After earning a sizable following in his native New Zealand with last year’s Blue Cheese album, Kane Strang has found himself a band and signed to international label Dead Oceans to release an album that sees the Dunedin-based artist make huge strides as an intelligent and emotive songwriter. It’s an album that takes inspiration from ‘60s psychedelia and guitar pop bands like the Zombies and the Kinks and mixes in some early noughties New York rock in the form of Interpol and the Strokes to give the whole thing some bite.
This jittery fusion of alt-rock with ‘60s pop nous has resulted in a refreshingly unflashy yet ambitious indie record replete with a bountiful array of tightly-chiseled hooks, taut melodies and a sophisticated, confident edge to his songwriting. Strang postulates on the things that affect us all on an album of stories, reflections, and anecdotes where the line between autobiography and biography is often blurred.
The album starts with the instantly catchy “Lagoons”, a highly polished indie song but with an underlying sharpness. Built around an Interpol-esque bass line, acting as the bedrock for a bright ‘60s pop melody, reminiscent of seminal ‘80s Australian band the Church, Strang’s clipped yet emphatic vocals come across as sanguine rather than morose, with optimism outweighing any lingering cynicism. Just as things seem to be bouncing along nicely, the song takes an unexpectedly darker turn as the pre-chorus lurches to the left, loading the song with rhythmic tension. “Silence Overgrown” continues in the same vein with a simple repetitive riff, the chug of sharp-edged bass, and a deceptively buoyant, sparkling melody, but with a slight sting in the tale. Again, Strang masterfully builds the anticipation with a circular melody that veers away when the drums kick in, like a plane in a holding pattern finally being given permission to land.
These are not lo-fi, homespun tunes; these are big, bold songs bursting with grand ambition and confidence. Take “Not Quite”, for example with its widescreen, swelling, Killers-esque keyboards. On another album by another band, this would be the breakout song. Here, it’s simply par for the course. Lyrically, as with much of the album, initially angsty sounding lines such as “I’m really not doing very well” are actually quite deceptive. On first listen, this suggests an artist in a dark place, gripped by depression. However, it could just as easily suggest a tacit understanding of their limitations in a failing relationship. Like many of the lyrics, there is a clever dichotomy that suggests that things aren’t as bad as they first appear.
Take for example “My Smile is Extinct”, which features clipped acoustic strumming with a breezy melody juxtaposed with the seemingly grave line: “Kill me now / I want to die.” In the context of the record, and in Strang’s delivery, this doesn’t come across as the desperate cries of a tortured artist. Rather it conveys the feelings of someone who finds themselves on the wrong end of a heart-wrenching break-up. Strang vividly illustrates the stages of separation from the initial bombshell (“I’ve met a boy, a very pretty boy”) to the desperate pleas to reconsider to the conclusion that there’s is just no point carrying on (“I used to ask life to kill me slowly / But now just get on with it”). Despite the apparent gravity of the situation, it still suggests a passing phase and a grown up understanding that tears will dry and hearts will heal.
Although this album is essentially Strang’s vision, he is not averse to collaboration. The first single from the album, “Oh, So You’re Off I See”, is one of three songs written with the whole band. Understandably, it does sound fuller and slightly more rounded, replete with angular jabs of guitar. Nevertheless, it is the power of the vocal hook and the self-assured songwriting that allows the song to lasso itself around your heart and soul. Similarly, “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)” provides further evidence of the step up Strang has made as a songwriter. Although seemingly more personal than other songs on the album, the lyrics find him projecting his thoughts as a young man rather than the slightly more teenage world view of Blue Cheese.
The slightly more minimal, self-penned songs also exhibit his varied approach to songwriting. “See Thru” features a driving electronic pulse while “Two Hearts and No Brain” sees Strang prop himself up with minimal electric guitar before the whole band come in to offer support. ”Good Guy” closes the album on a bed of synths and ringing guitar notes that provide a more sophisticated take on the shimmering psychedelia of Blue Cheese. It’s the natural link between the two albums, but one that goes to show just how far he has come.
Two Hearts and No Brain is an album that never feels overly angsty or gets bogged down in sorrow. It’s a refined, bold album that repays repeated listens with its timeless hooks and melodies. It’s exciting to see an artist make such a great leap forward as Strang stretches his musical muscles to show what a talented songwriter he is.