Over the past four decades, New Zealand guitar rock has earned a special place in the indie music firmament. Whatever ‘it’ is, acts like Split Enz, Bailter Space, the Bats, the Chills, Straitjacket Fits, and personal favorite Bike just seemed to do it better. Whether via intricate pop confections or straightforward rock-and-roll brawn, these bands somehow managed to punch harder than many of their contemporaries – more oomph, for lack of a scientific term. It’s also fascinating to watch brand-new acts score radio airplay and chart hits in other countries without making so much as a dent in the US.
Wiri Donna’s Bianca Bailey is enjoying just such a moment Down Under. Hailing from a place named Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Maori for Wellington Harbour), she’s enjoyed a good amount of alt-radio airplay and is scheduled to embark on a short tour of the islands this very week. If your elaborate plans to visit New Zealand in July fell through like mine did, then downloading Being Alone may be the next best thing.
In addition to talent, there’s also that delicious obscurity factor. Stumping the Camry’s USB artist-lookup function is a music geek’s favorite pastime. Led Zeppelin and Carly Rae Jepsen won’t do it, nor will the Hause Plants or the Pillbugs. Yet Wiri Donna baffled the old A/V system hard. So extra points for that.
Despite being virtually unknown above the equator, Bailey does carry some history. She participated in earlier tours with Mild Orange, Soaked Oats, and Jack Berry, along with the Beths. However, 2020’s folksy double-sided single Sprouts doesn’t even hint at the muscular potential found here, making Alone as left-field surprising as it is successful. Contra her previous sedate output, these songs are inventive and remarkably accomplished. In terms of overall sound structure, Wiri Donna follows Jimmy Page’s “Ramble On” dictum that girding softer verses with exploding land-mines along the way can be as mind-expanding as any sustained, four-minute assault.
Jangly guitars and sinewy solos abound, buttressed by James MacEwan’s drums and Theodore Salmon’s robust chord-work in the vein of Suede’s Bernard Butler. The finest examples are probably “No Follow Through” and “Big Pop”, whose laconic strums burst forth into roaring walls of sound a la the hidden track “Modern Boys”, off Suede’s 1994 Dog Man Star. These ’90s Britpop roots show up all over the place, such as the Blur-style vocal repetition throughout “You Should Be Smiling”, or the bombastic Cast accompaniment on the title track’s chorus. We’re also obliged to quote the title track’s ornery lyrics, which it seems everyone is chattering about: “He told me what to do with my body / I should have told him it was my fuckin’ body / He has to ask to use it.”
The closing track “Last Call” is a plaintive and heartrending finale – building to a satisfying crescendo and easily sidestepping the Donna Summer ‘Last Dance’ curse suffered by so many other bands. (Meaning, nobody did it as well.)
If there’s a downside to Being Alone, it’s that same tired complaint about EP length. Yeah, we exist in a streaming universe, and the 45-minute LP might as well be an Ankylosaurus. Why must all the good ones stop short at under half an hour these days? Appending the two Sprouts singles gets us to 30 minutes, but that’s it. So in time-honored Seinfeld style, it seems Wiri Donna is gifted enough to leave us wanting more – frustration for fans, but not a terrible thing.