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Songwriter's Choice: Jay Clarkson


I chose 10 New Zealand songs really quickly as otherwise I would have been dithering forever. The order in which I have placed these songs is not indicative of the value I place on them. It was inevitable a few are written by Flying Nun artists as this is the New Zealand music I’ve personally encountered lots of! I’ll also mention that I cannot read music.

Spooky – Dave Mitchell

While a recorder group would be perfectly at home playing along to the verses of ‘Spooky’ by The 3Ds, the simplicity of the acoustic guitars works beautifully. “I was so lonely / some people care / but please don’t worry / no sorrow here.” Not a song of self-pity, rather an acknowledgement of some kind of self-imposed estrangement and the recognition that there are likely – as others also struggling with this emotional shortcoming. In a tenor that would be benign and pleasant – if it hadn’t been permanently frayed round the edges by some relentless goblin – Dave Mitchell sings us this simple and touching melody, joined in the refrains by Denise Roughan’s dulcet tones. In these refrains the second guitar weaves its way with pretty little phrases but lyric-wise the goblin continues to berate: “Didn’t even see you leave / didn’t even take good care / of all your friends down there.”  This song is close to five minutes long, and by 4'06" we are well involved in the form when, without more ado, we are plunged into not so much an outro as Part II of ‘Spooky’. Heralded in with what can only be described as the toll of a distorted electric guitar, a scathing chord goes on to repeat over and over with resonating profoundness for two bars or more, answered each time by the acoustic guitar with what is, surely, a simple plea. 

 

Ruby – Nadia Reid

I’m not really a fan of New Zild à la Americana and there’s been quite a lot of it around lately. I do like a song that tells a yarn though. While there are a couple of nods towards the yessiree open-spaces of the US in Nadia Reid’s ‘Ruby’ these are done without affectation: The three or four chords comprising the guitar bridge are dipped in tremolo but very tastefully, not caricature-style; and then there is the opening lyric: “I met Ruby on a bus from state to state” – maybe written by Reid with American listeners in mind? Well, province would be quite awkward to use and state does rhyme with late ... It’s a moody road song, the lyrics sketching for us evocative insights into the relationship of a young couple, these glimpses intermingled with the storyteller’s stirred-up sadness as to one of her own. There’s plenty of space in this slow-paced song. The double bass is kept simple and the moments of shimmering percussion are well-placed. Reid’s acoustic guitar strumming is confident and relaxed and, of course, the icing on the cake is her beautiful, natural voice. The latter has been treated with a hearty dose of reverb, which works for this song.

 

Slipping Away – Max Merritt

This is a classic New Zealand song. A strong vocal melody over a basic three-chord structure. The keyboard arrangement (or strings, depending which version) is atmospheric but not syrupy; the bass engages us just enough and Max Merritt strums those simple chords on his acoustic. Dealing with a romance going awry, the lyrics are straightforward and believable: “I see it written in your eyes, and you confirm it with your lies”. His vocals are no-fuss with just the right amount of plaintiveness. The chorus “ohhhh, you’re slipping away from me” is simultaneously a statement and a query, ’cos the dude doesn’t want this to be happening. The official version is 5'30" long, and this is due to a key change introduced at around 3'20" which was when the original version came to an end. The song simply repeats in a higher key following the drums doing a somewhat melodramatic fill. I don’t think the key change is necessary: 3'20" is a suitable length for this beautiful song, but sometimes I enjoy the long version regardless!

 

Southern Man – George Henderson 

Once that heavily reverbed minor 7th guitar chord has been slammed at us four times, the rampaging drums and snarling organ both kick in and we know we’re off for a solid ride. It’s all fattened up even more with bass drilling away on root notes. ‘Southern Man’ by The Puddle is for me one of several New Zealand songs that I mostly enjoy for their sheer relentless drive. There’s a particular sense of commitment that such drive proclaims and makes you just want to jump in! Played loud is best. The Bats’ ‘North By North’, Voom’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Boy’ and Snapper’s ‘Buddy’ and Headless Chickens’ ‘Gaskrankenstation’ are four others that spring readily to mind. There aren’t many New Zealand songwriters who could incorporate lines such as “all the boys drink Tiger tea” and “all the Kiwi kids join bands” but George Henderson manages with his pop/rock to have both charm and edge. I like how at times the lead guitar sings along with the main vocal line and the harmonised bop sheewup backing vocals – unexpected in a production of this nature – are spot on. George Henderson’s main vocal borders on sweet innocence and yet it has a barely contained excitement as well – as does the whole song. The babbling rugby commentary excerpts definitely add to all the excitement!

 

Glad I’m Not a Kennedy – Shona Laing

I’m fine with it now but at the time of its mid-1980s release the synth on this was too much for me. The song’s structure and Bruce Lynch’s arrangement I did find intriguing however and I’ve always liked Shona Laing’s voice. ‘Glad I’m Not a Kennedy’ is a composition of many parts and the vocal weaves its way comfortably around them all. I particularly like how the “Wearing fame like a loaded gun gun gun” refrain jumps in seemingly too early, to step us on into the chorus. Shona is a formidable songwriter. I’m quite partial to samples being popped into songs: in this case it’s part of a JFK speech. Regardless of whether I agree or not with what he is saying I think it works within the song, although, having said that, I don’t know if I would have chosen to finish with a second round of it.

