Quirky oddball 4-track pioneers who have mixed disjointed lo-fi ditties with sustained moments of pure pop brilliance, New Zealand's Tall Dwarfs have been around the kiwi scene since the late '70s, when they were in the legendary punk bands Enemy and Toy Love. After Toy Love crashed and burned on the pyre of corporate rock, Chris Knox co-founded the Flying Nun label in the early '80s, and that's where the whole kiwipop story started... Knox is one of the world's most insistent champions of the virtues of imperfection -- in life, in love, in music, and in our perceptions of the world around us. In his case, that view manifests itself in a series of challengingly manic lo-fi ditties, which span the divide between the romantic, the cynical and the openly rageful... but all with a spark of intelligence and wit which should keep quizzical listeners engaged and thoughtful.
Various Artists "STROKE: SONGS FOR CHRIS KNOX" (Merge, 2010)
In 2009, Chris Knox suffered a stroke; this album is a benefit to help him defray medical costs, with two CDs worth of recordings by artists such as The Bats, David Kilgour, The Chills, Knox's fellow Dwarf Alec Bathgate, Lou Barlow, Lambchop, Stephen Merritt, Yo La Tengo and a cast of thousands of others... A high-power indie/lo-fi enclave, convened to help out one of their own. Groovy and weird, the way it ought to be!
Toy Love "Cuts" (Flying Nun, 2005)
The start of it all. One of the legendary albums of New Zealand's odd, unpredictable "kiwipop" scene has finally found the light of day in the digital era... Before Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate founded the bizarro band, Tall Dwarfs, they fronted Toy Love, a punky group that was supposed to become New Zealand's answer to The Saints. They signed to a major label, and had begun a tour of Australia and the UK when the whole deal imploded and they were sent packing back to Dunedin... Their lone album, issued in 1980, was lost to the sands of time and as kiwipop became better defined and better known outside of NZ, the disc took on a Holy Grail status, forever drifting in the tide of corporate limbo. Well, here ya go: here's a 2-CD set that collects all the tracks off the original LP, along with several singles issued on other, smaller labels, and a ton of demo tracks and kitchen-table lo-fi stuff that dates back to the Toy Love years. The lyrics are more youthful and abrupt, and much of the music is more overtly punky than Knox & Bathgate's later work, but what's amazing is how much they sounded like themselves, even back in their angry young men days, how weird the lyrics were and how twisted the music sounded. It's not unlike Robyn Hitchcock's old band, The Soft Boys, a kooky riff on rock and punk, with surrealistic and self-referential lyrics galore. It's also very, very noisy, and might be a little hard to get into at first. But for fans of Tall Dwarfs, or anyone who appreciates the truly weirdo, oddball artists of the world, this'll be a set you'll want to check out. One technical note: the material from the Toy Love record comes courtesy of a label executive who surreptitiously dubbed a copy of the master before moving on to another job (...yay! you rock, dude!) so Knox & Co. took the opportunity to remaster the tracks and add in some of the low end that the LP lacked (one of many disagreements with the label, I'm sure...) Anyway, it sounds fine, but if you're super-picky and persnicketty about stuff like that, you might want to know that the original version sounded a lot tinnier than this... So I guess the vinyl copy will still remain an elusive prize!
Toy Love "Toy Love" (WEA, 1980)
Chris Knox's first band (sort of). Nobody seems happy with this album -- with the way it sounds, the way it was recorded, the way it wasn't promoted, or with the fact that it's never been put out on CD. Oh, but wait! It has come out on CD... see above! (PS - I have heard that the original mix is much different than the digital reissue. Might be worth tracking down after all... )
Tall Dwarfs "Louis Likes His Daily Dip" EP (Flying Nun)
Tall Dwarfs "Slugbuckethairybreathmonster" (Flying Nun)
Tall Dwarfs "Hello Cruel World" (Flying Nun, 1987)
Tall Dwarfs "Throw A Sickie" EP (Flying Nun)
Tall Dwarfs "Weeville" (Flying Nun/Homestead, 1991)
Leveling a scathing and jaundiced glance at the fetishistic materialism of the workaday world, Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate ask, "is 9-to-5 really your idea of fun?" A catchy, clever critique of yuppie culture, with a strikingly prescient jab at folks with cell phones, a full decade or so before the fad hit crisis proportions.
Tall Dwarfs "Fork Songs" (Flying Nun, 1992)
Tall Dwarfs "The Short And Sick Of It: '85-'86" (Flying Nun)
Tall Dwarfs "Stumpy" (Flying Nun, 1996)
A weird and spacey, drony buzz of an album... It's a weird elusive mix, where the lyrics are a bit buried in the overall drone. It's a bit hard to get a fix on this record; it has fewer glittering, shard-like standout tracks than other Tall Dwarfs-related releases, but still it's a dense, thought-provoking album.
Tall Dwarfs "Gluey Gluey & The Ear-Friend" (CD single) (Flying Nun)
Tall Dwarfs "50 Flavours Of Glue" (Flying Nun)
Tall Dwarfs "The Sky Above, The Mud Below" (Flying Nun/Carrot Top, 2003)
Chris Knox "Songs For Cleaning Gupples" (1982)
Chris Knox "Seizure" (Flying Nun, 1989)
This contains a (relatively) rough mix of the fabled and much-beloved super-ballad "Not Given Lightly," as well as a lot of more aggro, buzzsaw-droning material. This album might lose the interest of the casual listener, since the music is so slashing and the mix is a bit thick, making it hard to parse out the lyrics sometimes. Still, it's cool stuff. (Reissued in the US along with material from "Croaker" under the title "Meat").
