Thursday, December 8, 2011
REVIEW: The Bats - Free All the Monsters
Bear with me here. In MASH, Robert Altman's wonderful 1970 anti-Vietnam War movie told as a Korean War movie, our protagonists are ordered to fly from the front to Japan to perform an operation on the son of a congressman. In memorable cinematic fashion, Hawkeye and Trapper John roll into town in golf clothes, carrying clubs and announce that they are the 'pros from Dover'. In a few scenes, they turn the the established order upside down, save lives (including a son of a Japanese prostitute whom they treat in the US military hospital), defeat "the Man", and drop memorable one-liners. And we cheer them on the entire way, because they are highly skilled, smart, and honest at their core. So, here we are at the end of a year of good music and our hero, Rocksteady74, is ordering the albums for his year end list. Unexpectedly, the musical equivalent of the 'pros from Dover' roll into town in the form of The Bats' Free All the Monsters. And because the album is highly skilled, smart, and honest at its core, Rocksteady74 reorders his list.
It is only fair at this point to admit that I do have a soft spot for The Bats. Whenever I've played the musical geek "desert island albums" game, the New Zealand foursome's debut full-length album, Daddy's Highway, is on my list. But such high esteem carries a danger as well, because it isn't easy for a band to live up to a masterpiece created a quarter of a century closer to the apex of youthful confidence and creative energy. Fortunately, The Bats seem unburdened by the expectations of fans and the weight of their own history, and continue to earn their high esteem by turning out the highest quality music. Consider what is perhaps my favorite track from this album, the driving "In the Subway" --
The sound of The Bats is distinctive and engaging, if not overly complicated. The guitars provide a delightful jangle over warm lower-register chords, and the rhythm section is first class. The band is so tight that it all sounds effortless. The melodies are memorable. The tone of the songs are immediate and, while not usually dark, they can be plaintive, winsome or hinting at discontent. But the group does well with optimistic sentiments as well. The title track pointedly addresses letting go of fears: "Free All the Monsters" --
As a bit of background for those who aren't familiar with The Bats, the group was formed in 1982 in Christchurch, NZ. The members then, as now, are: Former bassist for the Clean, Robert Scott, who is a guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter; Former Toy Love bassist Paul Kean; Singer, guitarist and sometimes songwriter Kaye Woodward; and Drummer Malcolm Grant. In 29 years, the group has released eight albums, but the members also have taken time to pursue other projects (e.g. reunions of the Clean, Minisap (who released a very good album a couple of years ago), solo work). Their original label was New Zealand's Flying Nun Records, and after releasing albums on a few other labels, The Bats and Flying Nun Records are reunited.
For me, the remarkable thing about The Bats is that at a time when other groups of their vintage are selling compilations and staring at the walls for inspiration, The Bats are on a six-year creative spurt that has produced 2005's At the National Grid, 2009's The Guilty Office, the new Free All the Monsters. I think that this album is the best of the three. And thus, the question arises, is it as good as Daddy's Highway? The answer is, perhaps not, but I'm not sure. I haven't had enough time with this album to be certain, and that uncertainty alone is a major endorsement in my mind. The first nine songs of the album comprise a definitive musical essay in indie pop, and "In the Subway", "Free All the Monsters", "Spacejunk" and "Long Halls" are good enough to improve any album in any band's discography. This is an album I can confidently recommend not just because it is a great album now, but because it is an album you will enjoy in a decade--probably along with the just-then released 11th album from The Bats.
Flying Nun Records