One of the key bands of the Dunedin Sound of 20-plus years ago, the Chills have put together nearly as many lineups as they have years (using “they” loosely, given that the group’s largely been a project orbiting around Martin Phillips rather than any sort of consistent act). The Chills have the same reception history as their peers: great critical reception, cult following, no true international success. They’re one of the bands that, at minimum, should make you go through a New Zealand phase, raving about bands from cities you vaguely know exist and blowing through cash tracking down albums that haven’t made their way to Spotify yet. At most, they should hook you on that scene.
Whoever they are at this point, the Chills are back with a new live release, three LPs and a bunch of artwork if you go for that format. Somewhere Beautiful captures a 20-song performance from New Year’s Eve 2011, although it sounds like anything but a band hanging on well after their peak. The group’s loose and energetic and its signature pop-rock is still potent, the guitar jangles as jangly and the melodies as catchy as ever.
Fans will tear through the tracklist grabbing out plenty of favorites, but the set serves as a fine primer for newcomers. You’ll have to wait 18 tracks to get to the band’s most notable cut, “Heavenly Pop Hit” from 1990’s Submarine Bells. It’s a little more garage-sounding here, with the synth playing a less prominent role, but it’s that same great hook and melody, feeling every bit like a Flying Nun smash hit (if only that phrase sounded more sensible).
Another of their finest cuts, “The Male Monster from the Id” also sounds a little rougher and less polished-R.E.M. than the original version from their finest album, 1992’s Soft Bomb (though nearly every else’s word will rank Submarine Bells higher). The poppy rock of the song hides the complexity of its lyrics, with questions of violence and flawed humanity being tucked behind a sort of apology. Unfortunately, the recording quality suffers a little here, with the full sound only kicking in a little more than a third of the way through the song, giving the album one of its bootleg moments.
The following song “Pink Frost” (one of their earliest singles) almost echoes the Clean before turning into its own thing, touching on the Chills’ Velvet Underground influences without ever actually embracing them. It’s the nature of the band and its contemporaries that they don’t quite fit another established category. You might most easily dump them in a 1980s college rock file, but it doesn’t quite work, and neither do the occasional ‘60s touch points hold up. The sound is idiosyncratic enough to remain its own thing without being at all inaccessible.
Going through Somewhere Beautiful reveals how much quality music Phillips and company put together during their peak run, and not just on their two best remembered albums. It also shows us that these guys still have some vitality in them. It’s a good introduction for newbies, and a strong tease for long-time fans that there still might be more to come from the Chills.
// Notes from the Road
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