I can’t be the only person who used to flip through the old Trouser Press review anthologies as if they were apocryphal holy books revealing undiscovered (by me) musical saints and prophets. Weeks or months after scouring over the bio-review of some obscure band, I’d strike gold in a used record bin and get to hear what I’d repeatedly read about and built up with expectation. Each new sonic discovery sent me back to the books for the next revelation. If a Pere Ubu influence was mentioned, I’d crawl around searching the boxes under the tables in the basement of Philadelphia’s Third Street Jazz or in the attic at Claymont, Delaware’s, Jeremiah’s (both beloved record stores now long gone). The Jean Paul Sartre Experience, who Trouser Press said “left behind some of the finest New Zealand records ever,” were one of the few bands on my search list that I never did uncover. Until now. Thanks to Fire Records, this criminally overlooked band is back in print in a three-CD or LP box set, I Like Rain: The Story of the Jean Paul Sartre Experience.
The Jean Paul Sartre Experience were a talented and promising band, signed to New Zealand’s beloved Flying Nun label, and, it seems, doomed to middle brother status. Following in the wake of the Clean, Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs, they possessed a similar freshness and diy whimsy that defined the Flying Nun sound, but their ears were tuned elsewhere and they quickly began to take on more psychedelic, darker-shaded elements of the growing Britpop scene and, eventually, even noisier elements inspired by American grunge. They released three excellent albums and an EP between 1988 and 1993, but growing pains at their label left these releases on the shelf for too long and out of the hands of the influential tastemakers who could have propelled the band forward. After an exhausting debut tour of America in support of their excellent final album, Bleeding Star, which was often unavailable for sale where they played, the band called it quits.
The I Like Rain anthology amplifies what a shame it all was that they didn’t really get the chance to build an American or British audience. Bassist and vocalist Dave Yetton, guitarists Dave Mulcahy and Jim Laing, and drummer Gary Sullivan matured quickly from their diy beginnings, mastering more complex song structures and embracing sonic experimentation at every turn. While their rapid stylistic development didn’t necessarily help them at the time, in retrospect it serves to present a mostly entertaining listening experience. Anyone who fondly remembers the alternative breakthrough of the early 90s will find much in this anthology to enjoy.
Their debut album Love Songs aligned most closely with the quirky pop of the Flying Nun aesthetic. Songs like “Fish in the Sea” and “Flex” make excellent use of the minimalist recording technologies at hand, while “I Like Rain” deserves a place as one of kiwi-pop’s greatest singles. But even by the time of that album’s release, the band was already exhibiting feelings of claustrophobia within their tiny scene. The cuts of the Masked and Taped EP reveal a band struggling for a new identity, not always successfully. “Waste of Time” offers a rewarding glance-back at the previous album’s minimalism, but neither the tepid dance beat of “Fly” nor the sophomoric luridness of their Velvet Underground impersonation “Suzy Lustlady” hit the mark.
Fortunately, their second full-length, 1989’s Size of Food, offers a fuller sound and more confident songwriting. “Elemental” offers a swirling neo-psychedelia and strong vocals from Yetton reminiscent of Blur’s Damon Albarn while “Get My Point” is a My Bloody Valentine-like showcase for guitarists Mulcahy and Laing. For many fans, this album represents the band’s high point. But 1993’s Bleeding Star, which offered the band their first opportunity to record with stare-of-the-art equipment is, to my ears, the set’s great revelation. Name any one-hit-wonder of that post-grunge hangover period and hold them up to this record and they will pale in comparison. The Jean Paul Sartre Experience, as they were called by then (thanks to legal threats from famed existentialist’s disapproving estate), had hardened into a powerfully loud pop band, as evinced by the roar that opens the record and leads into the fuzz-toned single “Into You.” “Ray of Shine” offers a riffing homage to the Smiths that envelopes the listener while the buzz of the title track shades an underlying melancholy that defines the album. Why the hell was anybody listening to the Smashing Pumpkins when this was available?
A historical wrong is righted with the release of this set. Twenty years on, Jean Paul Sartre Experience remains a band that deserves being heard.