Golden Man – Edmund Cake (2005)
Striding forth from Ed Cake’s idiosyncratic album Downtown Puff (named after his favourite pillow) comes the ‘Golden Man’. A mythical godlike entity, equal parts inspiring and sinister. Is he a resurrected Jesus with golden locks (golden feet, golden hands), a Nietzschean superman or a pagan god awaiting a harvest sacrifice a la Wicker Man? Toward the end of the opening verse “and he’s gold against the sky” the melody zips up five notes of a major scale implying a lifting of heads and eyes toward him, and after the self-same lyric repeats over a revelatory key change we are told in a hush that “he commands the world” before we enter triumphantly into the chorus. Into the middle eight, enthralled and discombobulated, the tune rises and falls in unexpected turns as the singer is carried away in the throng. In the second chorus he details the various ways Golden Man exercises his power – “he commands the ants to crawl, he commands the cats to claw” – the inevitable conclusion to which is that we should all rise and behold. Perhaps the clearest display of Ed’s own godlike musical facility in a thrilling and uncompromisingly oddball canon.
(I’m Your) Bodhisattva – Renee-Louise Carafice (2008)
Surely ripe for rediscovery, Renee-Louise Carafice is one of our most original, fearless, and gifted songwriters. Marrying an indelible tune to lyrics about “Pixies and Dragonball Z” and revealing to the subject of the song that she is his “Bodhisattva in vinyl and leather” ready to break him out of “this godforsaken place”. Alongside the inspired melody, her lyrical heroism and empathy saturates every corner of the track, from plucked guitar and Casio intro to its symmetrical outro not even three minutes later. I believe that this song draws upon her experience in a mental health facility when hospitalised for depression as a young woman. The lyrical details seem familiar and yet unlikely in the context of such a beautiful melody. That they’re so effortlessly singable to Renee-Louise Carafice is evidence that she indeed is an enlightened being who has postponed her own paradisal state in order to show us the way. I’m always surprised when people don’t know this song – one listen will convince anyone it’s a stone-cold classic (and hopefully direct them into her astonishing back catalogue). Unfortunately, in this skinny little country, we’ve shown once again that even the very best songs can languish in obscurity.
Intergalactic solitude – Bachelorette (2010)
Annabel Alpers (Bachelorette) has a rare gift for plucking celestial melodies from the ether and wrapping them in dusty old electronics. Her wholly singular and striking singing voice, multitracked into infinity and surrounded in the mix by faltering machinery, only emphasises our fragile humanity in the face of a beautiful and careless universe. Bound up in the mechanisms of “gravitational pull” and “escape trajectories”, the various heavenly bodies are always “missing each other”. Which bodes a little better for our continued existence but doubles down on the grand loneliness of the whole endeavour. The instrumental midsection brings a magic carpet to transport us out of this solitude and into a front seat ride through the heavens, before we return to the massed “aahs” of the refrain. The melodic invention on display here, in what is essentially a two-chord song, is dazzling – her massed overdubbed vocals like the voice of the cosmos itself, as heard on your local bNet station.
In the Morning – Anika Moa (2005)
All this conversation has lifted my spirits. A deeply personal song. Anika Moa is a master of melody, and her voice is an elemental carrier of it. Here the combination of tune and introspective lyric is never less than a beautiful bittersweet tug at the listener’s internal organs. “After the operation my heart will become erased” – an anthem that wrestles with uncertainty but lands on the side of hopefulness and self-determination. Candid and nuanced, the story is ostensibly about the (unexpected) emotions encountered after an abortion but the feeling of missing someone you don’t quite know carries a quite universal wistfulness. The “I haven’t thought enough to cry” refrain that ends the song suggests an emotional work-in-progress that has moved on from the halting lullaby of the verses. The toy piano, besides being a neat allusion to childhood, reminds me of Neil Diamond’s ‘Shilo’, a song about an imaginary friend.
One Step Ahead – Split Enz (1981)
I’ve always loved the way the melody feels like it’s fumbling its way through the dark. All questionings, hesitations, and miniature pauses for reflection. The kind of thing that Neil Finn can do better than anyone else on the planet. Eddie Rayner once said the song doesn’t have a chorus, but what it does have is superior – a welling up of emotion that flares up into a kind of befuddled urgency before it resolves into the verse again – chasing that same obsessive thought. This has always been my favourite Split Enz song. Probably a mixture of nostalgia for the first time I heard it, and unalloyed songwriting brilliance. But Neil’s tunes are always timeless. In 2015 the APRA Silver Scroll Awards chose to revisit the year 1981 when there had been no award ceremony. ‘One Step Ahead’ was included among a set of five pretty unbelievable songs. ‘Counting the Beat’ by The Swingers, with its advertorial ubiquity and mates-rates quirkiness, predictably won. A far superior song lost out to the more brightly coloured bird. A scenario played out in awards ceremonies everywhere ad infinitum.
