CHILLED BUT WARM

Thunder rumbled around the pre-dawn purple, but burrowing under the doona I got another hour’s sleep. Maybe more a doze. When I crawled out it was light; brighter than expected given the vague sleep-penetrating sounds of heavy rain earlier. The morning blind raising ritual let in more light and more weather. The rain wasn’t rain, but small hail, like a massive slushie flung over the region. I watched, transfixed as the slurry accumulated on the decking like an arctic time lapse film. It drew me closer, but it was cold outside. Freezing. A shiver prompted retreat.

Sitting hunched over a bowl of cereal I thought about the day. The first part was clear. After a coffee, one last glance over the submission that had occupied my waking hours for the past month, then hit “Send”. There’s a point after which you’re only looking for typos or dodgy formatting and can’t really see the prose any more. It would be a relief to hear the swoosh of the departing email and claim back my head, hopefully for only a couple of months. But in the short term, a chance to re-engage with other projects, other interests. Vinyl Connection has rarely languished this long in the netherworld of inactive blogs; the photo post didn’t fool anyone, especially me. It being a day for staying inside, hiding from the greyclouds of winter accelerating across the state, it should be a perfect opportunity for writing. Thoughts turned to a disc I’d received pre-release but that hit the stores—or, more probably, the on-line inventories—only yesterday. Perfect for a 9 degree day. The Chills. Straight outa cloudy Dunedin.

Scatterbrain, released in May 2021, is a return to the recording studio for Martin Phillips, the New Zealand songwriter and pop craftsman whose band The Chills last released an album in 2018. They began a lot earlier, though. Brave Words, the debut, was released on highly respected label Flying Nun back in 1987. After a fourth album (Sunburnt) in 1996 Phillips took a significant break. The next release was Somewhere Beautiful in 2013, since which there have been semi-regular offerings of his expertly crafted indie pop. Timelines not withstanding, it is a delight to welcome back this talented and thoughtful songwriter, older and wiser.

Old is a relative term. The opening song on Scatterbrain is an homage to standing stones, the neolithic monuments dotting Britain (and other European sites). It is lyrically simple, just a couple of verses and an hypnotic repetition of the mantra: Give me the power of ancient stones / honour the monolith. On listening, there is a guilty tug towards Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge”, though The Chill’s incantation does enough to dispel images of dwarves dancing around an 18 inch henge.

Time is measured differently in the next song, “Hourglass”, an acoustic guitar led rumination on passing time. “Do the grains fall through the hourglass?” Phillips asks, then answers himself, “Only when you’re counting”. It’s a good point, well made: we are happiest living in the moment. The chiming rain of falling grains (or years) is an synthesised eighties throwback; a patina of nostalgia in harmony with the melody. A contrast between song themes and the lush melodies is a characteristic of this glowing album which somehow injects a quiet optimism into awareness of our inevitable temporary existence.

“I won’t cry, there must be something caught in my eye” is the unconvincing claim of “Caught in my eye” where plaintive piano and cello create a distant (lyrical) cousin to 10cc’s “I’m not in love”. It is a romantic goodbye song contrasting—there’s that word again—with “Safe and sound” a little later.

“Scatterbrain”, the title track, makes effective use of a sample of a scratchy record and is one of the more outward focussed songs here. It’s even a bit angry as Phillips challenges his interlocutor to use their grey matter to look at what’s actually happening in the world. Similarly, “Worlds within worlds” takes a swipe at the post-truth society that has overtaken us like the foetid deluge following a tsunami.

The theme of time’s passage and the inevitable changes it brings wanders throughout Scatterbrain. In counterpoint to the miniature pop arrangements and sweet melodies delivered in Phillips’ light, persuasive voice, the lyrics would not be described as dark, but twilight is certainly trending. “Safe and sound” is a song of domestic retreat from the cold outside world; considering recent years, the dangerous outside world. The opening few bars sound startlingly like 80s Kraftwerk but when Phillips breathy voice enters, it is obvious we are grounded in humanity rather than technology. Somehow the songwriter manages to make this splendid isolation comforting, like looking at a Christmas card of a northern hemisphere winter scene from the cosiness of your sofa, leaning inwards to a loved one.

Up or down, happy vs sad, in and out. The jaunty “Little Alien” has a melancholy lyrical launchpad: what might it be like to be the last of one’s race? Couldn’t be a metaphor, could it? The plinky synth is back. Still, any song that rhymes Circadian, Arcadian, subterranean and alien is all right by me.

