The Chills - The BBC Sessions

by Rob Taylor Rating:7.5 Release Date:2014-10-31

Always a pleasure to review some quality Kiwi indie, and these sessions from 1985 to 1988 recorded at the BBC by hapless group The Chills includes a good summary of their productive years headed up by Martin Philipps, the mainstay and anchor of the band to this day. I say 'hapless' not because of the lack of talent, but because of the numerous line-up changes and misfortune that beset the group, from the death of drummer Martyn Bull in 1983 to various rifts and VISA problems while touring causing last minute personnel changes. They are contenders for the title of most transformed musical concept alongside The Fall

 

The Chills, along with The Clean and The Verlaines, defined what was referred to as the Dunedin sound. Its interesting that these stalwarts of the cool indie scene played such vastly different music (melodic guitar-based jangle-pop) to that which existed in Australia at the time, punk rock like The Birthday Party, Died Pretty, The Saints and Hunters and Collectors. This is perhaps why I missed this stuff the first time around.

 

Aussies are only too happy to acquire Kiwi artists as our own; see Split Enz or Russell Crowe, a serious miscalculation in the latter case, but anyway, The Chills and their Flying Nun cohorts are so quintessentially Kiwi, no-one in Australia ever thought to steal their citizenry. As I said, though, the underground scenes were so different.

 

An interesting observation is how close in spirit this music is to that which was being pioneered by UK groups like The House of Love (In particular, see ‘Night of the Chill Blue’ with its repeated single guitar note and echoey resonance reminiscent of 'Christine' and many other HOL tracks). The 1985 session, however, predated The House of Love’s debut album by three years, and so it was a forerunner to that sound rather than a beneficiary of it.

 

'Rolling Moon' from the 1985 session sounds to me a bit dated, with heavy reliance on the swirling keyboard rhythms so typical of the time. 'Brave Words' is a more mature, guitar-led track with a touch of the Syd Barrett in the vocals. This track and 'Wet Blanket' are successfully played in the style of The Go-Betweens, which is not to say these songs are inferior or superior, but similarly shaped and poised.

 

As already stated, 'Night of the Chill Blue' is a great track with a more experimental guitar-line, and subtle keyboard rhythms altogether more successful than the reverie of 'Rolling Moon'. The 1987 session brings a cleaner production and a more rock ‘n’ roll intention, while maintaining the understated indie sound.

 

The 1988 session shows that, exponentially, The Chills continued to improve and refine their Dunedin sound with more experimental touches such as vocal quirks, and scaled back instrumentation revealing more of the inner heart of the tracks, a sound which for once has no obvious reference point other than Philipps’ own ingenuity and musical prowess. This session is a genuine keeper for those with a penchant for great indie songwriting.       

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