Song of the Day, November 4: Mad On You by the Bats

BatsMadeMadToday’s song is an early classic by New Zealand alt-pop masters the Bats. By the time they recorded their third EP, 1986’s Made Up In Blue, they quartet were a tight unit, crafting distinctive songs with dark, fizzy energy. The highlight of that set is the relatively boisterous Mad On You. Elliptical as always, it celebrates a vague second party who is so amazing that everyone goes wild around them. Robert Scott delivers a scintillating deadpan, getting charming harmony support from guitarist Kaye Woodward.

Enjoy this delightful romp today.

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Song of the Day, December 16: Treason by the Bats

BatsTreasonLiveToday’s song is Treason, the opening track from the Bats’ stunning debut album Daddy’s Highway. After five years and three EPs, the band had developed a unique, cohesive sound and a strong reputation in their native New Zealand. This track introduces their first long-player perfectly. With a bittersweet lyric delivered in fragments, it’s classic Bats. The swirling, chiming guitars and quietly effective rhythm section move the sad tale forward. Lead singer Robert Scott shares the mic with guitarist Kaye Woodward, who typically provides harmonies. Their shared vocal makes this song distinctive in all the right ways.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, June 20: Countersign by the Bats

BatsGuiltyCounterToday’s song is Countersign by the Bats. A testament to the virtue of patience, the band have only released music sporadically in the past two decades, but each album has been a consistent delight. The Guilty Office, released in 2009, is their seventh album in almost 30 years. That it sounds fresh and lively while it could easily have been part of their 1980s catalog speaks volumes about the quartet’s confidence and musical skill.

The lead-off track, Countersign sets the bar for the disc very high. With elegant drum work, ringing guitars, and a swirling melody, it’s classic Bats from the first few notes. Robert Scott’s voice has matured nicely and Kaye Woodward is promoted from her usual harmony vocals to shared lead, lending an elegant element to the proceedings. Mysterious, compelling, and quietly anthemic, Countersign demonstrates why every Bats album is worth the wait.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, December 25: Fear of God by the Bats

BatsFearofGodToday’s song is Fear of God by the Bats. By their third album this New Zealand band had nailed down a flawless formula for compelling, subtle indie rock. The title track shows that off nicely. Robert  Scott’s lyrics are delightfully nuanced, merging various kinds of faith with a fragile relationship. Over a slow, driving Bats drone, replete with ringing guitar and quietly urgent rhythms, he sings hope back into a broken thing.

But now I’m learning to cope, I see the fire and the smoke
I’ve learnt to put that fear away
But you know I won’t let on to a god I’ll never see

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, October 13: Wasps’ Nests by the 6ths

6thsWaspsStephin Merritt has always had a restless streak. Although his early musical work — based on a cheap synth and homemade four-track recordings — was something like lo-fi Kraftwerk or pre-alt-rock indie New Wave, his lyrical bent and musical passion have more in common with the rich pop textures of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and ABBA. After founding the Magnetic Fields and recording two albums with singer Susan Anway, he took over primary vocal duties himself. The band has slowly grown into a core of five or six musicians, blending the electronic foundations with natural instruments to support Merritt’s mordant wit and pop perfection. The Magnetic Fields also feature a handful of regular vocalists, including Merritt. The bandleader has also recorded under his own name (mostly indie film soundtracks) and with the lo-fi post-disco dance trio Future Bible Heroes and the goth-bubblegum band Gothic Archies. In 1994, Merritt had a set of songs that didn’t quite fit his vision for the Magnetic Fields, so he asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances to lend a hand.