There are ten songs on Scatterbrain, all more-or-less three minutes long. It’s a half hour of well polished music that could be described as melodic chamber pop, and if there is a little too much use of chiming keyboard sound tones (echoed, sounding rather like a phone ringtone), then that is easily overlooked in an appreciation of the overall craft. If you don’t know The Chills, think an introverted Robyn Hitchcock, a grown-up Belle and Sebastian, or a mystical Prefab Sprout. Or just seek out Scatterbrain and have a listen to an album that should be warmly received by fans and newcomers alike.

A final note about the wonderful cover art by David Costa.

After a brief but influential musical career in under-rated UK folk-rock band Trees (their two key albums have been mentioned in the 1970 and 1971 series), Costa built a career as a designer/graphic artist. His list of album credits is hugely impressive (view it at Wiki, here) and includes some major album covers by artists you may have heard of:

Elton John — Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Queen — A Night At The Opera

Travelling Wilburys — Volume 1

The Beatles — Let It Be – Naked

Costa also did the book design for The Beatles Anthology book (2000). Martin Phillips and Fire Records must have been thrilled to have him on board for this album and delighted with the results.

 

23 comments

  1. Good music for the times it would seem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully, DD!

      Like

  2. Sampled some tracks on YouTube. I quite like “You’re Immortal” and “Worlds Within Worlds”. And some more great cover art. Talk about contrasts/counterpoint: mixing sea (diver’s helmet) and land (bird’s nest)! The lead vocalist’s voice reminds me of someone…maybe Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs? Hope it felt great hearing that swoosh sound on the sent e-mail!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reminding me about the cover, JDB. I was in a but of a last-minute rush to get the post up and omitted to mention David Costa and his outstanding cover. That has been remedied (see above).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I never would have guessed that the Scatterbrain and A Night At The Opera/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album art were the product of the same creative mind!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Fascinating, eh?

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  3. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Nice to catch up so to speak. I miss the glimpses into your day to day life there. Guess I’m a sucker for reading about the weather and a lover of the fall/winter transition. More of that when you can make time please Bruce! Your readers are hungry like meeping baby birds, meep-meep! Be well…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yesterday’s weather was hard to ignore, Bill. Nor could I resist the lure of the first really cold day (9 C, LOL) and a link to the band. Thanks for reading, mate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        I’m impressed you were able to keep up with the blog with all that Bevis distraction! Nice work!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Cheers, Bill. Managed my basic fortnightly Discrepancy Records duties as well. Though I think you are being kind; Vinyl Connection has been very low profile the last month.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice picture created of what I imagine are the beginnings of winter down there on the globe’s underside. And I learnt something, or at least I think I did as I can’t be bothered to seek independent confirmation: 70s earworm staple of soft rock radio “I’m Not in Love” is a product of 10CC, a band I just can’t bring myself to sample. (And no, I won’t be giving in to your song-name-capitalization-policy tyranny (anti-tyranny?).)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll leave you to struggle with 10cc on your own, Vic. (smile)

      By the way, there is no underside (or, indeed, backside) in space. I asked NASA.

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      1. Yeah. As Wayne Dyer almost said, “You can’t choose sides on a round world”. And that’s good advice.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah sending warm sympathetic thoughts your way, that loud sucking sound you’ve been hearing to the north was us – we’ve just finally dragged our wet woolen butts out of that icy slush, slurry, & sludge. And that was just in the kitchen, outside was even nastier. And now it’s finally Spring for real around here – flowering trees, daffodils, parks with creatures recognizable as humans moving about without skis, etc. the who nine yards. So you’ll have some hot coffee and listen to music, and tell us about it, I’m always glad to read your well-crafted reviews. I’ve been listening to some of their older songs, hearing a bit of Yo La Tengo, very pleasant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love that damp alliteration, Robert. Straight outa the Soggy Bottom Boys. Chuffed for you that things are drying out nicely. Perhaps you’ll be wearing shorts soon.

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  6. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought you were living near me, Bruce – it’s meant to be spring here!

    Anyhoo, this album sounds pretty intriguing and maybe just the kinda thing that would appeal to me. I’m gonna have a wee gander on YouTube or such to catch a wee listen.

    Hope you’re doing grand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heck, J. I’d return that Spring for a refund! And checking out The Chills is a fine idea. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “There’s a point after which you’re only looking for typos or dodgy formatting and can’t really see the prose any more.” TRUTH BOMB

    That’s a lovely-looking LP, and the music sounds perfect for the times.

    Also, what’s a “doona?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s what we call a feather-filled bed quilt.

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      1. I love it. Added to my vocabulary!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Just coming out of the rainy season at my end Bruce. Im just desogging. “The Wets” here. I actually have ‘Submarine Bells’ on cassette. The weather does effect the old mood doesnt it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a spotify playlist in there somewhere, CB!

      Like

      1. I have all sorts of tunes popping in my little brain.

        Liked by 1 person

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