January 7, 2012
Pebbles (Soft Abuse 2007)
New Zealand is such an unlikely place to spawn such an eclectic assemblage of post-punk pioneers, guitar abusers and folks with an innate knack for melancholy, chiming indie-pop masterpieces. However, I guess that the age of the internet has taught us dullards that the musical universe never revolved around the United States and England and that every nation harbored a cabal of unheralded geniuses, eccentric weirdos and impeccable tunesmiths. Most of us were just ignorant to its existence due to a lack of distribution or a fixation upon the effortlessly familiar. New Zealand was an exception to this rule since many of its flagship acts like the Clean, Chills, the Bats, Cakekitchen and Tall Dwarfs signed distribution deals with North American labels during the 80s. Therefore, folks took notice and dug deeper into its furrows to find that there was more than rainy-day reveries up its collective sleeve.
Although I adore the aforementioned bands in a particularly unhealthy way, there was something about the more damaged sounds of 80s and 90s New Zealand that resonated with me in a way that still moves me in a kind of transcendent way. Folks like Peter Jefferies and Alastair Galbraith and and bands like This Kind of Punishment, Dadamah, Dead C, Gate, Plagal Grind and the Terminals mined a dark, brooding space peppered with fragile ballads that literally seemed to walk on eggshells as they teetered between nihilism and a skewed sense of melody. Most of these bands found a safe haven on the Xpressway label and forged a totally idiosyncratic sound unlike anything else I’ve heard since its collapse. I had given up the ghost long ago and surrendered to the fact that no one would resuscitate its vibe until I heard Pumice, a one man operation led by Stefan Neville.
To be honest, I think this album is probably better than anything ever released on Xpressway and that folks will revisit it years from now and finally give it its due. By no means is it an easy listen. Its seams and flaws are fully on display and it only grips the listener after many late night strolls with it as your sole companion. Pebbles is a schizophrenic listen that teases you with ecstatic riffs and a joyous spirit in the first two minutes only to drag you down into “Bold/Old”, a fragile meditation on the woes of life set to a woozy background of hazy, psychedelic guitar meanderings, distant piano plunkings, and the buzz of gentle hiss. You can’t understand a lick of what he mumbles, but it somehow reminds you of moments when life felt like a perpetual string of potholes until he lets loose a triumphant warbling that reminds you that smoother sailing awaits even the most troubled souls. There is such beauty amidst the gentle feedback, drones and deceptively ramshackle arrangements. “Spike/Spear” goes on for eleven minutes, but its droning, moaning and surging peaks coalesce into a true centerpiece for the album. It’s like a palate cleanser that wipes the slate clean with a long pause where you can empty your mind and get lost in the swirl of sound before embarking on a second half that is much harsher than the first. We get a short respite before he tears into “The Only Doosh Worth Giving”which conjures the spectre of the Clean’s “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” with a more punky, nihilistic streak. It shreds in a way alien to this planet. The rest is either haunting, sparse and mood destroying or swells and peaks of noise that are best suited for headphones and a grand tolerance for volume. Pebbles ain’t for everyone, but it sure feels like it speaks to me each and every time it flops onto my turntable.