Title Wasps’ Nests
Act The 6ths
Label London Release Date March 21, 1995
Producer Stephin Merritt
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[lead vocalist]
  1. San Diego Zoo [Barbara Manning]
  2. Aging Spinsters [Stephin Merritt]
  3. All Dressed Up In Dreams [Mary Timony]
  4. Falling Out of Love (With You) [Dean Wareham]
  5. Winter In July [Ayako Akashiba]
  6. Pillow Fight [Mitch Easter]
  7. Dream Hat [Mac McCaughan]
  8. Movies In My Head [Georgia Hubley]
  9. In the City In the Rain [Lou Barlow]
  10. Looking For Love (In the Hall of Mirrors)
    [Amelia Fletcher]
  11. Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket [Robert Scott]
  12. Here In My Heart [Anna Domino]
  13. Puerto Rico Way [Mark Robinson]
  14. You Can’t Break A Broken Heart
    [Jeffrey Underhill]
  15. When I’m Out of Town [Chris Knox]
  16. Yet Another Girl [Stuart Moxham]

The result was the 6ths, a non-band centered lo-fi synth, clever production values and Merritt’s lyrics with a panoply of alt-rock talent providing the vocals. Enjoying the pronunciation challenge of the band’s name, Merritt upped the ante with the album title Wasps’ Nests. It includes 15 songs, with the liner notes providing a quick bio of each singer. The album was also released as a box set of vinyl 45s, featuring a 16th track, later included on the Merritt collection Obscurities. Strange though it may seem, the whole project is amazingly cohesive, a testament to the maestro’s singular vision and the stunning array of talent he assembled. On to the songs!

  • San Diego Zoo [Barbara Manning is the guy from the San Francisco Seals and is also Barbara Manning] Manning lends her finest plaintive vocal and SoCal passion to this touching tribute to a love she regrets leaving behind.
  • Aging Spinsters [Stephin Merritt is the guy from the 6ths and The Magnetic Fields] Merritt’s lone 6ths vocal is perfect for this dour warning to beautiful girl not to let her life pass by.
  • All Dressed Up In Dreams [Mary Timony is the guy from Helium] The ethereal effect of Timony’s delivery is perfect for this happiness-will-betray you song.
  • Falling Out of Love (With You) [Dean Wareham is the guy from Luna, who used to be the guy from Galaxie 500] In this brilliant anti-love song, Wareham delivers a quirky near-deadpan dismantling of a relationship that is disintegrating out of boredom.
  • Winter In July [Ayako Akashiba is the guy from the Japanese band Sunshower] Akashiba’s twee vocals make this song of geographic displacement and distant love oddly touching.
  • Pillow Fight [Mitch Easter is the famous producer guy who used to be the guy from Let’s Active] One of the standout tracks, it features Easter’s great vocal as he ponders the fate of a relationship, hoping for reconciliation, however goofy the means.
  • Dream Hat [Mac McCaughan is the guy from Superchunk and Bricks and Portatastic, and the guy from Merge Records] This is my favorite song on the disc. With a rich, wall of sound style production that belies the electronic instrumentation, it features brooding vocals and a firm rejection of a failed relationship.
  • Movies In My Head [Georgia Hubley is the guy from Yo La Tengo] In another charming broken relationship song, Hubley warns her suitor that her rich fantasy life will always be more important than his pointless entreaties.
  • In the City In the Rain [Lou Barlow is the guy from Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion, etc.] Barlow turns in one of his most deadpan vocals ever, making this is-it-really-a-celebration song resonate perfectly.
  • Looking For Love (In the Hall of Mirrors) [Amelia Fletcher is the guy from the U.K. group Heavenly] Fletcher provides a spot-on delivery in one of the darkest tracks, a song about hopelessness and alienation, sounding eerily like Merritt sped up about 50%.
  • Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket [Robert Scott is the guy from The Bats, The Clean, and The Magick Heads, all of whom are from New Zealand] A perfect little vignette, this song has some of the best lines on the album, fittingly delivered by master vocalist Robert Scott, masquerading as a late-night New York nightclub habitué.
  • Here In My Heart [Anna Domino is the guy from Anna Domino] Merritt and Domino channel the Petula Clark in this upbeat love song with just a hint of darkness.
  • Puerto Rico Way [Mark Robinson is the guy from Air Miami, who was the guy from Unrest and is the guy from Teen Beat Records] Robinson provides a wonderful near-salsa vocal over rich synths as he celebrates a romance with a woman of ill repute. It’s strangely more charming than it sounds.
  • You Can’t Break A Broken Heart [Jeffrey Underhill aka Jeffrey Borchardt is the guy from Honeybunch and The Velvet Crush] Another standout track, with Underhill declaring his damaged invulnerability. It’s a brilliant kiss-off with flawless delivery.
  • When I’m Out of Town [Chris Knox is the guy from The Tall Dwarfs, who used to be the guy from Toy Love and is also Chris Knox, all of whom are from New Zealand] This dark meditation on infidelity could have been written by Knox, which is a true compliment. It’s one of the best mergers of vocalist and lyric on the album.
  • Yet Another Girl [Stuart Moxham is the guy from Young Marble Giants and The Gist] This is the bonus track and it’s a crime that it was so hard to find for so long. Moxham delivers a wonderful vocal as he reflects on a woman who defines herself by the shallow life of the clubs.