Chris Knox "Not Given Lightly" (12") (Flying Nun, 1990)
The title track is one of the world's most transcendent songs about love (as opposed to "love songs"... which it also qualifies as...) The quiet intensity builds, and builds and builds in an exultant hypnotism with one of the all-time greatest power-pop payoffs ever put to wax. It's beautiful. And if you're not a vinyl fetishist, it's also available on the CD listed below.
Chris Knox "Not Given Lightly/Guppiplus" (Flying Nun, 1990)
Chris Knox "Song For 1990" (10") (Flying Nun, 1990)
Chris Knox "Croaker" (Flying Nun, 1991)
The mix is much brighter here than on Seizure, and the lyrics come out much more clearly. Also, the writing seems broader, with character-filled sketches, etc., but also a hefty dose of mournful existentialism. On many songs, such as "Meat," Knox's yearning, grasping search for meaning and joy is plaintive and palpable, balanced by doleful soul-searching on tracks such as "Once When Alone." Powerful and quietly thought-provoking. (Reissued in the US along with material from Seizure under the title Meat).
Chris Knox "Polyfoto, Duck-Shaped Pain & Gum" (Communion, 1991)
Chris Knox "Meat" (Communion, 1992)
Stateside, this might be the record to look for if you want to check out Knox's early solo work. A super-groovy twofer which includes most of the material from the Seizure and Croaker albums, the balance of which appeared on a 10" vinyl-only release around the same time.
Chris Knox "Under The Influence" (7")
Chris Knox "One Fell Swoop" (7")
Chris Knox "Songs Of You & Me" (Flying Nun, 1995)
Chris Knox "Yes!" (Flying Nun, 1997)
If, perhaps, you've counted yourself among those who find Chris Knox too "quirky", and incapable of just plain rocking out, then you might want to give this album a chance. The opening tracks feature muscular, thudding rhythms and slashing fuzzed-out guitars that clue you in that, yes, this guy knows how to write a rock song. Yeah, it's still a bit dense, and Knox's lustful and lyrical grievances a bit unrelenting, but it's also very well-crafted and very compelling in terms of raw, smouldering emotion. I think it's pretty cool.
Chris Knox "Almost" (Dark Beloved Cloud, 1997)
Why this batch of outtakes and nerve-jangling ditties, in particular, attained almost-ran status in the Chris Knox catalog I cannot say. I suppose, though, that when you're as prolific as him, you have to start somewhere. It's possible that the unremitting bitterness that runs throughout helped him set these tracks aside... although on "Don't Worry, B Major," Knox does one of his best turns in articulating the politics of rage and explaining the value of negativity: "It's not that I'm above it all/I wouldn't wish that to be true/It's just that faking happiness/is a depressing thing to do..." A few tracks are merely drony, but several have lyrics that stick out like glittering, jagged gems. Worth checking out.
Chris Knox "Beat: The Hopeful Heart Of Rage" (Flying Nun/Thirsty Ear, 2000)
A harrowing but beautiful reflection on life and love, brought about by the prolonged and painful death of Knox's father from Alzheimer's disease. The album opens with a propulsive power-pop tune, "It's Love", with a surface message that seems so straightforward it invites only irony, yet with a typically Knoxian pang towards the sincere. From there, the record becomes progressively unremitting, with a momentary pause to bask in the power of love -- "My Only Friend" reprises the stubborn romanticism that Knox unveiled on 1990's "Not Given Lightly". But for Knox, love is not a redemptive, magical force fit for primetime TV, it's just something to insist on and cherish while the assholes of the world knock on your door and leave marketing calls on your answering machine. Love -- its romanticization and commoditization -- is the subject of what may be the album's most overwhelming song... "What Do We Do With Love?" alternates slashingly incisive lyrics with a bubblegummy chorus to dazzling effect:
What do we do with love, sweet love?
What do we do with love?
We put it on TV, on T-shirts, wanted ads and movie screens
We make it jealous, make it tragic, make it sordid and obscene
We pump it up till it is bigger than the Titanic on the waves
And watch in disbelief as it explodes and fills a thousand graves
We use it, we lose it, we screw it up...
We paint it, rhyme it, put it in a song and hope it hits the charts
We make it into crosses, angels, breasts and interlocking hearts
We wound it, maim it with attention, kill it dead with our demands
Revive it skillfully to do cool tricks at our beck and command
We make it, fake it, we waste it all...
The handful of songs with deal overtly with the reality of death range in tone from allusive to painfully direct. On "Becoming Something Other", Knox recounts one of his last conversations with his father, before his dad succumbed to dementia and disease; "The Pulse Below The Ear" refers, chillingly, to the last visible sign of life on the hospital bed. The rage, resignation and sexual lust that permeate the rest of the album are all the immediate fallout. Knox holds a few tracks in reserve, such as the scathing indictment of the healthcare (and social) system which is hidden after ten minutes of silence... maybe a bit too blunt for some, but powerful nonetheless. I know, maybe this all sounds a bit bleak, but this is an amazing record, the kind of thing that proves rock actually is an art form.
Alec Bathgate "Gold Lame" (Flying Nun, 1996)
Naturally, this will feel familiar to Tall Dwarfs fans, but Bathgate tempers the quirkiness with a bit more melody and less aggro, less pessimistic feel than Knox has on his solo albums. Inventive, bright pop with a sinister underside... if you're already in this deep, why quit now?
Alec Bathgate "Pet Hates/Happy Hound" (7") (Flying Nun)
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