The latest reissue of the Chills' landmark 1986 release is a touchstone of the kaleidoscope of diverse and dynamic songs the band has been responsible for.
You may know New Zealand’s the Chills from their handful of minor '80s hits such as “Pink Frost” and “I Love My Leather Jacket”. You may have heard “Heavenly Pop Hit”, their aptly titled 1990 single that made a respectable showing on the US charts. Just as likely, you’ve never heard them at all because the Chills always seemed to be just on the cusp of international recognition, never quite breaking through like their countrymen Split Enz, or even as much as the Church or the Go-Betweens, their Australian neighbors and, at times, musical brethren.
It wasn’t for a lack of radio-friendly material, but rather partly a result of a lack of an identifying sound. As band leader Martin Phillips says of their music in a recent interview with the Guardian: “The sheer breadth of material was unusual and it made us hard to pin down. People would despise us for the jangly pop and not realise there was some pretty full-on material. There was almost orchestral stuff, folky stuff, psychedelic stuff, quirky stuff. It’s really hard to put on a Chills album in any given place. You couldn’t put it on at a party because it’d suddenly go all weird on you. You couldn’t sit back and relax because it would suddenly go all punk on you.”
So, while in terms of sales and developing a large audience this was a weakness, it makes the band more interesting and, in the end, has given their music more longevity than many of their peers. That’s why the reissue of Kaleidoscope World, their 1986 compilation of singles, EP cuts, and compilation tracks, is so welcome. Yet, it’s already had one reissue with extra tracks added years ago. Which begs the question of why it’s being re-released again. Well, for starters, the number of songs has been upped to 24 from 18 (which had been upped from the eight of the original), including live cuts and further early rarities. New photos and liner notes by veteran music journalist Martin Aston are included, as well as a family tree breakdown of every iteration of the band (the Chills’ ever-changing lineup was another factor that worked against them, Phillips being the only constant). That’s more than enough to appeal to long-time fans as well as new listeners.
All these years later, the majority of the songs on Kaleidoscope World still retain the immediacy and freshness of the "Dunedin Sound” the Chills helped spearhead. Named after the city and an album – the Dunedin Double EP -- that Flying Nun Records released in 1982, they and other Dunedin bands the Verlaines, the Clean, and Sneaky Feelings (to name a few) shared many traits with the concurrent “jangle-pop” and Paisley Underground scenes happening in the States. It was a fusion of art, punk, and '60s music a la the Velvet Underground and the Byrds. Some of the bands doing similar things on the other side of the world were R.E.M, the Rain Parade, and Pylon.
Dunedin, NZ, is a medium-sized city with a temperate climate and miles of beaches. It’s also fairly remote and one of the cloudiest cities in the country. This mix of community/isolation and scenic/overcast may help to explain the “jaunty gloom” that permeates many of the Chills’ songs, nowhere more pronounced than on their remarkable “Pink Frost”. Starting with a bright, optimistic opening, 20 seconds in the song takes a turn for the mysterious with an inquisitive guitar pattern and chilling, despair-filled lyrics based on a dream Phillips had about killing someone in their sleep. Despite its dark nature, the song retains a catchy melody and pop consciousness, and is oft compared to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.
While “Pink Frost” is a good representation of one aspect of the band’s sound, the ground covered on Kaleidoscope World is extensive. “Hidden Bay” is a surf rock nugget, while “Bite” and “Flame Thrower” are more abrasive, punk-flavored tracks. “Bee Bah Bee Bah Bee Boe“, on the other hand, is a sing-along acoustic number decked out in folksy acoustic guitar and accordion. The title track revels in straight-ahead guitar-based rock pop, as a cheerful Phillips sings about a colorful glide through the galaxy, passing stars and planets.
Still, the dark undercurrent runs through even some of these more accessible songs. “Doldrums” is about being depressed, bored, and collecting welfare (“on the dole”), and “I Love My Leather Jacket” is on one hand an ode to a favorite piece of clothing and on the other an elegy for Chills’ original drummer Martyn Bull, who died at age 22 of leukemia and bequeathed said jacket to Phillips. The existential angst of the jangly “Frantic Drift” and the ominous aura of the melodic “Rolling Moon” continue this pattern of dark/light. Though I wouldn’t call it a formula, this juxtaposition that defines so many of the band’s songs is what lends an intrigue and uniqueness to the whole collection.
The Chills issued four more albums in the 10 years after the initial release of Kaleidoscope World, taking a long hiatus after 1996’s Sunburnt, a break which ended with the release of the critically acclaimed Silver Bullets in 2015. Though their catalog has been scattershot at times, perseverance, integrity, and a knack for writing memorable songs isn’t a half-bad legacy. As they first sang in the 80s, “We’ve got a stereo and electric guitars / The sounds we make echo on through our kaleidoscope world.”