It’s quite a journey, and well worth the embarking. Few people are bold enough to try an experiment like this, and far fewer could make it succeed In the inspired hands of Stephin Merritt and his cohort, Wasps’ Nests is a nearly flawless collection of pop songs.

FURTHER LISTENING: The array of vocalists is stunning, as is the myriad of ways they have collaborated over the years. The 6ths are so distinctively Merritt that it’s dangerous to assume too much about the contributors’ sound outside the project, but if something grabs you, try the singer in another setting. Chris Knox and Barbara Manning probably differ the least. Merritt assembled a second set of 6ths for the even more trickily titled Hyacinths and Thistles. While it has some moments, it pales next to the first outing. Standouts are contributions by Sally Timms, Bob Mould, and Momus.

Song of the Day, August 26: Courage by the Bats

BatsCourageToday’s song is Courage by the Bats. The band are well known for the consistency of their music; this track stands out even in that solid company. It opens their third album, 1993’s Silverbeet. Propelled by their trademark swirl and chime, the band are in fine form, clearly comfortable with their sound but pushing the energy a bit. Vocalist Robert Scott mixes things up a bit as well. He usually delivers his lyrics as a narrative, working with and around the the music. For Courage, he breaks the lyrics into rhythmic bites that follow the band rather than lead it. Given the themes of seeking and determination, this approach is perfect.

And you’ll find me waiting
On a street called courage
And all those pictures
They made me suffer
But I knew better
‘Cause I had you there
And I had courage
To find the answer there
And a sense of where, it’s alive

Enjoy this mesmerizing song today.

Song of the Day, July 11: Sir Queen by the Bats

BatQueenToday’s song is Sir Queen by the Bats. It appears on their stunning full-length debut, Daddy’s Highway. It’s a quiet song dedicated to a mysterious character. Singer Robert Scott turns in one of his most tender vocals, clearly inspired by Sir Queen. The harmonies on the chorus anchor the sentiment with a stately power befitting the title.

Sir Queen is a friend, an inspiration, and perhaps more. He shows his determination and strength of will while giving the singer some much-needed meaning.

Now it’s time to make a choice
To air your views and raise your voice
So you work it out and keep it for the fight
Sir Queen you’re building up my night
‘Cos you live, you love again

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, May 30: Cliff Edge by the Bats

BatsCliffToday’s song is Cliff Edge by the Bats. It appears on The Law of Things, their stellar second album. Throughout their career, the Bats have maintained a remarkable consistency, demonstrating that four great musicians can chart similar territory to wonderful effect without falling into a rut. They revel in quiet power and simple images, and this song weaves both together delightfully.

While many Bats songs are somewhat opaque, Cliff Edge is a straightforward song of devotion. Singer and lyricist Robert Scott crafts a series of ways that the couple could celebrate their life together, each time anchored by a pledge to risk great danger to honor their love. Sung high and sweet, it is one of his best deliveries, anchoring the lovely power of the words.

I can take all the hours that you send my way
I could bask in the showers falling every day
I would walk to the cliff edge for you
I would lean on a knife edge it’s true

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, March 4: Time to Get Ready by the Bats

BatsLawReadyToday’s song is Time to Get Ready by the Bats. It appears on their lovely second album The Law of Things. The band had already hit their stride and refined an amazingly consistent sound; almost every track on the disc is solid and many are outstanding. Even in that company, Time to Get Ready is noticeable.

