After a reasonable break following the release of Fifty Flavors of Glue back in 1998, New Zealand’s ultra-wacky Tall Dwarfs are back, springing into action with the delightful The Sky above the Mud Below featuring 17 original songs, with a bonus eight thrown in featuring Tall Dwarfs fans from across the globe recording with the band. What this rare juxtaposition succeeds in doing is creating a buzzing, whirring, tingling mix of Beatles-, Monkees-, Bee Gees-flavored low-fi pop, blending many generations of sound.
Mop top Britpop emulation is not all these guys are capable of, though. Led by the grandpappy of the NZ alternative scene, Chris Knox, and his partner in crime, Alec Bathgate, the Dwarfs can shift easily from the Beatles-inspired tracks to heavier, more guitar-laden influences such as Adrian Belew, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Clash, and even Robbie Williams (uncanny on “Deodorant”). Whatever the case, the music here is head turning for the simple fact of its genre diversity. Pop, folk, and country are each represented, right alongside cigarette-stained, depress-o rock, and garage bashing alternative jams.
The Sky above the Mud Below marks the Dwarfs’ first experimentation with digital technology, usually preferring to keep their sound genuinely organic. Though working to perfect looping, pasting, and time stretching digitally, the majority of this album was recorded onto a half-inch eight-track tape. It’s obvious, too, that this is compete in-the-kitchen-rhythm rather than studio-infected, and it gives the music not only its intended realness, but a sense of timing as well, as though the garage days are alive and well and still sprouting explosive and appealing music.
The opener, “Meet the Beatle”, about a chance meeting with George Harrison, is the perfect place for this collection to begin, with the band crediting an influence straight out of the gate. Bathgate’s vocal is slanted more towards the McCartney side of the rainbow, but is nevertheless huge fun to listen to. This glorious on-the-beach essence continues on “Room to Breathe”, “Baby, It’s Over”, “Big Brain”, and “OK Forever”.
Knox adds the mystery to this album, a spaced-out lowliness to his vocals, with songs “Deodorant”, “Beached Boy” (apparently recorded while the singer was drunk to “get a better vocal”), “Melancholy”, and “The Beautiful Invader”. These tracks are as sultry as they are scary, deeply saturated in harsh bass lines ripping the Dwarfs from the ’60s and hurtling them forward to the late ’70s, before bouncing all the way through to the early ’90s, injecting equal doses of punk, glam, blues and alternative sounds.
The “bonus” section of this collection, separately titled The Weidenhausen Impediment and credited to the International Tall Dwarfs, features tapes recorded by the band’s favorite musicians (and fans) worldwide. Squishing together work from the likes of Graeme Downes, the Clean, Peter Brocolli, Jeff Magnum from Neutral Milk Hotel, Jad Fair and Laura Carter of NMH and Elf Power, the songs are far removed from the album tracks, standing out due to length, with experimentation the definite name of the game.
“Amniotic Love” is a six-minute soundtrack to a pinball game, with enough hoots and scoots to give it a very otherworldly, almost womblike zest, while the bizarre “Carsick” shines as easily the best track on the entire disc, oddly stemming from Magnum convincing Knox to write some spontaneous lyrics about a specific subject. God knows what the two were on while putting this one together, with the weird and wonderful sentiment, “All these castles make me carsick / Full of assholes I should ass-lick / And my fatal dose of arsenic has been spilt”, leading the impossibly charming slam-along.
The International Dwarfs continue, offering up something rather tribal (“Open Wide Your Pretty Mouths”), something kindergarten-y (“Wax”), something hilarious (“Possum Born”, complete with possum noises), and a whole lot more.
While its 70-minute length is exhausting, it’s so hard not to love this album. All over the place in a wonderland of noise, the Tall Dwarfs stay far from convention, giving the old days a genuine rev, proving at the same time that modern technology hasn’t passed them by.