The Listening Times – Lawrence Arabia (2012)
James Milne’s particular musical sandpit seems to be situated at the intersection of arch and mysterious. I heard this song the other day while wandering through a Dunedin New World and it stopped me dead in the confectionery aisle. “We smoke our desperate fags”. Is this the sort of song Noël Coward would write if he was an indie pop star? The lyric has the same surreal inscrutability as a Bill Manhire poem – making sense to some part of the brain that knows but can’t explain. Its archness accentuated by the somewhat astringent violins. In James’s hands “The ugly light of the morning” where “everyone looks awful” is a warm and inviting place to be. After winding his way through a scene that might improbably end in sailing to the Tropic of Capricorn, he mutters “that is all” and we linger a few moments longer before the scene dissolves into a fug of stale smoke and halitosis.
White Valiant - The Mutton Birds (2002)
Don McGlashan, above all other New Zealand songbirds, knows how to suck you into whatever story he happens to be telling at the time. Even when the story is infused with the impregnable logic of a dream. “And you can still see the moon though it’s the middle of the morning”. That line in the nominal chorus always comes like a moment of revelation, like the visible part of a giant exclamation mark in the sky. Accompanied by David Long’s bracing slide guitar – an apocalyptic horn blast. As in the logic of a dream, the moon appears out of its usual setting – a dislocation of day and night – then you remember that it’s something you’ve always seen and never remarked upon. A clue hiding in plain sight. In the verse, the avuncular/sinister guide who helms the white Valiant in question – “you’re lucky I picked you up and not somebody else” and “you couldn’t have better help if you found yourself losing your way round here” – keeps driving you back round to the odd, insistent bass-and-gat-in-unison motif that powers the chorus. A disconcerting dream set in a very familiar landscape.
Adelphi Apartments – Tiny Ruins (2011)
In common with Don’s work, an imagined tale set in a very specific New Zealand location. Hollie Fullbrook’s ‘Adelphi Apartments’ has the distance and emotional precision of a modern day Mansfield short story. Ravishing and finely wrought, the melody turns upon itself while slowly laying out its lyrical contents, its spare accompaniment swelling and contracting in time. A suite of interconnected moments wrapped in an elliptical tune. The two characters seemingly trapped in the amber of unfulfilled longing. Reading Cannery Row. The references to Steinbeck and Olga Guillot as well as the befriending of neighbourhood tomcats describe a young woman singularly alone and not of her time. The moment that Maurice puts his ear to the wall to discover she has moved away invests the final return to the refrain with an affecting sense of her absence – with only the sounds of “the highway below” to comfort him. The “apart” in apartments. Hollie’s expert fingerstyle guitar and poignant vocal intertwine as a carrier of mystery and longing and, in the company of a few well-chosen details, turn the listener around on a slow sad rotisserie of unbridgeable distance and missed opportunities.
Hold Me 1 – Able Tasmans (1990)
In common with many other notable Flying Nun pop masterpieces, the Able Tasmans’ ‘Hold Me’ revels in an unusual song structure. The scene set by Graeme Humphreys’ sweetly off-kilter piano intro is laid out in 16 bars before pirouetting, as the band enters at full tilt, into the whirling dervish riff which drives the song. Looping lopsidedly at maximum intensity for a full minute before Peter Keen blesses the chord change with his sweet but unostentatious vocal refrain – “I know you’re a star and that you’ve gone very far but I don’t wanna hear that now. Hold me! Hold me!” Then back again to take a few more laps round the money riff – Reuben De Latour and Alice Bulmer’s violins riding the scales up and down in a kind of ecstatic trance. It’s a song bursting out of its skin. Repeat times two and ride the final cadence through to its glorious conclusion. Also, please listen to The Overflow by Humphreys and Keen – a quiet masterpiece of New Zealand (subcategory: Grey Lynn) music.
Today is Gonna be Mine – David Kilgour (2002)
“Today everything will rhyme” sings Mr Kilgour over a cavalcade of rapidly strummed acoustic guitars and overexcited drums. A lyric of pure optimism over pop’s three favourite chords. Also today we will be singing the verse over the chorus and the middle eight over the introduction and we will list all the days of the week, like they were only ever there to hammer home what a brilliant exception this particular one is going to be. And all the words will collide like planes in the sky. David Kilgour makes the simple eternal and turns a casual phrase into jangle pop ecstasies with the treble turned up full. How did a tune this good not take over the world?