Singer Robert Scott is in fine voice, using his higher range for a plaintive quality that suits the lyrics well. It’s the tale of a relationship on the verge of something, with honesty and communication holding the key for easing forward.

It’s time to get ready; it’s all hands to alarms.
No time to hold steady or dry those sweaty palms.
Speaking of readies, tell me what I owe.
You say you’re the bright one, so tell me what I know.
And here comes truth with all its claws, soothing my rabid jaws.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Album of the Week, February 3: Daddy’s Highway by the Bats

The Bats - Daddy's Highway - 1987 The Bats are one of the most important bands to arise from the potent New Zealand indie scene in the mid-80s. Singer and guitarist Robert Scott was a one-time member of the Clean — the leading band of the Dunedin sound — when he met guitarist and vocalist Kaye Woodward. Longtime friend Paul Kean joined them on bass and they played around Christchurch, eventually adding drummer Malcolm Grant. The foursome became the Bats and have maintained an unchanged lineup for thirty years. With a clean jangle-pop underpinning and a strong sense of cohesive musicianship, the quartet have a distinctive sound. They released three acclaimed EPs and contributed to a compilation disc by cutting edge New Zealand label Flying Nun while they gigged regularly and solidified their sound. When they released their debut LP, it was breathtaking. Working with guest violinist Alistair Galbraith, they created 12 potent tracks and one of the best albums of the 80s.

Title Daddy’s Highway
Act The Bats
Label Flying Nun Release Date 1987
Producer John Milton and the Bats
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Treason
  2. Sir Queen
  3. Round and Down
  4. Take It
  5. North by North
  6. Tragedy
  7. Block of Wood
  8. Miss These Things
  9. Mid City Team
  10. Some Peace Tonight
  11. Had to Be You
  12. Daddy’s Highway

Things kick off with Treason, an aptly titled bittersweet tune carried by Woodward’s buoyant guitar line. She also shares lead vocal with Scott, an unusual arrangement that works extremely well on this sad but jaunty song. Sir Queen is a quiet, sad song of self-determination follows, with an especially powerful lead vocal by Scott. Things begin to churn with Round and Down, a vibrant song with a musical structure that fits the title nicely.

Next up is the doomed relationship song Take It. The singer tries to put a brave face on waiting to be wanted while the band flows around him. North by North features Galbraith’s violin in a surging drive that carries the theme of independence beautifully. Next up is Tragedy (Begins At Home), a tale of sorrow. Slightly detached in the beginning, it grows into a plea for companionship with a plaintive vocal and yearning melody.

Block of Wood is ironically cheerful as the lyric warns “it doesn’t look good.” One of the band’s signature songs, it’s a nice mix of wit, jangle, and drear. Miss These Things is more bare bones, a simple song of loss and sorrow. Mid City Team is a story of being “lost in love” addressed to the singer’s family. It toys with all the ways that being lost can work, for good and ill. The next track Some Peace Tonight, has a clearer narrative structure than most of the songs. It’s no cheerier, however, telling the tale of a woman waiting for her lover to return from the sea. The music is a quiet delicate march that underscores the hopeless waiting.

Had to Be You is a mysterious tale that implies a happy ending. Things wrap up with the title track, a driving song of (at least trying to) avoiding one’s fate. The 12 mostly sad narratives are held together by the band’s tight performance and a wonderfully cohesive musical sense.

The CD release and downloadable version of Daddy’s Highway feature five bonus tracks. Two — Calm Before the Storm and Candidate — were featured on the Block of Wood single. Mad On You, Trouble In This Town, and Made Up In Blue formed the band’s third EP. All five are solid songs and, unlike many bonus tracks, enhance the overall package. Calm Before the Storm, with its quiet chant, and Mad On You are particularly fine.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Bats all work on side projects and record sporadically, resulting in a net of only eight albums in three decades. All are worth a listen, although the mid-career discs suffer a bit from a bit too much sonic consistency and drone. At the National Grid, their 2005 return after a decade is a great listen. The Law of Things, their second LP from 1990 is nearly as good as Daddy’s Highway and features Smoking Her Wings, their finest song.

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