[2 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
New Zealand’s the Renderers have been making music for over two decades now, but they continue to confound. As a great New Zealand band they, of course, released their 1991 debut – Trail of Tears – on Flying Nun Records. They also released a single on Merge Records around the same time, which seems to be the North American label of choice for most great New Zealand acts. But, even among the angular, bizarre likes of the Clean and the 3Ds, the Renderers have always been outliers. Rather than focus on coiled-up, punk-inspired pop, they have always dealt more in Americana, in the shadowy tones of Maryrose Crook’s vocals and the grinding crank of her husband Brian’s guitars and the infinite space the two seem to make together.
Not that they can’t play it straight – Trail of Tears was a surprisingly clear shot of country – but the duo is at its best when they churn up the sounds around them, creating a controlled, fascinating chaos. And that is exactly what happens on A Rocket Into Nothing, the band’s new record. These songs stretch out and take up space but they never lose their shape. More than ever, the Renderers are blurring the line between structured songwriting and exploratory noisemaking, reminding us that the two are not mutually exclusive, and when they dovetail they can be make for a explosive combination.
The slow burn of the record starts right away on “Down River”, the seven-minute-plus opener, which rides on a bluesy thump, creating a murkier kind of Crazy Horse-inspired haunt. Brian Crook’s guitars groan and creek in the background, while Maryrose’s sultry voice lures you in even as she sings, with a subtle volatility, of being “marooned on an island full of fools and liars.” This sinister, other world seems to set the scene for the entire record. It’s an alien sound that comes out of A Rocket Into Nothing. It’s not that we haven’t heard this kind of grinding guitar before, or the heard the kind of shiny-eyed siren Maryrose portrays here, but the Renderers never give these elements the kind of resolution we’d like. Everything is always just a touch off, keeping you off kilter and interested the whole way through. If the elements are the same, the way the Renderers synthesize them here is wholly unique.
“This Shining Life” seems to try to play it straight – a rock song among these other smouldering numbers – but even that can’t quite pull free of this atmosphere. It’s got the catchiest hook, the clearest chorus, and yet its vibe still feels alien. It sounds vaguely like surf rock, but more like how they must hear surf rock in the lost city of Atlantis. “Castaway Bardo” hits with a similarly sideways punch. Brian Crook has three or four different layers of guitar going – one clear riff obscured by distorted swells – that mesh together into some gauzy, all-encompassing whole. It builds and swells over propulsive drums, weighing the song down effectively, crowding sound around Maryrose’s hushed vocals so we feel the miasmic claustrophobia of it. It’s a rare moment where the space crowds up instead of stretching out, and it works well as a counterpoint to all the smudged edges around it.
A Rocket Into Nothing does mark the most even split of vocals between the Crooks on record yet. The second half of the record is particular heavy on Brian’s singing, and he often proves as surprising and affecting as his wife. The sprawling balladry of “Assassin” is his finest moment, pulling off an almost Jandek-ian brand of isolation, giving his voice the same odd phrasings as his guitar work. “Vanishing Point”, with his deadpan speak-singing, shows him as more of a pop singer, proving there’s a bit of range in his limited voice.
Still, the songs he sings – though the sonic landscape behind him is still compelling – don’t quite match up to his wife’s turns. The Renderers are not the only band to match up the beautiful with the seemingly ugly, but they do it better than most. So when Maryrose’s alluring voice plays against Brian’s untethered guitars, both elements get stronger. A Rocket Into Nothing is a great, innovative pop record front to back, even when it isn’t perfect. The Renderers prove once more that they don’t have to sacrifice their experimental side to sound accessible, and 20-plus years in, they’re as good as they’ve ever been. That nothing they’re shooting off into on this record? Well, it’s really something.