By Nick Bollinger
When The Phoenix Foundation's Horse Power first arrived - 20 years ago - I was compelled to do something I had never done before in my years as a music reviewer, and haven't done since. I picked up the phone and rang a member of the group.
I didn't know much about them and had never seen them live, but someone told me that Samuel Flynn Scott, one of the group's two lead singers, could be found at Radio Active, the Wellington alternative station, and as I recall it was Sam who answered the phone. While I was ostensibly ringing to check a few technical details before writing my review for the Listener, I really just needed to tell someone in this band that they had made the best first album I had heard in years.
Listening to Horse Power now, and knowing what The Phoenix Foundation went on to do - seven albums, numerous soundtracks, EPs and solo discs; as glorious a catalogue of alternative pop as any band has ever produced - I'm still struck by the things that made such an impression me on first hearing back in 2003. Here is a group, all just in their early 20s, with a real grasp of songwriting and all the emotional shades a lyric and melody can convey, and a wide instrumental palette which they employ sometimes lavishly, sometimes sparingly, but always at the service of the song. It is clear already that they have all the qualities of a great band.
It is also clear that they have understood perhaps the most elusive element of record making: capturing an atmosphere. Some tracks are lush and widescreen, like 'Let Me Die A Woman', the album's first single. Others like 'The Swarm' are almost hesitant, as if one is eavesdropping on a rehearsal that's taking place inside the singer's head. The cumulative effect is like that of the best albums from anywhere: it takes you a journey and you don't want to stop until you arrive at the last note.
"This album makes me think of old girlfriends, single bar heaters and draughty flats', I wrote at the time, which a Listener subeditor compressed into the cryptic headline 'The sound of old girlfriends'. Yet in many ways that sums it up. There's sincerity and awkwardness and self-conscious masculinity all rolled together in songs that deal with the thoughts and feelings of sensitive young men looking for a way to be in the world. In 'Sister Risk', the album's opener, Sam Scott voices the hope 'that you and me could get it on, casually…'cause you're so pretty and I'm such a casual guy', while everything - from the quaver in his voice to the clumsiness of the word 'casual' - belies the bravado.
But there's also a playful humour, even in a heart-tugging ballad like 'Sally', in which he sings: 'Forget that fella / your colour / you look like Kodachrome / you've gone a little yellow…', while 'Going Fishing', Lukasz Buda's upbeat vocal showpiece, gives a taste of their majestic garage pop, like The Clean with bigger choruses.
Then there are the outliers. The elegant slow motion of 'St Kevin' points towards the type of cinematic instrumental that would broaden the scope of their later albums, while 'Bruiser (Miami 4000)' explodes in a garish arrangement of robotically processed vocals, swishing synths and squiggly metal guitars. Twenty years ago this track struck me as a weird interruption; these days it just seems to make the album bigger, funnier, more rich in its glorious unpredictability.
The group has always been the sum of its idiosyncratic parts. Scott, Buda and Conrad Wedde first met at Wellington High School in the 1990s and have shared a musical mission ever since. I remember Sam telling me in that first phone conversation that people sometimes mistook him and Luke for brothers. But the multi-instrumental contributions of Wedde and percussionist Will Ricketts add much of the character and detail, while drummer Richie Singleton and bassist Tim Hansen (whose roles in the band have since been occupied by Chris O'Connor and Tom Callwood respectively) provide Horse Power's sturdy rhythmic foundations. And one mustn't overlook the sonic contributions of Lee Prebble, Horse Power's co-producer and recording engineer extraordinaire.
To mark its anniversary, Horse Power is seeing its first ever vinyl release, and for the first time it will able to be heard as the classic long player that it is. You will even have to turn it over between sides.
The Phoenix Foundation will also be playing a series of shows in which they perform the album in full and it will fascinating to hear them re-inhabiting these songs - older, perhaps wiser, certainly as mischievously musical as ever.
The Phoenix Foundation with special guest Jess Cornelius play three concerts in Aotearoa next week: Thursday 23 November - Loons, Lyttelton; Friday 24 November - Hollywood Avondale, Auckland; Saturday 25th November - The Opera House, Wellington.
* Nick Bollinger is a music broadcaster and writer. His book, Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction at the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.