of the original.
Faring better is Robinson emulating Tim Finn’s vocal runs with aplomb on 'How Can I Resist Her', and Ladyhawke managing to keep some of the spikiness of ‘I Wouldn’t Dream Of It’ intact inside a shiny, synthy new outfit.
I should point out that the original album is included in this package too, so you can compare and contrast, or just listen through to it. Forty years on it’s still massively enjoyable.