TALL DWARFS / PHOTO BY BARBARA WARD
It took the Tall Dwarfs 10 years from their first release to get around to recording their first proper album. The previous two album-like releases were hybrid-like things; the 45 rpm/33 1/3 rpm That’s the Short and Long of It and the Compact Disc compilation of the early EPs called Hello Cruel World — so they don’t count.
It’s a good-looking package, Weeville, with Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate in a sombre black and white photograph with a scratchy yellow band name and title on torn red banners floating on a grey blown up street map. As is their wish, the album comes with a nifty booklet - a page per song with useful lyrics and an illustration each. Chris likes to elucidate and annotate whereever possible. There are some useful notes at the front explaining why the year-long work in progress was so delayed but the real interest is what it says about their backwards and forwards working relationship. All year, Chris and Alec have tapes shuttling back and forth between Auckland and Christchurch with ideas and layers of music componentry added at each step. Tape loops first, ideas and guitar next, followed by melody and lyrics and finished off with “oddities” and “musical mayhem”. This is the working process behind almost every Tall Dwarfs song throughout the 1980s.
TALL DWARFS - WEEVILLE ALBUM COVER
There is an awful lot of music to absorb here. 16 tracks that initially lean towards the gentle where you can imagine Chris plaintively crooning about his multiple worries and concerns with Alex Bathgate nearby twanging out flapping sheets of thinly woven guitar texture. An occasional percussive touch drifts in and out but the vibe remains unexpectedly laid back. The Bathgate song 'Breath' picks up the volume with a big nod towards The Beatles (“yeah, yeah, yeah”) with some unusually prominent and heroic guitar touches, but the overall mood remains restrained.
Gradually the music palette expands and the noise elements creep in, from reedy Casio to tumbling loops. They might sound relaxed at the beginning of this record but they sing about their career-old concerns about various human frailties: loneliness, false values, sham morality ageing and the drift towards death. While there is a fixation with the human body and the working of its mind there is also a real and fearful morbidity.
'SIGN THE DOTTED LINE' ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS KNOX
If you ignore the burping mud pool sounding loop, 'Sign the Dotted Line' sounds almost conventional, with Chris singing nicely along with Alec’s acoustic guitar backing. Listen to the lyrics and it could be a commentary on the willingness of people to surrender their lives to religion. It could be read that way. The album's booklet page for this song shows a drawn figure with a halo enticing a young couple into a one-way journey into a religiously insular life. Above this scene a note states “one interpretation”. The lyrics are ambiguous. They could equally be about a musician signing up to a record company. In fact, they could most certainly be about an artist signing away their life to a record company. Chris certainly would not have been happy with the recent development of large Australian independent Mushroom Records (rich on the back of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan success) buying into Flying Nun after 10 years of almost total freedom to make music with Alec whatever way they wanted to. The Mushroom deal settled down Flying Nun's rocky finances but the maintenance of artist autonomy was a concern to Chris who was mistrustful of mainstream music business motivations and practices, as he had been 10 years previously. There was now money and there were now contracts.
The Tall Dwarfs found a way to gently twist the new contract setup to their advantage. The advances were small and so were the recording costs, but they were a fringe alternative act so the returns were not ever that substantial. The hole in the contract was that packaging (the cover and any extras) were negotiable and signed off by a vague and distracted senior member of the Flying Nun staff. So, a Tall Dwarfs release was now extraordinarily lavish and eye wateringly expensive, unrecoupable against artist royalties - so the record label paid for it. So, the fans got to enjoy a wonderous Tall Dwarfs record and its over the top packing and the duo revelled in making it all and getting one over their record company. It was gesture more than anything else and no one at the record company noticed or really minded much at all.
It’s not necessarily a gentle sounding record so far as just a tad introspective and withdrawn. Its erratic pace picks up with 'Pirouette' and its galloping percussive loop. 'Lucky' is another Tall Dwarfs take on the grim realities of ageing. The following song, 'Bodies' gets into little bit of nitty gritty about our physical selves after death.
Weeville is a cornucopia of sound adventures that rewards close listening. The music is restrained compared to earlier outings but there is instrumental variance that constantly bubbles to the surface. Knox’s singing is as assured as always and continues to surprise (as on 'The Winner'). The subject matter of the lyrics is very strong and continues to be the nihilistic core of much of the Tall Dwarfs work. An ambivalent view of psychology is expressed in the gentle 'Rorschach' before things get jumpy with 'Tip of My Tongue'.
The percussive loop is back and dominant on 'Ozone'. This song has the usual Tall Dwarf-like quibbles about modern life, and this time the dangers of ozone depletion (this is 1990 and environmental worries were different), overseas ownership, ecologically degradation and where will it all end.
Weeville is whole lot of music to absorb. It starts slow but hits its straps 5 or so songs in. Here, the constraints seem lifted, the duo spring into an energised state and the songs convincingly enchant and then menace. The songs become more varied with a mix of styles and feels. Chris’s vocals are excellent, Alec’s guitar understated but indispensable with essential background rhythms and textures and the ability to majestically let rip when needed. The loops now seem to come from an alien world of their own, with less cardboard carton beating and more clacking, beeping and blurping in evermore complex patterns.
SIDE ONE OF 'WEEVILLE' MASTER TAPE / PHOTO: IMAGING SERVICES TEAM, ALEXANDER TURNBALL LIBRARY
It’s a brilliant album full of great songs, inventive musical ideas, dark and meaningful lyrics as always. It was a significant record for Chris and Alec to make - their first album and a milestone of significance to the label. We’d been together for 10 years, and while there had always been cheek (or was it snarky?) comments from Chris there had never been an angry word between us. Despite perceptions, Chris is a rational, patient and reasonable person and always highly supportive of the label, just as Alec is a delight to deal with.
While Weeville is an album full of some of the Tall Dwarfs best material, the actual release felt a little bit flat. These sorts of things are hard to get a handle on but the reception to the album’s release was not as expected. It wasn’t bad or even indifferent but just a little bit off. We knew the music was good and the packaging as great as always, but the audience had changed; it had started to ever so slightly drift.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRIS KNOX
The rush of interest, fascination and influence that built around the Tall Dwarfs in New Zealand during the early 1980s that made them critical darlings and inspirational musical mentors internationally in the mid 1980s had hit its high-water mark and was now receding. The many artists they had inspired had started to catch up with them and their DIY techniques had been mastered by others, so there was now competition. Also, the Tall Dwarfs did not have, or want, a conventional career. They had families, lived in different cities and could only get together occasionally; they worked at their own pace, part time - but could it be any other way? This is the way the duo had always operated and was in itself an influence on the music they created. Music that was bursting with musical ambition and extravagance, only tempered by the inventive use of primitive technology. The music remains remarkable whether the audience is large or has reduced in size. That shift represents a change in fashion. And as Roy Colbert said on more than one occasion, "fashion is often the enemy of great music". Weeville is great music.
MR BROCCOLI LYRIC SHEET / ILLUSTRATION BY ALEC BATHGATE