The Chills: BBC Sessions

These songs from New Zealand skim and dip, within waves of oceanic imagery, full of Pacific calm or pending storm.
The Chills
BBC Sessions

This New Zealand indie band, one of the late 1980s standouts on the estimable Flying Nun label, arrived in London for three sessions with John Peel. Over three years, the results commemorate the increasing sophistication of the Chills’ music, captured live in studio, each set taking a day. The band chose its selections well, revealing a knack for melody and smart content. They progressed quietly, but with determination.

For a meticulous singer-songwriter who labored over the band’s material, aiming for accuracy and purity despite the constraints of small budgets, this compilation reveals a somewhat different Martin Phillipps in these radio sessions. His voice is less crystalline, often far less piercing. But as in studio recordings, so here: Phillipps dominates; his vocals merge more thickly into the musical backing in session one, recorded late 1985. The thicker rhythm section envelops his voice, a blanket for his bracing musings.

“Rolling Moon” starts off sprightly, careening into a defiant “Brave Words”. “Wet Blanket” and “Night of Chill Blue” both blend content and form well. These result from the Chills’ raw D.I.Y. releases, with limited funds and changing musicians. All four tracks enhance the marine quality of much of New Zealand indie rock from this era, a brisk presence suffusing these bracing melodies.

Line-up changes, as with many New Zealand outfits under a strong singer-songwriter, continued. By mid-1987, a sharper delivery characterizes the next session. “Dan Destiny & The Silver Dawn” resembles its studio version, in a more distinct recording. While I find “Living in a Jungle” too busy with show-off keyboards, the rhythm of “Rain” locks in Phillipps over a perfectly matched guitar. It stands out, and improves on the album version. The singer and band capture the heart of their material, and glide into its soaring, cascading power. Martial drumming grounds “Moonlight on Flesh” with a similarly confident beat, and it shows the band ready for its major label debut in 1990.

That would result in Submarine Bells, a lavishly produced album, and their best known. The final session precedes it, in the last month of 1988. “Part Past, Part Fiction” seems more subdued, as the band finds a balance between its earlier, more varied tunes, and a pop-based craft taking control of the Chills. A comparative rarity, “Christmas Chimes” bounces along modestly, as keyboards and guitar mesh neatly over steady percussion. Keeping the maritime theme that permeated the album to come, “Effloresce and Deliquesce” matches its studio version, allowing listeners to hear how the band could create its patterns live as well as on record, showing in a few minutes many submarine moods.

The interplay continues as the Chills hit their prime. They swirl among intricate patterns on the closer, the more menacing “Dead Web”. Phillipps in later tracks shifts his accent (more pronounced on the studio recordings than on the first session, intriguingly) back to his native twang. He does tend to bury his singing on many tracks, but this may be the choice of post-production, or the rushed pace of four songs per session in a day.

But, a careful hearing shows how Phillipps accentuates or cloaks his enunciation and articulation, half-chanted, half-spoken. He may muffle many lyrics here, but this makes them more another layer, atop textured music. These combinations skim and dip, within waves of oceanic imagery, full of Pacific calm or pending storm. This compact compilation should introduce newer listeners to a reliable indie band always worth hearing, and it will remind veteran fans of the endurance of intelligent lyrics, delicate melodies, unpredictable directions, and tuneful charm.

RATING 7 / 10
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