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.
||John Milton and the Bats
- Sir Queen
- Round and Down
- Take It
- North by North
- Block of Wood
- Miss These Things
- Mid City Team
- Some Peace Tonight
- Had to Be You
- 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.