 

Driftwood – Chris Knox 

Challenging lyrics are often a major aspect of Chris Knox’s songs: in some works biting social comments confront us while, in others, the searching soul is bared with an insight both tender and severe. ‘Driftwood’ does the latter; it appeared on A Warm Gun, an album recorded with Chris’s band The Nothing and released in 2006. ‘Driftwood’ is a wordy song but within a straightforward structure (as far as guitar chords go, anyway):  D/G/Bm, D/G/Em. The main body of the lyrics however do not speak of comfort ... This is a grim account of a soul’s dark night, telling us of being full of regret and “scarred with indecision – of things that hadn’t even happened yet.” A refrain does offer a reprieve: “But then I knew that no one could be better off than me.” Yet the song closes with the image that we humans are but driftwood, suspended on a huge sea until “we drift to some strange shore.”  Graeme Downes does a great orchestrated version on the Stroke double album.

 

Anchor Me – Don McGlashan

Every time I listen to The Mutton Birds’ ‘Anchor Me’ I find it very moving. In my book this is a fine way to spend 4'39" of your time. That arresting first vocal line, “full fathoms five” immediately sets the tone. Don McGlashan sings with a kind of controlled agitation, through gritted teeth almost. The drumming stays basic throughout and a no-frills beat seems right for such emotional disclosure. It is a song of struggle and acceptance, of life’s sometimes overpowering surges and how we must give ourselves to these and yet know tranquility within it all. As in Chris Knox’s ‘Driftwood’, sea imagery is used to represent emotional turmoil. The second guitar, which comes in on the second verse, I like very much. It is melodic and delicate and reassuring, and in the middle section – “When the banshees cry” – its contribution is even more significant. It stays with us as we sink to the depths and then while the vocals continue to lament of being pulled down (to the ocean bed) this guitar coaxes us back up, rising, so that simultaneously down is up and up is down, dark is light and light is dark. Profound stuff. I know not if the arrangement was calculated thus, or if it was a case of musicians who worked well together instinctively responding to the song handed them. I’m disinclined to go for the former ... but that’s just me.  Hearing this song for the first time back in 1994 I initially found the opening guitar with its “underwater” tremolo setting distracting rather than evocative but I’ve since allowed it to have its place. 

 

Five Nights – Sandra Bell

That she is a poet is abundantly clear in the music of Sandra Bell. Her vocal delivery is a part-sung, part-spoken, and her low-to-mid register well serves the dramatic content of her lyrics. The White Nights album was recorded in Berlin – where Bell oft resides – in 2006 with Russian musicians; the latter no coincidence as Bell has long held a flame for the literature, poetry and music of Russia. Balalaika and accordion do not take a back seat to the guitars and bass on ‘Five Nights’ but are resolutely up in the mix, the guitar only stealing our attention when a wailing Johnny Marr-style phrase returns in each bridge. The vocals have a hint of a dictaphone effect on them making these words of disenchantment a kind of announcement: “Is this what you wanted all along?” while the sparkling buoyancy of the rapidly strummed balalaika throughout the whole of the song reassures us that spirits will not be dampened too long, that they will in fact be set free. 

 

Drift – Shayne Carter

I do like an atmospheric instrumental and this really cuts it for me. Shayne Carter’s respect for funk seeped into several of the compositions on his excellent I Believe You Are A Star album (as Dimmer, 2001), of which ‘Drift’ is the sixth track. He’s a superb guitarist plus he’s got a wah-wah pedal and knows how to use it. But there is more to ‘Drift’. It’s kind of Sly Stone meets Eno with a dash of Fripp. The keyboard is a main feature, just two or three chords with a flutey/pipey sound, a lovely rich sound – in both the top notes and the very nice deep bass notes. This provides a warm bed for the spidery guitar to creep around on and the drumming to nicely cruise. The song settles into a groove quite quickly and thus we are smoothly carried, until about three minutes in when all vanishes except for a shorting-out, sparking guitar note or loop which proceeds to hover for 12 bars. It teeters on materialising into something else but then, all at once, is banished when the keyboard pipes return to lovely crescendo swells on the ride cymbals by drummer Gary Sullivan. Then we’re off into the groove again, a second guitar now playing slide: tasteful, gentle little slides up the neck of the guitar. It’s a good groove to slide into but all good things must come to an end. ‘Drift’ does so in steps – bass first, then drums and finally keyboard – leaving the guitar’s sustained note to diminish down to a spark and then disappear.

 

Dirge – Graeme Downes

To me this song is perfectly realised, from the first beat to the last. A complex arrangement so at-one with the core that the whole flows seamlessly. The Verlaines’ performance of Hallelujah All the Way Home at Sammy’s in 2014 (Downes, Dodd and Yeats) I compare – extravagantly perhaps, but so be it – to a gallant sailing ship out on the high seas, plunging courageously down into troughs and surging up the next giant wave, taking it all on. A calm moonlit sea is also often a stirring interval within a Verlaines voyage. As a songwriter myself I relate to many of Graeme Downes’s compositions, although lord knows we approach the task from very different musical corners. I’m instinctive; Dr Downes is academic. But he is emotional within his learnedness. The shape and delivery of his vocal lines are often full of a sense of yearning and ‘Dirge’ is no exception. “You don’t argue the point, you don’t argue the point, you don’t argue the point.”  The bass and guitars are utterly sympathetic, determinedly climbing, in slow-waltz time no less, up and up and up. The strings surge in, as does the vocal harmony (Downes), all placed so as to enhance and not distract. The ending of this wonderful work is indicated suddenly but with surety, placing us gently back on firm ground. ‘Dirge’ is on the Too Obscure For Words album.

 

 
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