New Zealand guitar pop groups have always had a somewhat indefinable quality that seems to have carried through from the halcyon days of Flying Nun to today’s like-minded practitioners emanating from the Austral hemisphere. For whatever reason, there seems to have been a sort of renaissance surrounding the jangly sounds emanating from New Zealand, a critical and commercial reevaluation of these little-known acts that have been proclaimed influences on a host of indie rock acts over the last several decades. So foreign to most listeners is the idea of New Zealand that the very notion of their having been any sort of recognizable form of indie rock originating from the tiny country seems something of a marvel. But the fact of the matter is, despite its relatively small population, New Zealand has produced and continues to produce a number of exceptional indie rock acts.
And while the Chills, the Clean and the Bats are understandably two of the most well-known acts to have sprang from New Zealand in the 1980s, further excavation of the Flying Nun catalog has turned up a number of similar groups who have since proven themselves just as talented if not nearly as well known. A cursory overview of Flying Nun’s roster in the ‘80s shows off an impeccable list of talents, nearly all of whom have gone on to influence countless groups across the world. In addition to the vaunted triumvirate of Kiwi rock groups, Flying Nun gave the world the Dead C, David Kilgour, Look Blue Go Purple, Sneaky Feelings, Tall Dwarfs, and the Verlaines. Also buried in amongst these often overlooked greats is the exceptional Jean-Paul Sartre Experience.
Formed in Christchurch in 1984, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience began after singer/bassist Dave Yetton began collaborating with drummer Gary Sullivan. Eventually adding guitarists David Mulcahy and Jim Laing, the band helped usher in a second, more low-key era of Flying Nun, their earliest recordings sounding like a more polished version of Britain’s Television Personalities or a slower, sadder take on the sound pioneered by labelmates filtered through the concurrent C86 scene developing in the UK. But there’s something more to the group, an intangible quality that sets them aside from these better known acts.
Fortunately there is now the comprehensive I Like Rain: The Story of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, collecting all of the group’s recordings in one deluxe package, allowing for a much-needed reevaluation. What’s most apparent from the start is their decidedly low-key, often melancholic take on the Dunedin sound. Still possessing the requisite jangle, the songs on the group’s debut, Love Songs, rarely push the tempo much beyond the balladic. And given the sparse instrumentation and reflective lyrics, it’s easy to draw a direct through line to the maudlin musings of Belle & Sebastian nearly a decade later.
“Loving the Grapevine” and “Transatlantic Love Song” both carry within them an inherent sadness and longing that manage to transcend the more twee elements of the group’s sound to create a virtual blueprint for groups like Belle & Sebastian who would take similar thematic and stylistic material and run with it by the end of the ‘90s. It’s a sound we’ve since heard time and again, but given the context within which these recordings arose, they serve as a clear delineation between the first and second wave of Flying Nun groups, moving away from the first wave’s poppier elements into moodier, often more minimalistic territory.
But rather than solely looking to their label mates for inspiration, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience expand their sound from it’s jangly, often simplistic roots into something far more involved. On “Crap Rap” they put forth a tight bit of punk funk more indebted to the post-punk scene than that of the well-known Dunedin sound. Similarly, the collection’s title track explores a sound best described as what the Kinks might have sounded like had they spent more time in the Caribbean than their native Britain: highly rhythmic but with a deceptively catchy, almost overly simplistic melodic hook.
Interestingly, it’s the second half of Love Songs that begins to show the group’s evolution from low-key jangle folk practitioners into something more ambitious. “Flex” finds the group turning up the sound and intensity, but retaining a similarly slow tempo and level of restraint often lacking when the volume increases. “Let That Good Thing Grow” furthers the funkier side of the group put forth on “Crap Rap”, this time augmenting their staccato rhythms with horns and more West African beat. Stylistically diverse, these tracks showcase an ambitious group searching to find the sound that would help define them.
By the collection’s second disc, featuring the group’s follow-up release Size of Food, they’ve settled into a sound more indebted and indicative of their Flying Nun label mates. Gone are the more esoteric, rough-edged moments that made Love Songs a scattershot collection of intriguing ideas, replaced by a far more focused and refined approach to song craft. By adhering to a better-defined stylistic template, the group shows off the newfound cohesion to great effect. But in fleshing out their sound, they lose some of the ramshackle charm of their earlier recordings and, in the process, some of their individuality. That said, these middle period recordings offer a glimpse of the band as a well-oiled machine, one having settled into itself comfortably and display a sense of confidence and swagger lacking on their more puckish debut.
Indeed the collection’s second disc finds the group exploring a fuller, more muscular sound reliant on louder and more prominent guitars. And with the increase in volume, so too follows a newfound confidence in Yetton’s vocals, shedding the strained timidity of the earlier recordings in favor of a sort of slacker swagger that prefigures the rise of ‘90s indie rock along the lines of Pavement. Indeed neither “Cut Out” or “Gravel” would have sounded out of place on any number of mid-‘90s indie rock releases on Matador and similar-minded labels. But in this embracing of more traditional indie fare, they sacrifice some of what made them so unique in the first place.
By collection’s end, the group has fully embraced a darker, heavier sound more in keeping with the seemingly global proliferation of the so-called “Seattle Sound”. While still containing hints of the group’s early knack for melodicism, these later recordings tend to possess a slightly homogenous sound and feel that place them in line with countless early ‘90s bands exploring similar sounds. “Breathe”, off the group’s 1993 Matador release Bleeding Star today sounds like fairly standard shoegaze/grunge fare, lacking any sort of immediately identifiable sound or vision that would have helped Jean-Paul Sartre Experience at this point stand out from their hundreds of peers attempting similar feats. It’s a somewhat unfortunate end to what, at collection’s beginning, comes as the sound of a charmingly idiosyncratic group refusing to adhere to prevailing trends.
At nearly three and a half hours spread across 54 tracks on three discs, I Like Rain can be a lot to take in all at once. But as is the case with similar collections of this nature, it affords modern listeners easy access to everything the group recorded, organizing it chronologically to better display the group’s stylistic evolution from beginning to end, for better or worse. Taken as a whole, I Live Rain shows what happens to a group when it chooses to abandons its more esoteric proclivities in favor of a more commercially minded approach. Never truly “selling out”, the story of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience shows how easy it can be to embrace prevailing trends, yet still retain traces of the spark individuality.
All this aside, I Like Rain: The Story of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience is an enjoyable, if ultimately uneven, listen, showcasing yet another jewel in the Flying Nun crown. Hopefully this collection will be just the start of a full-on excavation of the storied label’s roster of overlooked talent.