Album of the Week, May 4: Fork Songs by Tall Dwarfs

ForkSongsWhen pioneering New Zealand band Toy Love disintegrated, the band members went on to other antipodean heights. Bassist Paul Kean helped form the Bats while Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate created the unique musical experience known as Tall Dwarfs. Both men play guitar and keyboards and share vocals. They opted not to expand the group, relying on a wide variety of found sounds — not all of them intended as musical — for the rhythm section on their recordings. They released the EP Three Songs in 1981 and continued to release EPs for the next decade — seven of them in all. Living over 500 miles apart on separate parts of their island nation, they gathered twice a year to record. In 1990 they released Weeville, an album that showcased their distinct musical vision which came across more like a set of EPs. Finally in 1991 they released their masterpiece, a quirky, powerful, cohesive album called Fork Songs.

Title Fork Songs
Act Tall Dwarfs
Label Flying Nun Release Date 1991/92
Producer Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Dare to Tread
  2. We Bleed Love
  3. Wings
  4. Skirl
  5. Thought Disorder
  6. Small Talk
  7. Lowlands
  8. Life Is Strange
  9. Daddy
  10. All Is Fine
  11. Two Humans
  12. Oatmeal
  13. Boys
  14. Think Small

Bathgate and Knox share all the writing credits and perform almost all of the music on the album. While it explores a variety of musical styles, the disc is anchored by their aggressively lo-fi instincts and dark — but somehow optimistic — view of humanity. The dominant sounds are guitars and cheap keyboards with found elements making each track its own special listening experience.

The album opens with narration from an old Hi-Fi demonstration record; the percussion used by that record then forms the rhythm section for the powerful first track, Dare to Tread. A scathing look at destructive people and their power to wreck innocent lives, it’s a great introduction to the album and features one of Knox’ strongest vocals. From there we move on to a Dwarfs ballad, the hypnotic We Bleed Love. Featuring swirling music and quietly powerful singing, it’s almost cheerful, but with a sting in its tail. Wings is a dour waltz, a song of yearning that could almost be a country hit if it weren’t quite so eerie. Skirl mimics the bagpipe sound it references with a dark background thrum and potent keyboard figure, providing a look at efforts that may never pay off.

The highlight of the album is the dark masterpiece Thought Disorder. Using Bathgate’s looped vocals as the rhythm section, Knox drones darkly in the foreground, exploring a hopeless romantic obsession. Using minimalism to its best effect, the Dwarfs concoct a powerful song that remains unmatched in their extensive catalog. Next the duo borrows some inspiration from the Velvet Underground, with a tasty guitar lick and off-kilter doo-wop backing vocals. Small Talk tries to understand another person’s perspective with a grating interrogation that would also make a disturbing comedy sketch. Lowlands sounds kind of like Ringo Starr channeling the Louvin Brothers, with a dark twist on getting some help from his friends. Initially a bit of community building, it opens up to show the disdain that community has for any outsider — a perfect Tall Dwarfs theme.

We get another glimpse of the stereo demo disc as we launch into the album’s anthem, Life Is Strange. Featuring a lo-fi power pop guitar solo (really!), it’s the duo’s best statement of purpose, declaring that “the lovely and the ugly share the journey.” Daddy gets to the dark part of that journey, exploring the power of father figures and their ability to abuse that power. Featuring a press conference with President George H.W. Bush, it underscores the point nicely. All Is Fine is a lie from the start, a dark tale of romantic satisfaction leading to obsession and evil deeds. Knox provides a sprightly omnichord figure that makes the song even more potent with its irony.

Two Humans is a quasi-Vaudeville shuffle with an odd backing chorale created by the duo. It acknowledges the distance that can exist between people despite — and sometimes because — of their intentions. Oatmeal is a jaunty song about decay, an angry punk tune with cheery handclaps. Strangely, it works. Boys barely does, sadly, providing the one dull moment in this great album. A noisy, fuzzy exploration of macho over-reaching, it almost succeeds but collapses in its noise and length. Fortunately, the Dwarfs wrap things up with one of the best songs, the lovely Think Small. Another ode to life, it’s a quiet, pretty, almost hopeful song about making the most of what we have. Paired with Life Is Strange, it captures the Tall Dwarfs aesthetic flawlessly and leaves us with something to cling to as we head back into the complex world the duo have laid bare.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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