Since the mid-‘80s, the Bats have been quietly releasing thoughtful and awfully catchy pop records. After Robert Scott, bass player for the Clean, thought that band had split for good, he started the Bats as a way to develop his own songs. And, though the Clean are still around and still great, the Bats have become an exciting band in their own right, and The Guilty Office is another solid installment in their discography.
Scott’s songs have been slowly but surely sanding down the edges on the Clean’s sound, and coating them in a melancholy haze. “I see the clouds are gathering”, he sings at the record’s start, and he’s not kidding. That line sets up an album full of an overcast feeling of sadness. “Countersign” rests on a bed of minor chords, built up by frenetic buzzing guitar lines, but never breaking into full-on rock. Even the relatively bright and infectious “Crimson Enemy” maintains a matte feel, even as it gets stuck in your head. “Like Water In Your Hands” is a brief, acoustic number that avoids becoming fey because Scott weighs it down with a very real feeling of loss.
Not that it is all humble, restrained pop on this record. The title track stretches out to five minutes, and while it might sound initially like another unassuming track, the guitars tangle as the song goes on, turning the band’s sound wonderfully from faint mist into thick fog. “Satellites” finds Scott’s voice brightened by his band’s backing vocals, and they also deliver their most inspired performance on the record, as the straight chug of chords is needled by tight guitar lines and subtle blips of noise.
The band rarely missteps on The Guilty Office. Though “The Orchard” is overbuilt with strings, and the surf-rock of “Steppin’ Out” makes Scott’s singing feel just a little slack, neither song totally fails, because the band’s melodies, and the fullness of their sound—even at its most stripped-down moments—keeps the record sounding fresh. And while the record sticks to the basics—guitar, bass, drums, voice—it still achieves a subtle variety from track to track. They can create moody fuzz rock on “The I Specialist” as easily as they can make dreamy, orchestral pop on album standout “Castle Lights”. Beginning to end, The Guilty Office rarely falters and never totally breaks from its own pop world.
Over two decades, and seven full lengths into their career, it is no small achievement that the Bats have not only perfected their own sound, but have remained such a vital and consistent pop band. They are certainly not the only great pop band to come out of New Zealand. Aside from the Clean, there are the 3Ds and countless others. Heck, Scott and company aren’t even the only great act to come out of the Clean, since David Kilgour’s solo work and the Mad Scene are both excellent. But the Bats’ sound is singular and just as strong as anything those other bands are doing. The Clean may be returning with another record later in 2009, but that won’t be the only exciting piece of Kiwi-pop coming out this year. One listen to The Guilty Office will make that clear.
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